Environmentalists ask feds for probe of Keystone XL lobbyist

Environmental advocates today asked the Justice Department to investigate whether a TransCanada representative flouted U.S. lobbying rules while working to convince the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

At issue is the lobbying registration of Paul Elliott, who worked as a government relations representative for TransCanada Corp.

Because the company is based in Canada, Elliott was working on behalf of a foreign principal and therefore required to register as such under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, charged Friends of the Earth today. The group sent a letter to the Justice Department today insisting on a probe.

“The American people need to know when foreign entities are trying to influence the actions of the U.S. government,” said Erich Pica, the president of Friends of the Earth. “Unfortunately, the Canadian oil corporation behind the Keystone XL pipeline was trying to do just that, and its top lobbyist failed to disclose what he was up to. The Justice Department has a responsibility to investigate this serious violation of law.”

Elliott’s work on behalf of the proposed 1,700-mile pipeline has drawn scrutiny in recent days, as the State Department holds nationwide hearings on the project and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prepares to make a decision in November about whether Keystone XL is in the U.S. interest.

Elliott worked on Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008 as a national deputy campaign manager. E-mails obtained by Friends of the Earth under a Freedom of Information Act request show that while representing TransCanada, Elliott tried to capitalize on his past ties to Clinton and her staff.

The e-mails also appeared to reveal that a State Department official had given advice to TransCanada about how to counter pipeline foes’ arguments and tactics.

For instance, in a May 19, 2010 e-mail recounting a meeting between representatives from TransCanada and the State Department, Elliott said one of the State Department officials provided “insight on what he’d like to see by way of on-the-record comment during this public comment period” on an environmental impact statement about the Keystone XL.

Pica said the communications demonstrate an overly “cozy relationship” between Elliott and administration officials and prove that “the State Department has failed to meet its responsibility to conduct a thorough, unbiased review of the proposed pipeline.”

The fate of the $13 billion Keystone XL lies in the Obama administration’s hands because it would cross the U.S.-Canada border. If approved, Keystone XL would double the capacity of an existing TransCanada Corp. pipeline — Keystone — that now ends in Cushing, Okla.

Keystone XL would link oil sands developments in Alberta, Canada, with Gulf Coast refineries 1,700 miles away. Oil industry leaders and congressional Republicans argue that Keystone XL is essential to deliver crude from a friendly North American ally to refineries on the Gulf Coast that are not served by existing pipelines. Current pipelines transport the Canadian oil sands crude to Midwest refineries, which are nearing their capacity for processing the supply.

But environmentalists worry that the pipeline would expand the market for diluted bitumen and synthetic crudes produced from Alberta’s oil sands. The greenhouse gas emissions from Canadian oil sands crude have been estimated to be potentially 40 percent more than conventional oil. Conservationists and some landowners along the planned route also have sounded the alarm about possible spills that could taint groundwater supplies, particularly the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska.