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State Department Inspector General Investigating Keystone XL Contractor ERM’s Conflicts of Interest

2:31 pm in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

The Checks and Balances Project has announced that the U.S. State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has launched a conflicts-of-interest investigation into dirty dealings pertaining to the contractor tasked to perform the environmental review for the northern half ofTransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sandspipeline on behalf of State.

Environmental Resources Management, Inc. (ERM Group) declared the northern portion of Keystone XL as environmentally safe and sound on behalf of State in March, in defiance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s assessment, among others.

The northern half of Keystone XL will connect to the over 75-percent complete southern half and – if built – will carry Alberta’s tar sands bitumen south to Texas refineries, with most of the final product shipped to the highest bidder on the global market. State and eventually President Barack Obama have the final say over the proposal because the northern section of pipeline crosses the international border.

The overarching problem with that ERM assessment, as first revealed on Grist by Brad Johnson: ERM Group was chosen not by the State Dept., but by TransCanada itself. Furthermore, as first revealed on Mother Jones by Andy Kroll, the State Dept. redacted biographical portions of the EIS that pointed to ERM’s ongoing close consulting relationship with ERM Group and TransCanada.

“The American public was supposed to get an honest look at the impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline,” writes Checks and Balances‘ Gabe Elsner. ”Instead…a fossil fuel contractor, hid its ties from the State Department so they could green light the project on behalf of its oil company clients.”

Instead of an honest look, the public got deception, perhaps not surprisingly given ERM’s historical contracting relationship with Big Tobacco, as first revealed here onDeSmogBlog. ERM seems to have blatantly lied to the State Dept. – which apparently did no homework of its own, or turned a blind eye at least – and answered “no” to when questioned if it had done business with anyone tied to TransCanada in the past three years.

ERM also told State it was not an energy interest, when the facts say otherwise.

“The State Department question defines an energy interest in part as any company or person engaged in research related to energy development,” wrote Eslner. “Yet, ERM has worked for all of the top five oil companies and dozens of other fossil fuel companies. In other words, ERM is clearly an energy interest.”

For these reasons, a dozen groups (including DeSmogBlog), ranging from environmental NGOs, faith-based groups and government accountability watchdogs called for the Inspector General to investigate why State allowed TransCanada to choose ERM Group.

OIG Special Agent Pedro Colon, Checks and Balances reported, confirmed OIG is “reviewing the matter” in a voicemail left with Elsner. Not satisfied with Colon’s oblique answer, Elsner followed up with OIG via email to ask for more details.

In a May 14 email, Elsner was told the following by Erich Hart, General Counsel to the Inspector General, that Hart can’t comment on an ongoing investigation – implying, of course, that an investigation is happening.

It is this email that led Checks and Balances to believe that OIG is engaged in a serious, methodical probe into ERM Group’s activities related to the Keystone XL SEIS environmental review. The group questions why the State Department didn’t recognize a serious conflict-of-interest in choosing ERM.

The question still remains: will it be a serious investigation or a public relations window dressing act? Time will tell.

ERM Group’s Sordid History

ERM Group has a sordid history of green-lighting ecologically perilous projects. Perhaps not surprising given that it is a dues-paying member of Big Oil’s lobbying powerhouse, the American Petroleum Institute (API), which spent $7.3 million on lobbying in 2012 and another $8.6 million on lobbying in 2011.

As covered here on DeSmogBlog, ERM declared the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline that traverses from Azerbaijan, to Georgia and eventually to Turkey as environmentally and ecologically sound – even though it has proven neither. As also covered here, ERM said the Peru LNG and accompanying pipeline project was also environmentally and ecologically sound - again, even though it has proven neither.

So, unless OIG acts on the investigation it says it has opened and tells State to abide by federal contracting conflicts-of-interest law, it appears Keystone XL will be déjà vu all over again for ERM Group and the Obama Administration.

Corporate Interests Influencing State Legislators via National Conference of State Legislatures

11:35 am in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Fracking sign

Cross-Posted from Checks and Balances Project

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) describes itself as “a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the nation’s 50 states, its commonwealths and territories.  NCSL provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues.”

Affiliated with NCSL, is the NCSL Foundation which was created by NCSL as a  “nonprofit tax-exempt 501(c)(3) corporation that offers opportunities for businesses, national associations, nonprofit organizations and unions seeking to improve the state legislative process and enhance NCSL’s services to all legislatures.”

While the descriptions sound benign, the access to legislators NCSL and the NCSL Foundation provide to fossil fuel interests and other corporate “sponsors” sounds a lot like lobbying. Sourcewatch defines lobbyists as those who do “work on the behalf of their clients or the groups they’re representing to convince the government or others involved in public policy development to make a decision that is beneficial to them.”

Nowhere in the descriptions of NCSL or the NCSL Foundation is the unique access to state legislators granted to corporate funders characterized as lobbying.

In fact, William Pound, NCSL’s Executive Director, said in an interview with Checks & Balances Project at NCSL’s 2012 Fall Forum in Washington, D.C., that legislators are being educated, not lobbied.

However, this access has been called “stealth lobbying” by Steve Horn and Sarah Blaskey in a recent Truthout piece.

According to the NCSL Foundation website, there are many ways for fossil fuel interests to “educate” state legislators. They include:

  • Opportunity to participate in the annual standing committee new officer orientation session
  • Regular forums with NCSL officers and NCSL standing committee officers
  • Opportunity to suggest topics to standing committee officers
  • Opportunity to attend NCSL Executive Committee subcommittee meetings
  • Invitations to attend receptions and dinners with legislative leaders at yearly NCSL leadership meetings

In addition, with legislators from 40 out of the 50 states earning an average of $35,326 for their work and an average staff of 3.1 per member (or 1.2 staff in some states),[1] it raises questions of how much time and resources they have to research issues versus relying on positions posted by corporate sponsors or NCSL papers which corporate sponsors have had input on, according to Pound.

Given the role of Michael Behm as the Vice President of the NCSL Foundation and a Senior Vice President for Stateside Associates, a lobbying firm focused on lobbying state-centric groups like NCSL and the Council of State Governments (CSG), the partnerships being enabled by NCSL between legislators and fossil fuel interests should not be surprising.[2] This is especially true, given that many of Stateside Associates’ clients are also NCSL Foundations sponsors.

According to the current list of sponsors on the NCSL Foundation website (dated 1/31/12), fossil fuel interests such as ExxonMobil and America’s Natural Gas Alliance contributed $142,500, an increase from FY 2011 (July 2010-June 2011) when fossil fuel companies donated $100,000[3].

Perhaps the increase in contributions from fossil fuel interests, coupled with their ability to  “review” NCSL policy papers, explains the change in positions on hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) between 2010 and 2012. A 2010 policy paper provided a relatively balanced look at the costs, financial and environmental, associated with fracking. However, a June 2012 paper raises and dismisses the potentially devastating costs that fracking poses to states and the environment.

NCSL’s activities sound suspiciously like those of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is now facing a lawsuit under the Tax Whistleblower Act with the Internal Revenue Service. Common Cause filed the lawsuitafter accusing ALEC, legally a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, of “massive[ly] underreporting” the amount of lobbying it was undertaking.

While 501(c)(3)’s can engage in some lobbying, it cannot be the majority of its activity. According to Mother Jones, “The suit alleges that ALEC exists primarily to give corporate members the ability to ‘lobby state legislators and to deduct the costs of such efforts as charitable contributions.’ “

Checks and Balances will continue monitoring NCSL and other like-minded organizations that interact with legislators for purported “educational” purposes that could possibly be masking stealth lobbying activities.


[2] Horn and Blaskey write in their Truthout piece about how Behm and his other Stateside Associates colleagues take over organizations such as NCSL to influence state legislators on behalf of corporate interests.

[3] No figures were listed in the FY 2011 annual report. Therefore current sponsorship level amounts were applied to derive the $117,500 number.

Image by Bosc D’Anjou under Creative Commons License.

Fracking Your Future: Shale Gas Industry Targets College Campuses, K-12 Schools

2:41 pm in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Don't Frack NY signs at protest

Photo: CREDO.Fracking / Flickr

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

In Pennsylvania – a state that sits in the heart of the Marcellus Shale basin – the concept of “frackademia” and “frackademics” has taken on an entirely new meaning.

On Sept. 27, the PA House of Representatives – in a 136-62 vote – passed a bill that allows hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” to take place on the campuses of public universities. Its Senate copycat version passed in June in a 46-3 vote and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett signed it into law as Act 147 on Oct. 8.

The bill is colloquially referred to as the Indigenous Mineral Resources Development Act. It was sponsored by Republican Sen. Don White, one of the state’s top recipients of oil and gas industry funding between 2000-April 2012, pulling in $94,150 during that time frame, according to a recent report published by Common Cause PA and Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania. Corbett has taken over $1.8 million from the oil and gas industry since his time serving as the state’s Attorney General in 2004.

The Corbett Administration has made higher education budget cuts totaling over $460 million in the past two consecutive PA state budgets. The oil and gas industry has offered fracking as a new fundraising stream at universities starved for cash and looking to fill that massive cash void, as explained by The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Half of the fees and royalties generated by leases of State System of Higher Education lands would be retained by the university where the resources are located. Thirty-five percent would be allocated to other state universities. The remaining 15 percent would be used for tuition assistance at all 14 schools.

Some professors aren’t exactly thrilled with this notion.

“I’ve become extremely concerned, disturbed, and disgusted by the environmental consequences of fracking,” a professor at Lock Haven University told Mother Jones in a recent article. “They’ve had explosions, tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals spilled. And we’re going to put this on campus?”

Mother Jones‘ Sydney Brownstone also explained that Pennsylvania isn’t the only state playing this game, writing:

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