In its trek from the tar sands of Alberta to the white sands of the Gulf Coast, the Keystone XL oil pipeline project would traverse 1,700 miles. The oil's long voyage across the American heartland through a pipeline about the size of a semi-trailer truck tire is not unlike the journey the project has traveled the past three years through the bureaucratic pipeline in Washington.
The approval process progresses in stages, like the oil of the pipeline, which would be moved by electric pumps located at intervals along the line. The lobbying and financial contributions of stakeholders in this process are akin to the pumps that push the oil through the line: the more financial pressure applied, the more horsepower pumps the necessary legislation forward.
Pumping the Pipeline
TransCanada Corp., the Keystone XL pipeline's owner and operator, is at the center of this controversy.
One look at the company's lobbying expenditures shows that it has seen its desire to influence lawmakers increase sharply beginning in 2008. In 2008, TransCanada spent $190,000 on lobbying, according to research by the Center for Responsive Politics, and every year since, it increased this number: first to $490,000 in 2009, then to $720,000 last year and to $790,000 so far in 2011.
That's an increase of nearly 300 percent between 2008 and 2010 alone.
It was Clinton's State Department that conducted the final environmental review, which approved the project. And Elliott himself formerly worked as the national deputy director of Clinton’s 2008 presidential run. This relationship has led environmental groups to call on the Department of Justice to investigate Elliott and TransCanada's lobbying.
TransCanada is far from the only group lobbying on the Keystone XL pipeline issue.
As of the end of the second quarter, according to the Center's research, 23 other companies and organizations have lobbied on H.R. 1938, the North American-Made Energy Security Act, a bill introduced in May "to expedite the consideration and approval of the construction and operation of the Keystone XL oil pipeline."
The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), who sits on the House Energy and Commerce committee and whose home state of Nebraska would be crossed by the Keystone XL pipeline. During the 2010 election cycle, the oil and gas industry contributed $56,100 to Terry -- ranking the industry as his No. 7 top campaign contributor.
Of the 23 groups that have lobbied on Lee's legislation, most were oil and gas companies such as Exxon Mobil and Chevron. Labor unions and environmental groups have also lobbied on the legislation, the Center's research shows.
The National Rural Electrical Cooperative Association, which also lobbied on Lee's bill, told OpenSecrets Blog that it hopes to ensure that its workers in the pipeline's proposed areas were "adequately represented" in the proposal.
ConocoPhillips, Devon Energy and Royal Dutch Shell have also referred to the Keystone XL pipeline project in their lobbying reports so far this year, although they have not specifically mentioned H.R. 1938, the Center's research indicates.
On top of the vast sums of money that the oil and gas industry has spent on lobbying, political contributions -- such as those to Terry -- serve as another source of horsepower for the pumps that are driving the Keystone XL project down the bureaucratic pipeline. During the 2010 election cycle, all oil and gas industry interests contributed $22.5 million to federal candidates, about three-fourths of whom were Republicans.
Some groups, such as the American Petroleum Institute, do more than just contribute to campaigns and lobby lawmakers, John Kerekes, the group's regional manager in the Midwest, told OpenSecrets Blog.
"Everybody chooses their own advocacy strategy," Kerekes told OpenSecrets Blog. "We've been engaged from the beginning. We worked on the draft and supplemental and final environmental impact statement."
In the final months of the process, Kerekes said the American Petroleum Institute would continue its active participation. He also brought up yet another source of groups can use to influence policy: outside spending.
"We've been running oil sands advocacy ads as part of our efforts over the past year," he said."I can't imagine we'll stop that anytime soon."
API's television advertisements come on top of the $4.1 million spent by the oil and gas industry on independent expenditures and electioneering communications during the 2010 election cycle. Issue-based ads do not need to be reported to the Federal Election Commission unless they are broadcast within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election and mention the name of a federal candidate or show a candidate's image.
A spokesman for TransCanada did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Friction in the Pipeline
Throughout the Keystone XL pipeline's approval process there have also been several sources of friction -- attempts to slow, or halt, the progress of the bill and the pipeline itself.
But lobbying isn't their primary method of causing friction because environmental groups cannot compete with the "literally unlimited resources" of their counterparts, Eddie Scher, senior communications strategist for Sierra Club, told OpenSecrets Blog.
"There's no question we're up against big numbers of campaign dollars. We're up against the cream of the crop when it comes to K Street lobbyists," Scher told OpenSecrets Blog. "But we believe even well-financed insanity is trumped by democracy."
Instead, he says, environmental groups have been relying on educating the media and the public in hopes that they will sway lawmakers toward their point of view and make projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline not viable politically.
This kind of advocacy has been evident in the protests that took place in front of the White House in late August and early September, in which more than 1,200 people were arrested. The protests made headlines and attracted significant attention to the protestors' hopes that Obama will deny the final permitting for the pipeline.
Issue-based advocacy and political advertisements are another way that environmental groups have created friction for the project.
uring the 2010 election cycle, the League of Conservation Voters spent $5.5 million on ads expressly advocating for or against federal candidate. The Sierra Club, meanwhile, spent $829,000 on such ads.
When these forces aren't enough, environmental groups have also employed lawyers to clog the pipeline.
"We don’t give money to campaigns, so we don’t have those tools available to us," Sarah Burt, an attorney for Earthjustice, told OpenSecrets Blog. "We just have to rely on the public processes available to us. We have to make good sense and moral policy and hope that stands on its own."
Burt and Earthjustice already have one lawsuit on the books.
In January, three environmental groups sued Clinton and the State Department (.pdf here) to uncover communications between her and former aide Elliott, now a lobbyist for TransCanada. The suit, for which Burt is a counsel, originated as a records request for correspondence between Clinton and Elliott.
The State Department first refused the request, then agreed, but failed to produce any documents in a timely manner. The groups' patience wore thin, so they filed suit to obtain any records "that would reveal whether Elliott’s former position as campaign director for Secretary Clinton resulted in bias in the permitting process,” Friends of the Earth, one of the suit's plaintiffs, said in a press release.
On Sept. 22, the State Department released some of the requested correspondence (.pdf here), which showed Elliott's attempts at swaying State Department officials on behalf of TransCanada. The emails show the department offered Elliott advice on how TransCanada should comment on the then-ongoing environmental review. More generally, the emails show the close relationship between Elliott's office and the government policy-makers working on the pipeline.
Even if the pipeline's permit is granted, it can be challenged in court by organizations such as Earthjustice, which provides legal support to environmental groups.
The Home Stretch
Before the pipeline's policy journey reaches its destination, President Barack Obama's desk, there are a few more stages in the process.
With its environmental review completed, the State Department will hold public hearings in the six states the pipeline passes through, and a final meeting in Washington, D.C.
Using the hearings' feedback and its own examinations, the department will make a "National Interest Determination" by November 24. This determination will be circulated to federal agencies such as the Department of Defense, the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Only then, does the proposal end up on the president's desk.
Until the moment when the president approves or denies the permit, you can bet the Keystone XL's supporters and opponents will use everything they've got to vie for control of the pipeline.
Center for Responsive Politics researcher Sarah Bryner contributed to this report.