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Pretending Keystone XL Politics Is Science

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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.

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

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