12/20/2013 08:57 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

State Department Should Play By the Same Rules as the NFL on Conflicts of Interest

The Baltimore Ravens played the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football. Imagine that if before the game, we found out that the head referee was a Ravens season ticket holder and a dues paying member of their largest booster club. The NFL would yank him from the game faster than you can say conflict of interest.

Would only the State Department play by the same rules as the NFL. By now you know the story. In a brazen move, State Department officials hired a London-based firm called Environmental Resource Management to evaluate key parts of the environmental review for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. TransCanada, the company wishing to build the pipeline, helped select ERM and had a previous working relationship with the firm, but this was not disclosed on ERM's application to the State Department for the job. The firm also did not disclose that it has worked for over a dozen oil companies with a stake in the project and is a dues paying member of the American Petroleum Institute, the Number 1 booster club for fossil fuels in this country, which has spent at least $16 million lobbying for Keystone XL.

Nobody outside the State Department knows when it will release its final environmental review of Keystone XL, but its inspector general has said to expect in February his inquiry into a possible conflict of interest in the hiring of ERM. It's State Department should not issue its final review until the inspector general's report comes out.

This is not a controversial ask. It is the right thing to do, and 25 House members wrote the president last week asking him to do it. If someone lied on a job application, they would be disqualified from that job, pure and simple. This is exactly what ERM did when it said that it had no previous relationship with TransCanada over the past three years. But ERM and TransCanada teamed up on a proposal for the Alaska Petroleum Pipeline in 2011 and that State Department officials know this.

State Department officials must also know that in addition to its membership in API, ERM is also a member of several other organizations that are lobbying for approval of Keystone XL. The American Fuel and Petroleum Manufacturers PAC is one of those groups. In 2012 it gave significant campaign contributions to lead advocates in the House for expediting approval of the pipeline. AFPM PAC also spent $3.7 million lobbying for Keystone XL. To make matters worse, the PAC's coffers were inflated by contributions from 29 Valero employees -- that is the same Valero that will refine tar sands brought to the Gulf for export by the pipeline. According to Politico, ERM also belongs to the Western Energy Alliance, Western States Petroleum Association and the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, all of whom have lobbied for the pipeline.

In this country we do not believe in guilt by association, but we have learned that by following the money we can uncover some uncomfortable truths. In this case, following the money leads to a clear conflict of interest. For a project this important to our energy future and the stability of the global climate, it is vital that the State Department takes the necessary time to sort through how an oil booster came to review the most controversial fossil project in the country.