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Pretending Keystone XL Politics Is Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Last Friday, InsideClimate News revealed yet another possible conflict of interest in the ongoing drama surrounding the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline. It turns out that “the analysis of greenhouse-gas emission presented by the State Department in its new environmental impact statement … includes dozens of references to reports by Jacobs Consultancy, a group that is owned by a big tar sands developer and that was hired by the Alberta government—which strongly favors the project.”

An oil sands refinery in Alberta. © David Biello

You might expect a bigger public outcry given that State’s Inspector General was already investigating accusations that the environmental consultancy hired by the department to produce the report, Environmental Resources Management, has financial ties to TransCanada, the company that wants to build the pipeline. Despite the fact that InsideClimate is a Pulitzer-winning investigative news outlet, its scoop was a classic week-two, follow-up story – the kind the public too often overlooks.

The problem is not the media, however, but rather the State Department. The first glut of articles, the one most people notice and that largely defines public opinion, appeared the day that the environmental impact report was released. Most, including those from The New York Times and the Associated Press, mentioned the Inspector General’s investigation of ERM, but State didn’t give journalists time to dig into the report to identify other concerns like the role of Jacobs Consultancy.

Instead, State issued a press release on January 31, the Friday before the Super Bowl. A select group of reporters received a link to the report and an invitation to a private teleconference that morning. On the call, they were told that the report was under embargo until 3 p.m., giving them about five hours to read and digest a document that runs over 11 volumes with appendices. The executive summary alone has 44 pages, with over 18,000 words, not to mention charts, graphs, and tables.

Pretending Politics is Science

To complicate matters, the State Department official who led the teleconference and fielded questions from reporters was Kerri-Ann Jones, State’s Assistant Secretary of Scientific Affairs, who kept referring to the report as a “technical” document. However, the report was never about science. It’s simply politics. A week before the report came out, The Wall Street Journal reported:

“One person familiar with the process at the State Department said the environmental-impact report will be crafted in a way that gives the president wide leeway to make a decision. Another official said the report is expected to be relatively vague, so Mr. Obama would be able to cite it to support a decision for or against the pipeline.”

Let’s also not forget that this was the State Department’s second report on Keystone XL. The first had essentially been thrown out after it was discovered the contractor hired to write it had a conflict of interest, having worked for the oil and gas industry. In its review of that episode, State’s Inspector General had recommended that the department hire an expert on environmental impacts. The person State chose was Genevieve Walker, a Commerce Department employee. Although she’s no longer with the State Department, her name is the only government official who appears on the Keystone report, and she was not made available to journalists.

According to reporters who participated in the teleconference, Jones ducked and dodged most questions, referring reporters to the report, which she called a “technical” document no less than six times during the call. But it certainly wasn’t treated as a technical document.

“Reporters should be given a reasonable time to digest something,” say Ivan Oransky, who teaches science journalism at NYU and runs the site Embargo Watch. Most scientific journals allow reporters several days to read and report on new studies, some of which can be a couple dozen pages in length. “That’s the test of whether someone wants a reporter to understand what’s going on, or if they’re just interested in having their story told.”

Yet at the White House press briefing on Friday, which started at 12:43 p.m., an official refused to confirm or deny if the environmental impact report was even out, referring a reporter back to the State Department. Thirty minutes before the embargo was lifted Greenwire reporter Elana Schor, posted what she said was a satirical comment on Twitter in response to Keystone XL opponents who were angry they couldn’t access the report. “Government transparency. n. Briefing the ‘elite media’ in advance of a major report while leaving all others in the dark,” she wrote on Twitter in a mock dictionary definition.

When another journalist asked the State Department about the report during a daily press briefing that started at 2 p.m., an official said, “I don’t have a specific timing to give you, but I would stress very soon.” Four minutes after the briefing ended, the embargo lifted and the first news article appeared. “I had to run back to my office to file the story,” the reporter at the briefing told me. “I didn’t even bother to call State Department back because I knew I would only get a nothing-burger quote.”

First Impressions Are Hard to Shake

The first rush of stories sent Keystone XL opponents into a panic. “Report Opens Way to Approval for Keystone Pipeline,” The New York Times reported.

Apparently sensing that the developing narrative too strongly favored industry, White House press officer Matt Lehrich posted a statement on Twitter Friday night that emphasized the report was not the final word on the pipeline’s approval and that it presented “a range of estimates of the project’s climate impacts,” which Secretary of State John Kerry and “other relevant agency heads” would have to evaluate.

Several reporters and Keystone opponents described this as a “walk back” statement attempting to calm fears that the final decision had been made for approval. A late night headline on Friday in The National Journal read “White House to Keystone Advocates: Not So Fast.” And over the weekend stories began to run more in favor of Keystone opponents.

“WH not pinned down on Keystone review,” The Hill reported. Meanwhile, both the White House and State Department continued with the false premise that the report was science, not politics. On Sunday’s Face the Nation, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said that he did not want to “prejudge” the process, which he said was being conducted by “experts” at the agencies. “The president’s role is now to protect this process from politics,” he said. At the State Department briefing the following Monday, an official repeated the assertion that the report was “technical” in nature.

Since the report’s release, more articles have questioned its integrity. In addition to the piece by InsideClimate News, The Washington Post and BusinessWeek have published stories about ERM’s potentially problematic relationship with the oil and gas industry. In fact, an ethical cloud has surrounded this report before it was even released and dogged the agency during the teleconference with journalists when it was made public. At that briefing, ERM’s potential conflicts came up from the first question, by NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell, to the last, by The Nation’s Zoe Carpenter. All they were really told was that State’s Inspector General is looking into it… but of course we already knew that.

Whether the IG will again find that State erred in its report is unclear. Shortly after the report was made public, Congressman Raul Grijalva, a senior member of the House Natural Resources committee put out a press release criticizing the department for releasing the report before the IG weighed in. “The State Department, if only to maintain its own credibility, should have waited,” he wrote. In fact, just this Wednesday, Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club filed another complaint with the IG, claiming they have further evidence that the report should be thrown out.

But State was impatient. It wanted to establish the narrative of an objective, technical document, even if that’s not how real scientists would do it.

Clarification: The text of this post was changed to explain the proper context of Elana Schor’s post on Twitter.

Paul Thacker About the Author: Paul D. Thacker is a Fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and a consultant to multiple nonprofits and foundations. He is a former congressional investigator for the United States Senate Finance Committee where he led investigations of corruption of science and medicine. In 2007, he was profiled in Expose: America’s Investigative Reports, a PBS series on investigative reporters. Follow on Twitter @thackerpd.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 8 Comments

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  1. 1. ernstroad 10:40 am 02/15/2014

    It is painfully obvious the author, who claims the government was restricting reporters access to the document, has no interest in the document himself. In the weeks since the Final Environmental Impact Statement was released, he has apparently not bothered himself to crack it open, else he would have made some mention of its contents. He makes much here of its not being a “technical” document. Once again, he displays his utter ignorance of the environmental permitting process. If anyone is playing politics, it is Mr. Thacker.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Miner49er 12:15 pm 02/15/2014

    Anthropogenic global warming is a hideous lie. Human use of fossil fuels and carbon dioxide have no material effect on climate. Carbon dioxide is in nearly perfect balance in nature’s ecosystem.

    CO2 is a benign, colorless, odorless gas that is necessary for life–not a pollutant. Nature quickly recycles all natural and human CO2 emissions into carbonate rock, where it remains trapped for tens of millions of years. It does it better than humans could, and for free.

    Coal power is reliable, affordable, scalable and clean. Gas is too valuable to use for power generation, and numerous value-added users are bidding it away from power generators. Nuclear power is too costly & dangerous, and cannot make it without subsidies. Renewables will collapse after subsidies are withdrawn because of “green fatigue”. Like it or not, coal will be the only remaining viable option.

    That means we can use all the fossil fuels we want, without affecting climate, and that’s great. Warmists will have to find another boogeyman to use to scare cash out of the public.

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  3. 3. Jfreed27 5:40 pm 02/15/2014

    There are many good reasons to say “no” to Keystone.

    The IEA estimates that Keystone would harvest 3 times the carbon that would take us over 2 degrees C, the absolute limit for a catastrophe we might survive. If we’re lucky.

    See: “IEA acknowledges fossil fuel reserves climate crunch”

    We are warned by our most trusted messengers, such as NOAA, NASA, the Royal Academy of UK (SIr Isaac Newton was president), National Academy of Sciences (Einstein was a member) the World Bank, the IMF, American Academy of Pediatrics.

    Not industry hacks.

    And it would strip forests the size of Florida, forests that might have absorbed enormous quantities of CO2 before they were removed as “overburden”. Would Keystone “replace” those forests? They say they will.

    Even 2 degrees itself may be too high – a “prescription for disaster” says Dr. James Hansen, chief climatologist at NASA (ret.)

    This is not a smart gamble. If you like your grand kids, that is.

    A pivot to renewables (not all of the above) would actually increase our wealth, as it has in BC. They charge coal/oil a carbon dumping fee and those fees are used to reduce income taxes. Emissions are down almost 20%.

    We have a few years, say the experts, not decades. We should listen to our most reliable messengers. We have to pick up the pace!

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  4. 4. Scotius 11:06 am 02/16/2014

    Aside from all this is the fact that TransCanada refused to provide a route for their proposed pipeline that went around the Ogallala aquifer. At one point they even put out a map that made it appear the route did go around rather than over.

    The problem? Someone found out there was a bit of a difference between the actual map provided by the US government agency and the TransCanada version. Specifically, they had simply shrunk the size of the aquifer to make it appear their pipeline route went around.

    Isn’t it obvious at this point that fracking and pipeline companies are out to ruin as much water as they can as fast as they can? They’ve seen a shrinking economy, “peak oil”, and they’ve decided to make a new income stream for themselves – selling water to you at oil like prices, once they’ve manufactured a scarcity of it so they can make it “the new oil”.

    They’re scum.

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  5. 5. Plain-2009 1:58 pm 02/16/2014

    I do not know exactly what you are talking about (I an too busy)
    My feeling is that that long pipe line from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico should be a very dangerous (and ugly) venture.
    Very probably it should not be constructed.
    We should stop using fossil fuels as soon as possible.
    I use LP gas for cooking and I am not comfortable with that.
    The government (here) seems willing to start using (more) gas to convert into it electricity. I do not like the idea.
    The more savvy people around the world should create awareness so the rest of the pack follow suit.
    Probably this is not the more elegant way to talk about this, but I want to get the idea across that something should be done.
    I want to invite the people of the world to stand up and do the right thing.
    In other words, we people of the world, should be very careful and stop using fossil fuels.
    This is a problem on our shoulders.
    It is our responsibility to act.
    It is our duty to do what is morally (and environmentally) correct.
    Who else will do something ablut it?

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  6. 6. Vampyroteuthis infernalis 7:31 pm 02/16/2014

    I think the author, Paul Thacker, points out something very important. Keystone XL politics is not science. Neither is Climate Change politics, or Global Warming politics, or Creationism politics or the many other political movements and opinions wrapping themselves in the flag of science.

    The only thing is the article seems to suggest that being anti-Keystone could be science, which of course it is not.

    For example look at the picture used in the article. All that “pollution” coming from those stacks and buildings is water vapor, not pollution or CO2.

    There is a tiny amount of CO2 but in that picture what you see is water vapor. That is politics in action. If someone uses a stock picture of the oil sands showing the oldest plants, in the winter, you know it is politics.

    A winter picture of most of the newer operations, particularly the SAGD sites, would show a very small footprint. So small that many would blend into the forest if not for the paths and roads in and around the sites. It isn’t just bias, it is politics, the bias is unavoidable.

    That fact is Canada, with 3.5 people per sq/km is by far the most carbon sustainable country in the world. The world should buy all of it’s oil from Canada if they are concerned about CO2 or the human rights abuses so common in other oil rich nations.

    But that isn’t what this is about. It is, as the article points out, all about politics.

    Science is not possible in such a debate or discussion, and hopefully articles like this help people understand that and see how their politics drives their science.

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  7. 7. Heteromeles 5:32 pm 02/18/2014

    Um, as someone who reads a fair number of environmental impact statements, I think there’s something fundamentally misguided about the “politics vs. science” argument.

    IF an EIS is written fairly (and I haven’t read the Keystone XL, so I can’t comment on it in particular), its job is to analyze one or more versions of a proposed program, determine the impacts of the program, figure out if there is a way to mitigate those impacts or not, and thereby provide the policy maker with the information needed to decide whether the benefits from the project outweigh the impacts or not. In this case, it should be a scientific document to support a political process.

    Real-world EIS’s don’t always live up to this ideal, and it’s pretty common for them to play political games, cover up evidence, shrink impacts, and the like, to make it easier for the project to get approved. These are perfectly valid reasons to challenge an EIS in court. It’s also sadly common for agencies with problematic EIS’s to send them out for review right before holidays, so that they can sneak into law unnoticed. I’ve spent more Christmases than I want to think about reading some really putrid documents, and in general I can’t think of a worse way to get an EIS reviewed than to anger every reviewer from the outset.

    That said, if the Keystone EIS is doing it’s job properly, it’s still Obama’s decision about whether the damage to the Oglalla, farmlands, and global climate are worth the benefits of that oil flowing. People can and probably will sue if they dislike his decision, and that’s part of the process. To me, it’s too bad that the State Department behaved in such a blatantly suspicious way in rolling it out. They would have done much better bringing it out on a Monday morning.

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  8. 8. JohnHemphill 6:43 am 02/21/2014

    Analyzing individual projects such as Keystone for climate impact is such a waste. The project sponsors themselves can do this so much more efficiently – if carbon is priced correctly. This petition urges Obama administration to make political trade-off: approve Keystone in return for carbon tax. You should sign it if you would like a more rational approach to dealing with climate change:

    Link to this

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