Obama’s Pipeline Problem

Josh Lucas/TarSandsAction

The Keystone XL Pipeline expansion, which would carry tar sands oil 1,700 miles from Alberta, Canada, to Texas, has become a PR nightmare for President Obama. Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth US told the Financial Times, “Whether to approve this pipeline is the most important environmental decision President Obama will make before the election. If he sides with greedy oil companies instead of people and the climate, he will essentially be urging a huge part of his base to sit out the election.’’

Following a two-week sit-in protest in Washington, DC against the pipeline expansion, an article in The New York Times revealed that the company chosen to make an environmental impact statement for the project has a serious conflict of interest. The State Department allowed TransCanada, the pipeline operator, to screen bids for the environmental impact statement. TransCanada recommended Houston-based contractor Cardno Entrix, which has worked with TransCanada before and counts the oil company as a “major client.” Not surprisingly, the pipeline-friendly Cardno Entrix, which stands to benefit from the project, found that the Keystone XL pipeline would have “limited adverse environmental impacts,” paving the way for eventual approval.

Now, following vocal concerns raised by environmental groups and concerned citizens, more than 20 members of the House of Representatives have signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to withdraw support for the pipeline since the approval process is tainted by conflicts of interest. The letter reads in part: “These relationships alarmingly suggest that the process may not have been objective, and this decision is too important to be clouded by even the appearance of impropriety.” And there are many other reasons to stop the pipeline project: The process of extracting tar sands oil is a dirty, carbon-intensive one and will result in contaminating water supplies and felling boreal forest in Canada, leaving behind huge stores of toxic waste and presenting a constant threat of spills and leaks to the nation’s largest aquifer—the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska and other states—as the 700,000 barrels of bitumen travel daily by pipe underground.

In fact, concerned Nebraska lawmakers are now considering their options after meeting with TransCanada and finding the company unresponsive to the idea of rerouting the pipeline away from the sensitive Nebraska Sand Hills. On the table is the possibility of holding a “special legislative session this fall to force a change in the route” according to an article in the Omaha World-Herald.

Whatever happens with the pipeline now, environmentalists, state and federal legislators and the public at large are on high alert and the White House’s ultimate decision in the matter will leave a lasting political legacy. In fact several high-level donors to the Obama campaign have already announced they will withdraw their support for the president should the pipeline be approved. The State Department is expected to issue a final decision on the pipeline permit by the end of the year.