WASHINGTON - Another year, another allegation of conflict of interest regarding TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline — this time in a lawsuit by Friends of the Earth that alleges close ties between the Obama administration and lobbyists for the project.
The environmental group is accusing the State Department of stonewalling its attempts to get more information about the connections between TransCanada lobbyists, the province of Alberta and high-ranking officials in the Obama administration that include the president himself, Secretary of State John Kerry and his predecessor, Hillary Clinton.
It's the latest salvo in a protracted — and at times repetitive — battle against the pipeline by the U.S. environmental movement. But it comes as a new poll suggests most Americans back the project.
The United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, released Wednesday, found that more than 67 per cent of those surveyed support building the pipeline, including 56 per cent of Democrats. Fewer than a quarter of respondents, 24 per cent, said they oppose Keystone XL.
A final decision on the pipeline isn't expected until this fall at the earliest.
U.S. environmentalists, meantime, are keeping up the pressure on the Obama administration. As it's done twice previously, Friends of the Earth submitted a freedom-of-information request for the communications between Obama administration officials and pipeline lobbyists.
It accuses State of refusing to provide "expedited processing" of documents sought in late April under the Freedom of Information Act.
In 2011, the State Department agreed to a similar request, releasing emails that suggested a chummy relationship between a key lobbyist for TransCanada — Paul Elliott, a one-time campaign worker for then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton — and a State Department official at the U.S. embassy in Ottawa.
This time, Friends of the Earth says the State Department is balking at providing the information in a timely fashion. That's despite promising two years ago to tighten its lobbying rules to assure objectivity in the approval process, the environmental group says.
"The requested information is critical because a number of the lobbyists presently advocating for the project formerly worked for Secretary of State John Kerry, or for former Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton," says the lawsuit filed in U.S District Court in D.C.
"In light of these relationships, the requested records would allow (Friends of the Earth) to inform the public about the nature of the State Department's decision-making, and the role any of these lobbyists may be playing in that process."
Shawn Howard, a spokesman for TransCanada, called the lawsuit yet another stalling tactic by environmentalists.
"TransCanada is not a party to this lawsuit, but there really doesn’t appear to be anything new here," he said.
"It's absurd to suggest that any one person might influence a process that includes the involvement of areas of government such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice and many others."
The environmental website known as DeSmogBlog has also alleged a personal connection between Obama and a lawyer whose firm does work for TransCanada. Robert Bauer, former White House counsel and Obama's personal attorney, works at the corporate law firm Perkins Coie LLP, which does legal work for TransCanada's South Central LNG Project, formerly known as Alaska Gas Pipeline Project.
Friends of the Earth, meantime, says Bauer's wife, Anita Dunn, is at the top of the list of pipeline lobbyists with close ties to the administration.
Dunn is a former White House communications director, as well as a senior adviser to the president’s re-election campaign in 2012. She was also the former communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, headed by Kerry at the time.
She's now with lobbying firm SDKnickerbocker, which does public relations work for TransCanada. Dunn has met with top White House officials more than 100 times since leaving the administration in 2009, the New York Times reported last fall.
Several Keystone opponents, however, also have Obama's ear — most notably Democratic party financier Thomas Steyer, the San Francisco billionaire and former hedge fund manager who has vowed to stop the pipeline.
Former Obama adviser and fundraiser Bill Burton also recently joined a coalition of environmental groups in a media campaign urging Democrats to press the president to reject the pipeline.
Steyer himself was busy this week on his anti-Keystone crusade, pointing to a report that found that the pipeline will hike gas prices at the pump 20 to 40 cents per gallon in the Midwest and concludes it has no long-term economic benefit to the U.S. economy.
That's because the current discount of up to US$30 a barrel for Canadian oil would vanish once the pipeline is constructed, says the report by the left-wing Consumer Watchdog.
"Why build the Keystone XL if it will hurt the consumer and the environment?" Steyer, who hosted Obama at his home for a fundraising dinner earlier this year, wrote in a piece for the Huffington Post.
TransCanada's Howard called the report the work of "professional Keystone opponents."
"This is not a peer-reviewed study and there really is nothing new here," he said.
"The professional opponents of Keystone XL first made these claims in early 2011, then again in 2012 and now, here we go again in 2013. It doesn’t matter how many times they recycle the same misinformation, their claims are not supported by the facts."