With noisy protestors demonstrating nearby, a top State Department official insisted on Friday that a decision on whether a Canadian company can go forward with a plan to pipe oil from tar sands in western Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast will be fair and above board.
Assistant Secretary of State Kerri-Ann Jones, of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, brushed back allegations from critics that the decision on the plan is tainted by a previous relationship between TransCanada executive Paul Elliott and Secretary of State Hilllary Rodham Clinton. Elliott was an aide on Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign.
"Past relationships are not of importance," Jones said.
The environmental group Friends of the Earth released internal emails and other documents this week that it said demonstrate an overly cozy relationship between State Department officials and Elliott. TransCanada has also denied wrongdoing.
Jones said no decision's been made on the plan, which would carry oil derived from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas.
Outside Jones' press conference in downtown Washington, activists protested the plan.
Wearing a nose ring and a T-shirt that read "Food not bombs," environmental activist Spiro Voudouris, 26, came to the nation's capital Friday, where there were multiple protests against TransCanada's plan. He wandered over to a pro-pipeline event sponsored by the Laborers' International Union of North America and engaged in a debate with Ira Orenstein, 63, an unemployed pipe fitter looking for a job.
"I want to help the labor unions. The pipeline is not the way, I promise you," Voudouris told Orenstein, who shook his head no.
"Nobody's against alternative energy. You can't just turn the switch off" and end U.S. dependence on oil and other fossil fuels, Orenstein said.
Orenstein, of Rockville, Md., said he has been out of work for two years. He hopes to get a job building the pipeline if Calgary-based TransCanada wins U.S. approval of the $7 billion project.
The 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline, which would travel through Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, has become a flashpoint in the debate over the Obama's administration energy policies.
Supporters say the pipeline could significantly reduce U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil, while environmental groups say it would bring "dirty oil" that requires huge amounts of energy to extract and could cause an ecological disaster in case of a spill.
TransCanada CEO Russ Girling said Friday he is surprised at the uproar the project has generated.
"I did not expect this to become a lightning rod of the debate between fossils fuels and alternative fuels" Girling said at a separate news conference before a State Department hearing on the project. TransCanada won approval of a similar pipeline three years ago with little opposition.
Environmental activists, religious groups and young people inspired by the protests against Wall Street flocked to Friday's hearing, where they denounced the pipeline as an example of corporate greed and environmental destruction.
Activists conducted a sleep-in Thursday night, allowing dozens of pipeline opponents to move to the front of the line at Friday's hearing, which was attended by more than 800 people.
The environmental groups want "to make sure that money isn't the only thing talking at this hearing," said Maura Cowley, co-director of Energy Action Coalition, an anti-pipeline group. "There is too much at stake here to let Big Oil push its way to larger profit margins."
More than a thousand pipeline opponents, including actress Daryl Hannah and activist Bill McKibben, were arrested this summer at protests in front of the White House.
Environmental groups have asked President Barack Obama to intervene on the project, charging that the State Department is biased in favor of the pipeline. The groups said Obama should push the State Department aside and personally make a decision on the pipeline plan.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said officials were reviewing emails regarding the Keystone XL project, adding that she was confident the review would "show broad engagement with the government of Canada, with industry, with (non-governmental organizations), with the environmental community, with public interest advocates on all sides of this issue."
The State Department has authority over the pipeline because it would cross the U.S. border. Officials have promised a decision by the end of the year.
Girling, the TransCanada CEO, said the high-profile protests against the project were a net positive. The company proposed 57 steps it says will make the pipeline safer than its initial proposal.