Congressman Requests Investigation Into State Department’s Keystone XL Assessment

CREDIT: AP Photo / Carolyn Kaster

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) speaking on Keystone on Capitol Hill back in February of 2013.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office yesterday asking it to investigate the State Department’s assessment of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Both the initial and final drafts of the State Department’s assessment concluded the pipeline was “unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area.” But Environmental Resources Management (ERM) — the private contractor that carried out the assessment on State’s behalf — has been linked to Transcanada and other major fossil fuel companies, raising concerns about conflicts of interest.

Grijalva’s letter requested GAO look into those concerns and assess the State Department’s process for bringing on private contractors. The GAO said it must review every Congressional request before deciding to investigate. “That usually takes a few weeks. We just got this request today so no decision has been made yet,” Chuck Young, managing director of public affairs at GAO, told The Hill on Tuesday.

But according to a spokesman for Grijalva’s office, GAO’s Natural Resources division staff told them personally that the agency intends to take up the investigation.

A separate review of ERM’s possible conflicts of interest regarding the Keystone assessment is already underway by the State Department’s Office of Inspector General.

In July of 2013, an investigation by Friends of the Earth concluded that ERM, at best, misrepresented its relationship and previous history with key stakeholders in both Keystone’s construction and the Canadian tar sands. They found ERM did not disclose its work with Transcanada on another pipeline in Alaska, and that public documents belied the consultancy’s claim that it had no business relationship with the companies that would benefit from extracting the tar sands.

Reporting by Inside Climate News and Grist also showed that the content of ERM’s assessment of Keystone XL drew on work done by previous firms that have been involved with ExxonMobile, BP and Koch Industries.

As of 2003, the US government was spending $200 billion a year outsourcing these sorts of assessments and analyses to private contractors — a practice that has increased massively since the 1990s. According to one Brookings Institution scholar, there is now a “shadow government” of private contractors boasting a workforce of over 5 million. Practically speaking, the nature of business and the use of these contractors can make conflicts of interest difficult to avoid.