WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday she has “no reason to believe” that the State Department is biased in favor of a Canadian company’s plan to build a massive oil pipeline from western Canada to the Gulf Coast, as some critics charge.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Clinton said a decision on the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline will be fair and based on years of work by numerous government agencies.
Clinton dismissed allegations by environmental groups that her decision is tainted by a past relationship with a TransCanada executive who served as an aide in her 2008 presidential campaign. Emails released in recent weeks show friendly exchanges between a State Department official and TransCanada executive Paul Elliot.
Critics also have cited the State Department’s decision to hire an environmental consulting firm that had previously worked on projects with TransCanada. Houston-based Cardno Entrix worked on the environmental impact study for the 1,700-mile pipeline and helped conduct a series of public hearings this month.
Asked whether there is merit to the conflict-of-interest claim, Clinton said, “I have no reason to believe that.”
Clinton said the State Department, “both here in Washington and in Ottawa, has been very much in listen and outreach mode” in recent weeks.
Officials have conducted meetings with a large number of interested groups and have concluded public meetings in Washington and in each of the states affected the pipeline: Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.
“This is a very emotional decision, and you have people who feel very strongly on both sides, as has been evident” at the hearings and in news coverage of the pipeline project in the United States and Canada, Clinton said. “You have states that are welcoming it, states that are rejecting it. This is an issue that raises very local concerns.”
Wendy Nassmacher, a spokeswoman for the State Department, said Cardno Entrix was hired to help with the State Department’s review of the pipeline project. In addition to the public hearings, Cardno Entrix helps maintain a State Department website on the project and helped research and write an eight-volume environmental impact statement released in August, Nassmacher said.
The report found that the project is unlikely to cause significant environmental problems during construction or operation.
Calgary-based TransCanada wants to use a 36-inch pipeline to carry crude oil extracted from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas. The underground pipeline would carry an estimated 700,000 barrels of oil a day, doubling the capacity of an existing pipeline from Canada.
Supporters say the line could significantly reduce U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil, while opponents say it would bring “dirty oil” that requires huge amounts of energy to extract and could cause an ecological disaster in case of a spill.
Damon Moglen, climate and energy director at Friends of the Earth, an environmental group that opposes the pipeline, said Cardno Entrix has a clear conflict of interest on the pipeline because of its previous work with TransCanada.
Moglen said it was “no surprise” that a report largely researched by the firm “grossly understated the damage likely to be caused by this pipeline.”
Shawn Howard, a spokesman for TransCanada, denied a claim by Friends of the Earth that Cardno Entrix was hired at TransCanada’s urging.
“We were not involved in the decision or provide direction on who should be hired,” Howard said. “Claims by professional activists are the furthest thing from the truth.”
The State Department has authority over the project because it crosses the border. Officials are reviewing testimony from the hearings and public comments submitted to the department’s website and are on track to make a recommendation by the end of the year, Nassmacher said.
When the decision is made, “it will be very much rooted in the work that has been done,” Clinton said. “And I think people have been extremely careful and thoughtful, and it’s a process that I am trying to respect until it reaches its conclusion.”