Environmentalists Sue Government Over Tar Sands Pipeline

Is the Obama Administration really in the pocket of green energy companies? Based on new developments in the tar sands pipeline approval process, it seems that the White House is continuing the American political tradition of favoring fossil fuel companies.

In recent months, the intense debate over the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline has ignited environmentalists, brought hundreds of protesters to the White House, and raised serious questions about the State Department. Now, it’s reaching the courts, as activists voice concerns that the government is prioritizing the interests of a foreign oil company over those of its citizens.

The proposed TransCanada pipeline, which would stretch from the Canadian tar sands to the Texas Gulf Coast refineries, has drawn criticisms from environmentalists who argue that the pipeline has a significant risk of accidents and that the tar sands oil has a larger carbon output than conventional oil. Despite this opposition, the U.S. government has been generally supportive of the controversial project.

On Wednesday, three conservation groups filed a lawsuit to halt preliminary work on the project, alleging that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service illegally gave TransCanada permission to begin preparing the pipeline’s route in Nebraska. “We learned that work was being done without a permit, and that was just flabbergasting,” said Damon Moglen, the director of the Climate and Energy Program at the environmental organization Friends of the Earth. His group, along with the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Nebraska Resources Center, sued the United States government in an effort to stop what they consider illegal work on a project that has yet to receive final approval. The activists believe the preparatory work is further evidence that the government has been facilitating and supporting the project without a full, impartial environmental assessment.

TransCanada responded by saying they have not begun construction and have merely been making an effort to protect the environment in the area of Nebraska along the proposed pipeline route: The company says they have only “implemented certain approved conservation measures designed to protect the American Burying Beetle.” According to their official statement in response to the lawsuit, “Like so many claims made by the professional activists who are opposing Keystone, these claims are false — no construction has taken place in Nebraska. These professional activists need to come explain to Nebraskans why they are opposed to environmental studies, surveys, and protective measures being completed before any construction begins. It sure doesn’t make sense to us.”

Even so, environmental groups have argued that any early work along the proposed pipeline path shows that TransCanada is assuming they will soon be granted the necessary permissions and permits from the U.S. government before the official decision is made. “It’s a remarkable indication of the arrogance of the company,” Moglen said.

The alleged preparatory work is one of several complaints by activists that the government is bowing to TransCanada instead of fully considering the potential environmental impact. The pipeline project requires approval from the State Department because it crosses the border, but opponents of the pipeline argue that this department is unfit to make a fair decision. The State Department released a report in August concluding that the pipeline did not pose any significant environmental risks, even though the European Commission and other groups have recently found conclusive evidence that tar sands oil is almost a quarter more polluting than conventional crude oil.

Opponents of the pipeline claim the State Department’s continued support of the Keystone XL project is based more in officials’ cozy relationship with TransCanada lobbyists and employees than in a genuine conviction that the project will not be environmentally detrimental. The activists recently released email correspondence between TransCanada employees and State Department officials, revealing a close relationship between the parties that could unfairly influence the government’s ability to make an unbiased decision. In the disclosed emails, one State Department official even cheered a lobbyist’s success in gaining more support for the project.

In an Oct. 4 letter to President Obama, a group of environmentalists wrote, “Given this substantial evidence of pro-industry bias within your administration — evidence that the State Department was acting in partnership with the oil industry and Canadian government to secure pipeline approval prior to conducting an environmental review — it would be irresponsible for you to follow the State Department’s guidance as you make your determination about whether the pipeline is in the national interest.”

Moglen said the bias revealed in the emails is evidence that the State Department’s analysis of the project is a “tainted process,” and he hopes President Obama will intervene and make the decisions based on clear evidence. “I think it’s clear this is a scandal of the highest order,” Moglen said. “This is something the president can no longer afford to not pay attention to.”

Additionally, activists have argued that the TransCanada scandal has shown that — despite Republican claims to the contrary — the Obama Administration has maintained a close relationship with oil companies. “They’ve been caving into the fossil fuel industry,” Moglen said.

Obama has recently been criticized because the Energy Department gave a $535 million loan to the solar company Solyndra, which went subsequently went bankrupt. Obama’s opponents have used the scandal to argue that the administration wastes taxpayer money on green technologies. Environmentalists, however, dispute this claim and point to the TransCanada emails as well as the president’s weak reaction to the BP oil spill to show that the White House is still much more sympathetic to fossil fuels than alternative energy companies. “I think the Solyndra situation is obviously being used for political purposes,” Moglen said. “I think the idea that he is enamored with green energy is sophomoric by a long shot.”

Even so, environmental activists remain optimistic that Obama will intervene, fairly assess the potential impact of the pipeline, and ultimately reject TransCanada’s project. The debate over green energy and fossil fuels is politically sensitive for the president, and his decision on the Keystone XL pipeline will undoubtedly factor into his re-election prospects. In the meantime, environmentalists are continuing their fight to halt the pipeline through any means possible.


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