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State Department Investigates Its Own Keystone XL Environmental Consultant

[node:summary]The U.S. State Department is investigating one of its own consultants on the Keystone XL environmental assessment for possible conflict.
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Controversy has arisen over a potential conflict of interest on the part of the consultants who drafted the State Department’s environmental assessment of the Keystone XL pipeline, and now the State Department itself is investigating.

The department’s Office of Inspector General, its internal watchdog, is “ looking into allegations of improper ties and incomplete disclosures,” Grist reported earlier this month.

The controversy started soon after the March release of the State Department’s preliminary environmental assessment, which found that the 1,700-mile-long, $7 billion pipeline project would have a negligible potential effect on both job creation and climate change.

RELATED: State Department Draft Environmental Report Says Keystone XL Effects on Both Climate Change and Oil Supply Would Be Minimal

Numerous environmental and tribal groups disagreed, and President Barack Obama himself remains noncommittal as he mulls a final decision.

RELATED: The Truth Hurts? Obama's Stark Jobs Estimate for Keystone XL Pipeline

In March Mother Jonesexposed documents showing that Environmental Resources Management (ERM), the consulting firm that conducted the bulk of the analysis, had at one point worked with TransCanada, the company that plans to build it. While legal experts said that that does not in itself denote wrongdoing, ERM’s apparent attempt to hide this fact—by redacting bios from its conflict-of-interest statement to the State Department upon being hired for the job—has raised concerns.

“On the day the State Department published the Keystone impact report, the agency also released a cache of documents that ERM submitted in 2012 to win the contract to produce the Keystone environmental report. That cache included a 55-page filing in which ERM stated it had no conflicts of interests writing the Keystone report,” wrote Mother Jones in March. “But there was something strange about ERM's conflict-of-interest filing: The bios for the ERM's experts were redacted.”

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The trouble with that, the magazine said, was that “unredacted versions of these documents obtained by Mother Jones confirm that three experts working for an outside contractor had done consulting work for TransCanada and other oil companies with a stake in the Keystone's approval.”

According to Mother Jones, Andrew Bielakowski, second in command at ERM, worked as an outside consultant on three pipeline projects for TransCanada over the course of seven years. In addition he has consulted for oil companies, including ExxonMobil, BP and ConocoPhillips, that stand to benefit if Keystone XL is approved, Mother Jones said.

The documents may not meet the legal criteria to constitute a conflict of interest, said Pat Parenteau, a professor at Vermont Law School who specializes in energy and the environment. He told the Christian Science Monitor that there would need to be more evidence that ERM would benefit from TransCanada in the future.

Nevertheless, the disclosures have fueled opposition to the pipeline. Even before this, tribal members and leaders along the route had said the report was not accurate.

RELATED: Exaggerated Consultation Claims, Factual Errors in State Department's Keystone XL Environment Report Rankle Natives

On Monday August 12, about 200 protesters organized by CREDO, the Rainforest Action Network and the Other 98% under the banner NoKXL staged a sit-in outside the State Department building to call on Obama to reject the project once and for all.

“The president has said that he’s going to decide Keystone based on its overall impact on the climate in terms of carbon emissions," said Ross Hammond, who works with the environmental group Friends of the Earth, to the Christian Science Monitor on August 6. "The report on which he’s going to base that decision is tainted—I think irrefutably tainted."

RELATED: Obama: No Keystone XL if It Increases Carbon Emissions