The controversial Keystone pipeline ruptured in Kansas last week, spilling more than 14,000 barrels — nearly 600,000 gallons — of crude oil onto several properties and turning a rural creek black. It is the largest spill in the Keystone system’s history and the biggest oil spill in the U.S. since 2010.
The incident has left Canadian pipeline giant TC Energy Corporation scrambling to do damage control — not only in Kansas but in other states where it seeks to expand fossil fuel infrastructure.
But leading up to the spill, TC Energy already had politicians in some of those states marching to the company’s tune, including two U.S. senators. Internal emails reviewed by HuffPost show that TC Energy solicited and authored a letter that Idaho Republican officials submitted to federal regulators urging them to approve the company’s proposal to expand natural gas shipments in the Pacific Northwest.
Industry watchdog group Energy and Policy Institute obtained the documents through public records requests and shared them exclusively with HuffPost.
In late August, the attorneys general of California, Washington and Oregon filed a joint motion urging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, to reject TC Energy’s proposed expansion of the Gas Transmission Northwest pipeline. They argued that the project, known as GTN XPress, would undermine state laws aimed at curbing planet-warming fossil fuels and tackling climate change.
Unlike the Keystone pipeline, which carries oil, the nearly 1,400-mile GTN pipeline carries fracked gas from British Columbia through Idaho, Washington and Oregon, connecting to other TC Energy pipeline infrastructure in Northern California. The GTN XPress project would allow TC Energy to modify three existing compressor stations and increase the pipeline’s capacity by 150 cubic feet of gas per day. The build-out could emit carbon pollution equivalent to adding more than 750,000 vehicles to the road every year for three decades.
Emails show TC Energy moved quickly to find a political ally to counter state opposition, ultimately pitting Idaho against its neighbors to the west.
Ghostwriting letters for elected officials is nothing new for TC Energy. As HuffPost reported in May, the company — formerly TransCanada Corporation — distributed model letters that the Republican mayors of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake submitted in support of the company’s natural gas infrastructure projects in Virginia.
On Aug. 24, two days after California, Washington and Oregon filed their motion with FERC, Alex Oehler, the director of TC Energy’s federal government relations team, contacted the office of Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch to request a meeting. He and Ayla Neumeyer, a legislative assistant for Risch, met in person on Capitol Hill the following week to discuss the project, emails show, and a few weeks later, Oehler sent along what he described as “draft language to consider for a delegation latter [sic] to FERC.”
In an Oct. 14 email to staffers of other elected Idaho officials, Neumeyer shared the draft letter and wrote that the company was “antsy to have something to push back on Washington/Oregon with sooner rather than later.”
“We indicated to them we’d be open to weighing in but thought it made most sense for us to do something together,” Neumeyer wrote. “We still need to get final clearance from [Sen. Risch] but wanted to circulate a draft and see what the interest was. Open to edits—the company took first run, so we left their footnotes in for the time being for your review, but would likely remove them when we actually send.”
Removing the footnotes was the only significant change Idaho officials made. The letter they submitted to FERC on Oct. 21 is nearly a carbon copy of TC Energy’s draft. Among other things, it notes that the project “will provide the needed energy transportation service with minimal, if any, impacts on landowners or the environment.” And it dismissed the clean energy standards that Idaho’s neighbor states have adopted as “arbitrary.”
“Attempts to use the [National Gas Act] to impose individual state policy preferences on other states would be misguided and clearly conflict with observable, real-life need for additional pipeline capacity,” the letter reads. “Given these legal considerations, the demonstration of clear market signals, and the need for low-cost, reliable energy, FERC must move quickly in the approval process for the GTN Xpress Project.”
The letter was signed by Idaho’s full congressional delegation — Sens. Risch (R) and Mike Crapo (R) and Reps. Mike Simpson (R) and Russ Fulcher (R) — as well as Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R).
Marty Boughton, a spokesperson for Risch, told HuffPost it is “well within the norm” for industry representatives to author letters with the senator’s signature on them.
“Congressional staffers regularly coordinate with outside groups and industry representatives on projects and legislative issues of common interest,” Boughton said via email. “As is standard in the drafting process regardless of author, the proposed text was reviewed, edited, and agreed to by all letter signers.”
No other member of Idaho’s congressional delegation responded to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Emily Callihan, a spokesperson for Little, did not address HuffPost’s specific questions but said via email that the governor “is proud to work with members of Idaho’s congressional delegation and other partners in supporting the expansion of the Gas Transmission Northwest Xpress project to make our energy infrastructure more secure in our region and lower energy costs for Idaho families and businesses.”
The fossil fuel industry has been a Top 10 contributor to Risch, Crapo and Simpson over their careers, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.org. This year, TC Energy has contributed $3,000 to Little and $1,000 to Risch. The company’s contributions to Little include a $2,000 donation made on Aug. 31, around the time that it was ramping up its lobbying of Idaho officials.
“Did you connect with the Governor’s office or anyone else in the delegation?” Neumeyer asked Oehler in a Sept. 20 email after Oehler sent along TC Energy’s draft letter.
“We’re still working on the Gov and delegation. (We’ve had some scheduling issues),” Oehler responded. “We have briefed the [attorney general], however.”
Oehler emailed again the following day to inform Neumeyer that TC Energy representatives had met with the governor’s chief of staff and other top administration officials. “I was told they are inclined to consider weighing in with FERC,” Oehler wrote.
TC Energy did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Audrey Leonard, a staff attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper, a Hood River, Oregon-based nonprofit that opposes the GTN XPress project, was not surprised to learn of TC Energy’s behind-the-scenes lobbying and letter-writing effort in Idaho.
“It’s clear how desperate TC Energy is to move this project forward, and makes it even more important for our climate champions in office to step up and authentically oppose the expansion,” she said.
Columbia Riverkeeper was among more than two dozen organizations, mostly from the Pacific Northwest, that sent a letter in October urging the Democratic governors of Washington, Oregon and California to publicly oppose TC Energy’s project. The groups called the project “inconsistent with Washington, Oregon, and California’s efforts to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions” and said greenlighting it would lock the region into another three decades of fossil fuel reliance.
Leonard said she can’t ignore TC Energy’s record of mishaps, in particular last week’s Keystone pipeline oil spill in Kansas. A report last year from the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that “Keystone’s accident history has been similar to other crude oil pipelines since 2010, but the severity of spills has worsened in recent years.”
“The spill came after TC Energy increased the flow capacity of the Keystone pipeline, like they’re asking to do here,” Leonard s said. “Oil and gas pipeline infrastructure is different, but this shows that TC Energy cannot be trusted to build and maintain pipelines. The Keystone pipeline was built in 2011 and is much newer compared to the 60-plus year old GTN pipeline.”