Pipeline protests planned on eve of final Keystone XL hearing

The “Occupy Wall Street” protests that have taken over lower Manhattan and Chicago are now headed to the State Department.

A group of youth and environmental activists are planning an “Occupy State Department” sleep-in tonight to protest the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry Canadian oil sands crude roughly 1,700 miles from Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries.

The protesters, organized by the Energy Action Coalition, are launching their sleep-in on the eve of the State Department’s final public hearing on the project before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decides whether the pipeline is in the national interest.

The group will be camping out in front of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, the site of Friday’s hearing. (Technically, the State Department is about 1.5 miles away).

“TransCanada and Big Oil are occupying our political system,” said Maura Cowley, co-director of the Energy Action Coalition. “It’s time for us to occupy the State Department.”

The oil industry has pitched TransCanada Corp.’s $7 billion pipeline project as a way to bolster the nation’s energy security, by allowing the U.S. to import oil from a friendly North American ally instead of Mideast sources. Keystone XL advocates note the pipeline also would provide a new route for oil produced in the booming Bakken shale to reach the Gulf Coast.

But residents along the planned route have warned about possible spills that could taint groundwater supplies, particularly the Ogallala Aquifer that provides drinking water to roughly 2 million people. And environmentalists worry the pipeline would expand the marketplace and demand for oil sands crudes that produce more greenhouse gas emissions over their entire life cycles — from production to combustion — than some alternatives.

And in recent days, environmentalists have sounded the alarm about e-mail correspondence between State Department officials and TransCanada’s top lobbyist that they say reveals an overly “cozy” relationship and bias in favor of the project.

Today, the groups that have been pursuing those e-mails broadened their Freedom of Information Act request to seek more contacts between State Department officials and other lobbyists advocating the Keystone XL pipeline. The initial requests focused on interactions involving TransCanada’s top lobbyist, Paul Elliott.

But Friends of the Earth, the Center for International Environmental Law and Corporate Ethics International now are asking the Obama administration to turn over all documents pertaining to the interactions between the State Department and employees of lobbying firms that have pushed for Keystone XL’s approval.

After an environmental analysis, the State Department in August concluded that there would be “no significant impacts to most resources” in Keystone XL’s 1,700-mile path. The State Department also said potential spills from the pipeline “would likely be limited.”

That kicked off a 90-day period for the State Department to evaluate whether the project is in the “national interest.” Once Clinton makes her decision, other federal agencies will have 15 days to weigh in, either concurring or rejecting the decision. But if any of the agencies disagree — which is likely — the decision will be made by President Barack Obama.