WASHINGTON -- On Tuesday, the White House appointed John Podesta, the former chief of staff for then-President Bill Clinton, as a special adviser to President Barack Obama. The New York Times reported that Podesta would "focus in particular on climate change issues," which the paper described as a "personal priority" of his.
Podesta, the founder and chair of the Center for American Progress, also has been an outspoken opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline. "I think he should not approve it,” he told the New Yorker earlier this year. “I’m of the view that you just can’t meet the standard now that Obama set out: Does it or does it not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution? What are the net effects? And I think a fair review of that would say the net effects are big and they’re negative."
Podesta gave a speech entitled "The Dirty Truth About Tar Sands" in June 2010 at the "Greening The Oil Sands" conference organized by the Canadian American Business Council, Canada 2020 and United States Energy Association." He called the extraction of tar sands, the kind of oil the pipeline would carry from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, "polluting, destructive, expensive and energy intensive."
In June, Obama said that the pipeline should only be approved if it "does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."
On Tuesday night, the White House said that because of his preexisting views on Keystone, Podesta would recuse himself from the matter. "In discussions with Denis," a White House aide told the New Yorker, referring to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, "John suggested that he not work on the Keystone Pipeline issue, in review at the State Department, given that the review is far along in the process and John’s views on this are well known. Denis agreed that was the best course of action."
Environmental reviews of the pipeline have spurred questions about conflict of interest.
To perform its original environmental review, pipeline owner TransCanada hired Cardno Entrix, a company it had already worked closely with in the past and described as a "major client" in marketing materials. The State Department then asked for a supplemental review, which is being carried out by the company Environmental Resources Management. Environmental Resources is staffed by contractors who have done work with TransCanada and a subsidiary in the past. The Office of the Inspector General at the Department of State is now reviewing whether this should have been considered a conflict of interest, with a report expected in February.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and 13 Democratic lawmakers had called for an investigation into Entrix, but despite the results, Sanders was not fully satisfied. "The findings confirm once again why the project should not be rubber stamped for approval, despite efforts by Republicans in Congress to do just that," he said in a statement.
The inspector general concluded that there was "no evidence" that TransCanada had "improperly influenced" the selection of Entrix as a contractor. In a report, it added that the past relationships "did not present a conflict of interest," but it nevertheless recommended redesigning the process for selecting third-party contractors to improve the State Department's "organizational conflicts of interest screening process."
When it comes to Podesta, there is no known financial conflict of interest, White House spokesman Josh Earnest confirmed in a briefing with reporters Wednesday. But his recusal still set off questions at the briefing.
"Let's not say recuse," said Earnest. "He said that he wouldn't work on it."
"What Mr. Podesta has simply said is that he has very-well known views on this topic. They have been publicly expressed. Those views were publicly expressed before he started working for the president."
"So it is his view that it is better if his well-known views are not injected at the very end of that process," he said.
A reporter then asked why he would choose not to work on Keystone specifically, given that Podesta had expressed views on many subjects. "These are views that have been strongly expressed and gotten a lot of attention," said Earnest. "Many of those things are frankly less controversial and aren't as much of a lightning rod as this particular issue has become."