Environmental advocates are mounting pressure against the U.S. State Department over a Keystone XL review process they say is "plagued by conflicts of interest."
"Imagine if the surgeon general was replaced with a tobacco executive," Robin Mann, past president and board member of the Sierra Club, said during a press call on Tuesday. "At the State Department, we're seeing something just as outrageous."
The advocacy group filed a lawsuit on Monday asserting that the State Department is withholding key documents related to the latest Keystone XL environmental impact statement, including evidence related to potential conflicts of interest at Environmental Resources Management (ERM), the third-party contractor hired to conduct the analysis of the fiercely-debated proposal to ferry heavy crude from Alberta's oil sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
During the press call on Tuesday, advocates pushed for a State Department investigator general analysis of the impact statement. Mann added that ERM is a "dues-paying member" of the American Petroleum Institute, the largest U.S trade association for the oil and natural gas industry.
An API spokesman said the group had not yet reviewed the lawsuit and therefore would not comment. ERM deferred HuffPost's inquiry to the State Department.
While stating that it does "not comment on pending litigation," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki defended the department's ethics.
"Our rigorous conflict of interest procedures ensure that no contractors or subcontractors have financial or other inappropriate interests in the outcome of a project," she said in an email to The Huffington Post. "To save taxpayers' dollars, third-party contracts are common for environmental reviews of projects proposed by private applicants."
Environmental groups began seeking public disclosure from the State Department shortly after the March 1 release of the Keystone XL draft environmental impact statement, which concluded that the pipeline would be "environmentally sound."
"We got a biased EIS," said Mann, calling its conclusion "deeply flawed."
Devorah Ancel, the Sierra Club attorney working on the lawsuit, noted that in March the group formally requested evidence that the State Department had screened for conflict of interest when selecting ERM for the project. They also asked for documents supporting the report's conclusions that Keystone XL would have no significant impact on the environment and that the expansion of tar sands development would occur with or without the project.
Ancel said that the department has "refused to hand over documents" and was "not able to provide a timeline or even a promise that the information would be disclosed before they make a final decision," a milestone she said she and other experts now anticipate by the end of the year.
"We felt that the Sierra Club had tried every means possible to get that information," Ancel told HuffPost. "This lawsuit was the next step we had to take to get these documents, as they are critically important in the public's evaluation and the overall review of Keystone XL."
The lawsuit also asks for the State Department to reopen the public comment period and hold off on finalizing the environmental review until the documents are made available.
In addition to the API affiliation, ERM apparently redacted biographies of staff members from its report. Among the conflicts that went undisclosed, as Mother Jones would later uncover, was the fact that the second-in-command of the review had worked on three previous pipeline projects for TransCanada, the Canadian company leading the controversial proposal, and had worked on projects for ExxonMobil, BP, and ConocoPhillips -- oil companies that could also stand to benefit from Keystone XL.
"The State Department has an obligation to ensure its review is both transparent and unbiased, and they have given no indication that they have done so," Ancel added. "It's even appeared that they've actively concealed relationships on their website."
Psaki detailed how the State Department ensures its selected contractors avoid such bias.
"The contractor certifies that it has not had, and does not have, any contracts with the applicant, and the contractor is not permitted to communicate with the applicant unless specifically directed to do so by department officials," she said. "That's good government, pure and simple."
Nearly 73,000 people have contributed to the advocacy groups' campaign by signing petitions that urge Secretary of State John Kerry to postpone the final environmental impact statement until the investigator general completes a thorough review of the alleged conflicts of interest. In April, a coalition of environmental and public interest groups sent a letter to the State Department highlighting many of the same conflict-of-interest concerns.
The State Department also received a letter in April from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA criticized the draft environmental impact statement, suggesting the review contained "insufficient information" on environmental, climate and community impacts associated with the project.
"The question is whether Secretary Kerry will listen to the EPA and scientific community, or whether the oil industry will triumph once again," Erich Pica, president of environmental group Friends of the Earth, said during Tuesday's press call.
News released on Monday of a 1.4 percent increase in energy-related carbon dioxide in 2012, Pica added, "dictates we can no longer go along with business as usual."
"The United States must help lead the world in combating global warming and reducing greenhouse gas emissions," said Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in a statement on Tuesday. "It would be incomprehensible to give approval to a tar sands oil project when producing tar sands oil creates more carbon emissions than conventional oil, and when it poses the risk of extremely damaging oil spills."
Ancel and Pica both noted that this is not the first time that the State Department has faced scrutiny over a biased analysis of the Keystone XL. Two years ago, during the first assessment of the project, financial ties were discovered between the contractor, Cardno Entrix, and TransCanada. As the New York Times reported at the time, Cardno Entrix "provides a wide ranges of services, including assisting in oil spill response."
That initial analysis concluded that Keystone XL would have "limited adverse environmental impacts."
"Today feels like Groundhog Day," said Pica. "Secretary Kerry has the authority to end this ridiculous rerun."