The Cronyism Behind a Pipeline for Crude

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The New York Times

The Cronyism Behind a Pipeline for Crude

Late last month, the Obama administration unveiled a new tool that lets anyone send a petition to the White House; get 5,000 signatures in 30 days and you’re guaranteed some kind of answer. My prediction: it’s not going to stop people from trying to occupy Wall Street. After the past few years, we’re increasingly unwilling to believe that political reform can be accomplished by going through the “normal channels” of democracy.

It’s easy to understand why. In the first few months of the Bush administration, the vice president’s staff held a series of secret meetings with energy company executives to come up with a new energy policy that, essentially, gave big oil everything it asked for. When journalists learned about the secret sessions, they became a scandal — environmental groups complained long and loud, right up to the Supreme Court, and rightly so. Important decisions should be made in the open, not behind closed doors by cronies scratching one another’s backs.

In 2008, Barack Obama promised to turn things around with new ethics guidelines and promises of transparency. But if two batches of e-mails released via the Freedom of Information Act — the first last month and the second on Monday — are any indication, he’s not delivering on that promise.

The e-mails, made available by the environmental group Friends of the Earth, show something just as tawdry as Dick Cheney’s backroom dealing: the State Department working with lobbyists to advance the interests of TransCanada, the company trying to build the Keystone XL pipeline from the tar sands of Canada across the center of the continent. Even as the State Department was supposedly carrying out a neutral evaluation of the pipeline’s environmental impact, key players were undermining the process.

One of the stars of this sordid drama was Paul Elliott, TransCanada’s chief Washington lobbyist for its pipeline project. Back in 2008, he was the deputy national campaign manager of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential bid. Around the time she became secretary of state, he was hired by TransCanada. Why did he get the job? Just ask Marja Verloop, a member of the diplomatic staff at the United States Embassy in Canada who oversaw environmental and energy issues. In one of the friendly e-mails between the diplomat and the lobbyist, Ms. Verloop reassured Mr. Elliott about an article that mentioned his possible conflicts of interest: “it’s precisely because you have connections that you’re sought after and hired.”

And how neutral was the State Department about the plan it was supposedly evaluating? Here’s Ms. Verloop again, in response to an e-mail from Mr. Elliott relaying the good news that he had persuaded Senator Max Baucus of Montana to back the pipeline: “Go Paul!” Clearly, these guys are on the same team, never mind that one of them works for the energy company and the other for the government agency overseeing it.

This comes, in one sense, as no big surprise. In a 2009 cable obtained by Wikileaks, another State Department higher-up was caught advising Canadian officials on how to spin their message to win favorable media coverage of Canadian crude. And when the State Department picked a consulting firm to help carry out the environmental impact statement on the Keystone pipeline, it chose a company called Cardno Entrix that listed among its chief clients ...TransCanada. The final report, which came out in late August, decided the pipeline would have “no significant impact” on the nearby land and water resources.

This is laughable — we’re talking about connecting a pipe to one of the largest pools of carbon on earth. Twenty of the nation’s top scientists sent the administration a letter this summer explaining what a disaster it would be. According to NASA’s chief climate scientist, James Hansen, if we tapped the tar sands heavily, it would be “essentially game over” for the climate.

But instead of listening to bright people like Mr. Hansen who know what they’re talking about, our government’s staffers are blowing kisses at lobbyists. That’s exactly why cronyism is such a problem. The people writing these e-mails don’t have expertise — they have connections. If this is happening in the State Department, why should we not assume it’s also going on in the Treasury Department’s dealings with the big banks, and just about everywhere else in government?

It really does seem extra shocking in the Obama administration. Dick Cheney’s sitting down with the energy barons was almost expected — he’d just quit as chief executive of the drilling company Halliburton, after all. But Barack Obama said he would “end the tyranny of oil”; he also said he was going to end back-room dealing. His decision about the Keystone pipeline project, which is expected by year’s end, seems like one last chance to show he actually meant it.

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and co-founder of 350.org. His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

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