May 13, 2013

Keystone Pipeline Not a Big Deal — Say Interests Supported By Oil and Gas Industry

Last week, the Washington DC publication National Journal gave us the scoop, in an article entitled, “What People Close to Obama Think About the Keystone XL Pipeline”: Obama-connected environmental experts “are now saying publicly what many Democratic energy and climate advisers have said more privately over the past couple of years: The Keystone XL pipeline is not that big of a deal.” The National Journal article seems designed to persuade the DC policy community of the inevitability — and maybe even the correctness — of a decision by the Obama Administration to allow the controversial pipeline to go forward. In other words, game over.

Game over, despite the fact that producing tar sands oil, the kind to be carried by Keystone XL, is one of the dirtiest energy processes of all, harming local communities and contributing heavily to global warming, at a time when scientific evidence shows that global warming is ever more intense.  Game over, despite the fact that recent pipeline leaks of the kind of oil to be carried across our country by Keystone XL have proven extremely harmful and difficult to clean up.

But it’s not just such scientific evidence that might cause us to question the assertions offered in the National Journal article. There’s also the fact that the journalism outlet that published the article, and at least one think tank cited in the article, have received money from the oil and gas industry. The reporter and the people quoted may well have come to their own honest conclusions about Keystone XL. But when money so heavily corrupts politics — when special interests spread their cash not just to politicians but to the advocacy groups and media companies that host and contribute to policy debates — as happens so often these days, it’s hard to sort out which opinions have been reached honestly and independently and which have been effectively bought.

One of the experts cited by National Journal for the proposition that Keystone XL is no big deal, and is a distraction from the broader energy debate, is Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, who, according to the article “has advised Obama on energy and climate issues and is close with the administration.” Grumet, an energy specialist who was indeed a key Obama 2008 policy adviser, is quoted as saying, “We are essentially jamming our national energy policy debate through a 30-inch pipe. It’s an unfortunately narrow space….”

The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) is a Washington think-tank, which purportedly stands for the principle that Washington needs Democrats and Republicans to come together for sensible solutions to our policy challenges. But in practice the outfit often seems more like a voice for corporate interests in Washington, and nowhere is that more pronounced than in the energy sphere.

Earlier this year, the BPC released a report of its energy policy commission, chaired by former Senators Trent Lott, Republican, and Byron Dorgan, Democrat — bipartisan!  The report found that “climate change is a significant issue” — but then did nothing with that insight. Instead, the report called for accelerating oil drilling offshore and on federal lands, as well as the hazardous practice of underground hydrofracking for natural gas. The report includes no recommendation to cap or tax the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

What was not highlighted at the BPC event launching the report was that both Lott and Dorgan are lobbyists for numerous companies in the oil and gas industries.

National Journal covered the BPC’s Lott-Dorgan energy commission, breathlessly noting that the former senators were “working together on a blueprint for energy legislation” and that “their effort could gain traction: Both are held in high regard by their former colleagues, and the BPC is a serious player in the energy debate.” In another piece, the National Journal called the BPC “an influential group that’s helped to shape federal policy on both energy and health care—and that has the ear of the White House and congressional leaders.”

But the National Journal didn’t question whether Lott and Dorgan’s large consulting fees from energy companies might affect their views of policy.

National Journal also did not report in these fawning pieces that a large percentage of the donors to the Bipartisan Policy Center are companies in the oil and gas field, including:

  •  ExxonMobil Foundation
  • American Gas Association
  • Entergy Corporation
  • Alliance Energy
  • America’s Natural Gas Alliance
  • Chevron Corporation
  • ConocoPhillips Company
  • Energy Future Holdings Corporation
  • Exelon Corporation
  • PG&E Corporation
  • Pioneer Natural Resources
  • Schlumberger Limited
  • Shell Oil Company
  • Southern Company

Corporate donors sometimes do seek explicit quid pro quo arrangements from non-profits they support — policy endorsements in exchange for cash. But they don’t always need to. Some think tanks are simply created as front groups for a given industry, so there’s nothing to corrupt. In other cases, a group might start out with a genuine independent policy mission, but the organizations’s management, acutely aware of the need to raise money to keep the non-profit going, find themselves setting boundaries that avoid criticizing corporate donors or undermining their policy stances.

I don’t know what is going on inside the Bipartisan Policy Center. But they sure take a lot of oil and gas money. And their “bipartisan” conclusions sure sound like oil and gas industry wish lists.

But then, their admirer National Journal is itself a recipient of financial support from such interests. Events on energy policy hosted by National Journal and its parent company, Atlantic Media, have been sponsored by the American Gas Association (AGA), natural gas and pipeline companies CenterPoint Energy and Spectra Energy, and oil company BP.  AGA ads also popped up over and over on the National Journal website as I researched these connections.

Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, and BP are among the many energy interests lobbying Washington on the pipeline issue.  All run Gulf Coast refineries that could be recipients of oil from the Keystone pipeline.

Media companies, like think tanks, need new sources of revenue to stay in business, and these types of compromises are happening every day, at a range of publications and on a range of issues. Atlantic and National Journal also have accepted as energy event sponsors the American Lung Association and alternative energy interests. But the company’s ongoing acceptance of largesse from the oil and gas industries — something that environmental advocates cannot so readily purchase — coupled with their unquestioning awe of the BPC think tank, which seems even more compromised, does raise questions about their coverage.

Last week’s National Journal story did note that Carol Browner, previously Obama’s top White House environmental official, has called proceeding with the pipeline “deeply troubling.” But it quoted two additional Obama advisers in support of the thesis that Keystone XL doesn’t matter much: Former Obama energy policy official Joseph Aldy, now at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Jason Bordoff, who, as described in the National Journal article, “left the White House this January after advising Obama on energy and climate issues in senior policy positions since April 2009.” Bordoff is quoted as saying, “I don’t know how much building or not building one pipeline is going to affect either how much oil is produced in Canada or in global greenhouse-gas emissions.”

The line taken by all these Obama-linked experts — that one little 1,700-mile pipeline won’t tip the balance on the global environment, and we should instead focus on the big picture — sounds plausible.  But oil and gas interests have and will continue to spend millions on lobbying and round-the-clock TV ads to block progress on the big picture, whether or not the Keystone pipeline is approved. And environmental experts say that no progress on larger issues can justify the environmental harms that will be caused by extracting and burning the oil in the Canadian oil sands and building the Keystone pipeline.

Bordoff is now the director of Columbia University’s new Center on Global Energy Policy, which launched last month with a speech by Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon. While I don’t doubt that Bordoff is speaking his own mind, I’m wondering if his new Center is accepting, or planning to accept, financial support from oil and gas companies.

This article also appears on Huffington Post and Grist.