Keystone pipeline e-mails show friendly exchanges

The State Department has released a new series of e-mails about the controversial Keystone pipeline proposal that show a friendly relationship between a U.S. Embassy official in Ottawa and TransCanada’s Washington lobbyist.

At times, State Department official Marja D. Verloop — who oversees energy, science and environmental issues at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa — appears to be cheering on TransCanada’s Washington lobbyist, Paul Elliott, in his efforts to enlist congressional support for the pipeline extension.

On Sept. 10, 2010, for example, Verloop sent a congratulatory message to Elliott after he forwarded a news release to multiple people announcing that Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) backed the pipeline project.

“Go Paul! Baucus support holds clout,” Verloop wrote in one of a number of e-mails obtained by Friends of the Earth through a Freedom of Information Act filing.

TransCanada is seeking permission to extend a pipeline that would carry crude oil produced from tar sands deposits in Alberta province to refineries in Texas. The State Department has responsibility for deciding, after weighing environmental dangers and the national interest, whether the pipeline will go ahead. It found in August that construction of the pipeline would have “limited adverse environmental consequences.” It must still rule on whether construction is in the national interest.

Pipeline opponents, who have demonstrated in front of the White House and elsewhere, say the project will promote the use of tar sands, for which the extraction process contributes to relatively high greenhouse gas emissions. They also fear the impact from any possible leaks.

Supporters say that the pipeline would promote U.S. energy security and that Canada would export the crude oil elsewhere if the State Department ruled against the line.

Friends of the Earth said the e-mails showed State Department “bias” in favor of a project it is supposed to be evaluating and “complicity” between State and TransCanada.

“Mr. Elliott was and is simply doing his job — no laws have been broken,” TransCanada said in an e-mailed statement Monday. “His role is very similar to the job the over 60 registered D.C. lobbyists for 10 environmental groups perform.” The company said that “it’s absurd to suggest that any one person might influence a process” that includes 10 federal agencies and “a myriad of local governments.”

“We are committed to a fair, transparent and thorough process,” a State Department spokesman said in a statement Sunday. “Throughout the process we have been in communication with industry as well as environmental groups, both in the United States and in Canada. . . . We listen to all opinions, but there is much more that goes into the national interest determination decision.”

On July 26, 2010, Verloop and Elliott corresponded about Trans-Canada’s decision not to ask for permission to operate the pipeline at a higher-than-normal pressure. The question of pipeline pressure has been a source of considerable debate, especially in states such as Nebraska, where the pipeline would be buried.

“I take it withdrawing the request does not preclude TCPL [TransCanada Pipelines] from re-submitting in the future?” Verloop asked.

Elliott replied that she was “correct” that “withdrawing our request for a special permit at this time, allows TransCanada to submit a request for a special permit at a later date. The process for consideration would start from scratch and include an environmental assessment .

TransCanada on Monday said that it did not conceal the possibility of later seeking permission to use higher pressures in its pipeline. It pointed to its Aug. 5, 2010, news release, which said “the company recognizes it needs to take more steps to assure the public and stakeholders” and that additional safety measures “would allow TransCanada to request a special permit in the future.”

Elliott and Verloop also corresponded about a delay in the environmental assessment of the project that was prompted by an objection from the Environmental Protection Agency, which classified State’s review as inadequate. Elliott reported that his firm’s officials had learned the 90-day review would “delay . . . State’s recommendation of a presidential permit but such a delay won’t be as long as the one advocated for by the EPA.”

The next day, in response to an e-mail from David Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, Verloop forwarded part of the exchange with Elliott. She also assured the ambassador and another embassy staffer who works on energy issues, Lonzell Locklear, that “TransCanada is comfortable and on board” with the delay.

Throughout their e-mail correspondence, Verloop and Elliott engaged in friendly banter. On Dec. 14, 2010, when Verloop forwarded a news story about Elliott’s lobbying activities, she wrote, “When are you coming up to visit? It’s a snowy winter wonderland here this morning.”

In the same e-mail, Verloop provided an update on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit to Ottawa for a trilateral meeting of North American governments. She wrote that she “oversaw” Clinton’s visit, adding, “KXL was not raised, but Doer [Gary Doer, Canada’s ambassador to the United States] flew back on plane with her.”

On April 7, 2011, Verloop complained about the fact that Elliott did not attend an event in Ottawa on April 6. Verloop wrote in response to an unrelated e-mail: “No show last night :( ”

Elliott explained in a reply the same day that he had to work, adding: “I’m sure it was a lot more fun in Ottawa. I hope you are doing well.” 

Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial news.
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