Keystone comments rushing in to State Dept.

HOUSTON — Members of the public have filed more than 3,500 comments voicing their opinions on Keystone XL, just a week after the feds  — once again — solicited input on the controversial pipeline.

The process likely will set off another battle between supporters and opponents of the project to win the comments numbers game.

The new round opened Feb. 5, days after the State Department released its long-awaited final environmental impact statement. Through Wednesday afternoon, the public had submitted 3,514 remarks through Regulations.gov.

So far, the comments seem to overwhelmingly oppose the pipeline.

Omaha resident Amy Saklar-Behrens filed her comment on the first day, urging the feds to block the pipeline. She said she’s written to her congressman before, but it’s the first time she had filed a formal comment with a federal agency.

“I want to make sure they know people don’t want this,” she told FuelFix. “Everyone in Nebraska isn’t begging for this to come through.”

Plenty of supporters provided input too.

“Saying no to the pipeline will not stop Canada from exploiting their tar sands resources,” reads a comment signed by Robert Butts, who urged the feds to let the project go through.

Gathering the troops

Because commentators don’t have to leave a full name, address, or their employer’s name, it’s almost impossible to determine their affiliations or whether they have a stake in the debate. That’s led to some criticism of the process.

Moreover, many of the commenters seem to suggest that, despite their passion, they don’t actually expect their input to influence the debate.

“I don’t know who will actually read this but … please stop with the destruction of livable space on this planet,” reads a comment signed Randy Pierce.

Still, Sierra Club spokesman Eddie Scher said the comment period represents “democracy at work,” giving Americans a rare opportunity to interact directly with the State Department on an important issue.

“I don’t expect (Secretary of State John) Kerry to read them all,” Scher says, “but I damn well expect his staff to.”

He said his organization has urged its supporters to formally submit comments on Keystone in order to signal to the administration that Americans care about the issue and they consider the government’s approach to Keystone “fundamentally flawed.”

It’s not just environmentalists who are trying to influence the debate through comments. Joe Bast, president and CEO of the Heartland Institute, which supports the pipeline, is urging the public to “cast a vote in favor of energy security, jobs, and affordable energy.”

In the previous comment round, some approached the situation as something of a game.

In a message to supporters last year, the pro-Keystone American Tradition Partnership wrote: ”If you and I can gather more petitions in support of the Keystone Pipeline than the radical environments are able to generate, we will win!”

Last year’s comment round drew more than 1.5 million submissions, after a coalition of environmental groups pushed a campaign to inundate the State Department with anti-Keystone comments.

Formal process

In addition to the environmental impact report, the State Department is charged with determining whether Keystone XL is in the country’s “national interest,” analyzing its potential impact on security and the economy.

The comment period calls for the public weigh in on that specific question. The letters are carefully logged, available to the public for review and — at least theoretically — intended to be evaluated as the government makes key regulatory decisions.

Earlier this year,  State Department Assistant Secretary Kerri-Ann Jones said there is no requirement for the agency to receive comments during its “national interest determination” on Keystone.

“We felt given … the tremendous interest in this, that we did need additional public comment,” Jones said in a conference call with reporters.

In last year’s comment period, 99 percent of the remarks were duplicate form letters written by interest groups. About 57 percent opposed the project and the rest generally supported it, according to the department’s analysis.

The department categorized those submissions into a database of 282 themes and responded with form letters. (Some of their responses, observers noted, did not really respond to the issues at hand.)

So do comments really influence these reports? It’s hard to say. In her teleconference, Jones said the agency included additional analysis of potential oil releases and spills because of to a slew of comments on the issue. But still, some remain skeptical.

“Everything in me tells me it’s a bad idea,” reads a comment signed by Jennifer Tafel. “I doubt if my voice matters.”


Also on FuelFix:

20 people you didn’t know oppose the Keystone XL pipeline