The seven members of Congress who signed a strongly worded letter to an Obama cabinet official on October 5 raised serious concerns about the administration's cozy relationship with a high-profile energy company.
"Rather than acting as fair arbiters of [the company's] application…State Department officials appear to have acted as little more than cheerleaders for the company's bid," Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Tim Ryan (D-OH), and the other lawmakers wrote.
Is this the newest development in the Solyndra solar company's loan-guarantee debacle? No. The seven lawmakers were concerned about an energy project with the potential to do much more damage than a loan guarantee for a failed solar start-up ever could.
The letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faults the State Department for failing to adequately consider the environmental impacts of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. It would run thousands of miles from the oil sands of northern Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas, crossing hundreds of miles of sensitive farmland and aquifers in America's heartland.
Reacting to the release of e-mails between State Department officials and representatives of TransCanada, the oil company in question, the legislators questioned what they saw as an apparent pro-pipeline bias at the State Department. That TransCanada's chief lobbyist formerly worked as Clinton's deputy campaign manager was already common knowledge, noted by critics who found the government too eager to allow the border-crossing pipeline to proceed. But the plot thickened further when The New York Times reported that the State Department allowed TransCanada to "solicit and screen bids for the environmental impact study" of the pipeline.
No wonder, then, that when the Environmental Protection Agency conducted its own review of the State Department's impact studies, they were deemed "inadequate" and "insufficient" in assessing the environmental risks along the pipeline's route. That's exactly what concerned ranchers, farmers, Native populations, and elected officials representing the affected communities have been saying along. And that's the crux of the representatives' letter.
"Agriculture in Nebraska, and the United States as a whole, depends on the Ogallala Aquifer for clean, fresh water to grow staple crops for the United States and the world," they wrote. "A spill into that aquifer would put that supply in danger, and devastate farmers and the rural economy."
Just last year, a similar Enbridge Energy pipeline in Michigan fouled a 35-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River with more than 800,000 gallons of oil. The waterway remains closed to swimmers and boaters, with an estimated clean-up cost of as much as $700 million, according to documents that Enbridge filed with the Securities Exchange Commission. And as the Billings Gazette reported, the clean-up of a July spill from an ExxonMobil pipeline in Montana was complicated due to initial reticence from Exxon in disclosing whether its pipeline contained "medium crude" from Wyoming, or "more toxic Alberta tar sands crude" — the same fuel the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would transport — which is much more difficult to clean.
What's more, producing a barrel of tar sands oil generates three times the greenhouse gas emissions as a barrel of conventional oil, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Considering both the dangers to farmers and the rural economy in the heartland and the devastating climate risks associated with tar sands exploitation, the Keystone XL pipeline shouldn't be built.
However, the State Department is widely expected to officially sign off on the project by the end of this year. Even if that happens, President Barack Obama will make the final decision. As a candidate, he pledged to "end the tyranny of oil" in the United States. By siding with these concerned members of Congress and his own environmental agency and choosing to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, Obama could begin to make good on that pledge.