Environmentalists Mobilize Pressure on Obama to Reject Keystone XL Pipeline

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Posted Feb. 5, 2014

Interview with Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, conducted by Scott Harris


The U.S. State Department released its long-awaited environmental impact statement on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project that would move tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Texas Gulf refineries. The report indicated that approval or denial of the pipeline will make no difference in the rate of extraction of tar sands oil, given that producers can transport the oil via rail tankers if the Keystone project is rejected. However, the report acknowledged that extracting or burning tar sands oil produces about 17 percent more greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change, than traditional oil.

Environmental groups dispute many of the conclusions of the report and have called into question its credibility given that documents they obtained revealed that some consultants for the company that produced the draft impact statement had previously been employed by TransCanada, the company that wants to build the pipeline. If an inspector general’s investigation confirms conflicts of interest in the environmental report, the State Department may have to undertake a new environmental review.

Advocates for the project maintain that the pipeline will create jobs and reduce U.S. dependency on oil from the volatile Middle East and from Venezuela. With the release of the report Secretary of State John Kerry must now make a recommendation on the pipeline to President Obama. Mr Obama, who will make the final decision, has said he’ll only authorize the project if it’s determined that the pipeline won’t worsen carbon pollution. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, who takes a critical look at the environmental impact statement on the Keystone XL project, and the steps environmental activists are taking to mobilize pressure on President Obama to reject the tar sands pipeline.

ERICH PICA: So the State Department released the final environmental impact statement and what should be known about the statement is that Friends of the Earth has been tracking the contractor who drafted this report for the State Department. The contractor's name is Environmental Resource Management or ERM. And what we found is that ERM has a series of links to the oil industry. They also neglected to disclose those connections, both financial and organizational, to the State Department. And this disclosure was required under the conflict of interest disclosure forms that they had to fill out.

And so Friends of the Earth and some of our partner groups have really been hammering the fact that ERM lied, in some basic documents to the State Department, by not disclosing their conflicts. And so, how can we trust much of the data that’s in this report, because of their ties not only to oil industries, such as the American Petroleum Institute, but also to companies, such as TransCanada, that will benefit financially from the Keystone XL pipeline?

We found that twice ERM worked with TransCanada over the last three years, which was supposed to be disclosed. So, once you remove the kind of the contractor conflict of interest, and then you get into the nuts and bolts of the report itself, the State Department really neglects one alternative when they do the environmental impact statement—which is, just keeping the tar sands oil in the ground.

There's a presumption in this report which we think is false—that the tar sands oil will get mined and drilled somehow, somewhere. And the facts just don't bear that out right now. Right now, the entire tar sands industry is banking on the likelihood that President Obama will approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which will be the lead infrastructure piece, the lead pipeline that will extract the tar sands from Alberta.

BETWEEN THE LINES: President Obama claimed during the summer that he would only approve the TransCanada pipeline if it was found that the project would not worsen carbon pollution. And this State Department report, in the minds of many supporters of the pipeline project, says this gives them the green light to go forward.

How would you refute that particular litmus test, if you would, the notion that this pipeline, by itself, won't impact carbon emissions?

ERICH PICA: In the State Department analysis, actually there's a scenario in there that indicates that greenhouse carbon pollution will increase with the Keystone XL pipeline. And the State Department estimate is that it will increase by between 1.5 million metric tons to 27 million metric tons a year. And that high number actually is equivalent to, I believe 5.4 ~ 5.7 million new cars driving on the roads today. So, there is a significant carbon impact, but the extent of it is all based on the assumptions that you make. And, you know, that in the State Department's environmental impact statement, the preponderance of assumptions are, that the tar sands oils are going to get mined, they're going to get mined regardless; therefore we don't need to count the greenhouse gas emissions. But there are a couple of assumptions in that report that actually do make the case that carbon pollution's going to increase from the extraction of these tar sands.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Erich Pica, what is your group and other environmental organizations and activist groups doing now to mobilize opposition to the Keystone Pipeline, to influence President Obama's decision?

ERICH PICA: Some of our sister groups led by Credo Mobile/Rainforest Action have asked volunteers to commit acts of civil disobedience. There are over 70,000 people around the country who have volunteered when the time comes – if the time comes – to do civil disobedience.

And then there's ongoing activism. We're going to have this 30-day public comment period which we plan to turn out tens of thousands of people too. And then there's just the ongoing work of debunking the myths that are in the State Department's environmental impact statement continuing to show that the contractor ERM has conflicts of interest and that this process has been tainted.

As well as trying to use whatever political leverage we have with Secretary (of State) Kerry and also with President Obama to demonstrate that he's got support – they’ve got deep support — from the environmental community if they oppose this pipeline.

For more information Friends of the Earth, visit FOE.org.

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