A federal watchdog will review the Obama administration’s handling of a controversial proposed pipeline, which, if approved, would send 700,000 barrels of oild a day from Alberta, Canada’s tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas.
The review, to be conducted by the State Department’s inspector general, will likely delay a final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline for several months — kicking the decision into the presidential election year. The State Department, which must decide whether to approve the project because it crosses international borders, has indicated that it hopes to make a decision by year’s end, but that timeline seems increasingly unrealistic.
In response to concerns raised by congressional Democrats, State Department Inspector General Harold Geisel announced on Monday that his office would review the department’s environmental impact statement of the pipeline and the subsequent review process called the “National Interest Determination,” which is where the administration decides whether the pipeline is in the country’s national interest when considering three major factors: the environment, the economy, and national security.
“The primary objective of the review is to determine to what extent the [d]epartment and all other parties involved complied with [f]ederal laws and regulations relating to the Keystone XL pipeline permit process,” Geisel wrote in a memo to all the federal agencies involved in the decision-making process.
Three senators — Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Democrats Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island — and at least eight Democratic House members, led by Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., signed a letter last month to Geisel calling on him to investigate State’s handling of the pipeline in light of reports that the lawmakers say casts doubt on the impartiality of State's pipeline-review process.
The letter references an October New York Times report that the State Department had assigned its environmental-impact review to Cardno Entrix, a consulting firm that counts TransCanada, the company seeking to build the Keystone pipeline, among its major clients.
“I appreciate the inspector general’s responsiveness to our request and the willingness to treat this important matter, and the allegations of conflicts of interest, with the seriousness it deserves,” Sanders said in a statement on Monday.
Sanders repeated a call that he and the other Democrats made in their October letter: “I once again urge President Obama to defer any decision on the pipeline until the State Department investigation has been completed.”
Doug Welty, a spokesman for the State’s IG office, said he wouldn’t speculate on how long it will take to conduct the review. “However, we certainly appreciate the urgency of the issue,” he said an e-mail to National Journal.
In an interview last week with a TV station in Nebraska, one of the six U.S. states the 1,700-mile pipeline would wind through, Obama implied a pretty significant delay was in store for the final decision.
“The State Department’s in charge of analyzing this,” Obama said in the interview. “They’ll be giving me a report over the next several months, and you know, my general attitude is, what is best for the American people?”