In comments protesting Keystone, foreigners play a key role

PORT ARTHUR, TEXAS - SEPT12: Though Port Arthur is known as a refinery town, there's still oil drilling and exploration occurring in the area. These two roughnecks work a drilling rig north of Port Arthur. Port Arthur, Texas is the end of the line for oil that would travel through the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post Port Arthur, Tex. shown here, is the end of the line for oil that would travel through the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

When public comment period on the Keystone XL pipeline ended Friday, opponents of the project could declare victory, since they gathered a little more than 2 million comments on their side compared to the roughly 1 million in support of the proposal.

But there's a wrinkle to the slew of comments that the State Department received as it solicited public input on whether the pipeline--which would ship heavy crude from Canada to oil refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast--would serve the national interest: close to half of the comments in opposition came from people outside the United States.

Avaaz, a liberal advocacy group with more than 34 million members worldwide, launched an online drive that translated into 954,827 comments against the pipeline, of which just 65,938 were from the U.S. Another 66,817 came from Canada. Several prominent international figures sent in comments, including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, leader of the Australian Greens Christine Milne and Spain's former secretary of state for climate change Teresa Ribera.

The overseas push largely accounts for the exponential increase in comments

Emma Ruby-Sachs, Avaaz's campaign director, said in an interview that it was entirely appropriate to have non-Americans weigh in on the Keystone decision, since Secretary of State John F. Kerry had delivered a speech last month in Indonesia urging the world's nations to work together to combat global warming.

"This decision is really a referendum on U.S. climate leadership as a whole," Ruby-Sachs said, noting that Kerry referred to climate change as a "“perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction" in his speech last month. "If climate change is a weapon of mass destruction, Keystone is the fuse. Our members were saying, 'It’s in your national interest to lead on climate.'"

But backers of the pipeline such as the Consumer Energy Alliance, a group funded primarily by energy firms that collected 498,790 comments, questioned the value of comments from overseas.

"The U.S. State Department asks its citizens if something is in America's best interest, and the [environmental non-profits] claim opposition by asking foreigners," wrote CEA spokeman R.C. Hammond in an e-mail, adding that all of the group's comments came from Americans.

API spokeswoman Sabrina Fang wrote in an e-mail that the comments her association mobilized--more than 500,000--all came from "registered voters" in the United States.

"Our focus is on approving the pipeline and our comments illustrate how important this project is for American jobs and for protecting our national security interests," Fang wrote.

 

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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