WASHINGTON -- The State Department has begun to push back on claims by environmental groups that the process for approving a controversial oil pipeline has been mishandled and riddled with bias.
The pipeline project, known as Keystone XL, would deliver oil from Canada into the United States, and is subject to final approval by the State Department, which oversees any energy projects that cross national borders.
But environmental groups have charged that the department has long given disproportionate attention to the interests of the energy industry, and especially the pipeline's owners, Transcanada, in the review process. As early as last October, Secretary of State Clinton stated publicly that her agency was "inclined" to approve the project, even though an official environmental impact study had been recently challenged by the Environmental Protection Agency.
On Wednesday, the State Department made its first attempt to directly rebut the allegations, saying they "reject [the] accusations" of bias, and releasing a partial list of consultations held both in Washington and at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, which they said showed the department had met with industry groups and environmental groups in equal measure.
Of the 27 meetings held at the State Department headquarters in Washington, officials said, 11 were with oil industry groups, 10 were with environmental groups and three each were with Canadian government officials and Native American, or First Nations, interest groups.
"It's obviously their First Amendment right to say what they'd like to say," Victoria Nuland, a department spokeswoman, said of the claims by environmental groups. "We reject their accusations."
Earlier this week, the environmental group Friends of the Earth released a batch of emails -- the second in a growing cache of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act -- that they say shows clear bias on the part of State Department employees toward Transcanada, the pipeline's owners.
In the emails, an American staffer at the embassy in Ottawa can be seen chatting amiably about the progress of the pipeline's approval with Paul Elliot, a former aide to Secretary Clinton and now a lobbyist with Transcanada.
In one exchange from September 2010, the embassy staffer, Marja Verloop, cheers on Elliott after he secured support for the pipeline from Montana Sen. Max Baucus (D). "Go Paul!" Verloop wrote. "Baucus support holds clout."
Nuland told reporters Wednesday that the State department had conducted an internal review into the coziness indicated in the email exchanges and found nothing amiss.
"Our internal review concludes that her relationship with the environmental organizations was equally close and that she had very friendly relations with a broad cross-section of Canadian NGOs as well," she said.
Officials at the State Department have repeatedly insisted that the emails show just one side of the story, and emphasized that Friends of the Earth had technically only requested the release of emails between the government and employees of the oil industry.
Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the release of incomplete scheduling data will be sufficient to tamp down complaints of bias. On Wednesday morning, several environmental groups filed suit against the Obama administration in an attempt to block construction of the pipeline.
Nuland declined to comment on the suit, or to specifically elaborate on the topics discussed during any of the meetings, their relative lengths or the seniority of officials involved.
Although she mentioned "more than 150" additional meetings held at the embassy in Ottawa on the pipeline project, she declined to provide any further breakdown of who attended those meetings.
Earlier on the Huffington Post: