WASHINGTON - U.S. President Barack Obama's hiring of a one-time lobbyist for TransCanada's controversial Keystone XL pipeline has fanned the flames of environmentalist anger at the administration over what they perceive as an overly chummy relationship with the Calgary-based company.
Federal lobbyist disclosure records show that Broderick Johnson, hired to work on Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, was part of a team that lobbied U.S. Congress, the White House and the State Department on behalf of TransCanada.
Bryan Cave, the top D.C. lobbying firm where Johnson worked until April, reported earnings of about $1 million between 2009-2011 lobbying on behalf of TransCanada, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
TransCanada denied Monday that Johnson personally lobbied in favour of the pipeline.
"Although he might have been a registered lobbyist, he didn't lobby for Keystone XL," said company spokesman Terry Cunha.
Environmentalists are nonetheless seething at the news, even though Johnson won't be working for the White House in his capacity as a senior campaign adviser to Obama.
"It stinks," Bill McKibben, an environmentalist who's spearheaded most of the public protests in the U.S. against the pipeline via TarSandsAction.org, said in a statement.
"I don't think you could conceive a more elaborate way to disrespect not just the environmental community but also Occupy Wall Street, because this is simply a reminder of the way that corporate lobbyists dominate our politics. Forget 'Hope and Change' _ it's like they want their new slogan to be 'Business as Usual.'"
Johnson's resume includes stints in former president Bill Clinton's White House and work on Sen. John Kerry's unsuccessful run for president in 2004. His latest career move has prompted his wife, National Public Radio host Michele Norris, to announce she's taking a temporary leave from her job.
He said in a statement Monday he had "great pride" in accepting the position on Obama's re-election campaign.
"We must re-elect the president in order to build an economy that rewards hard work and restores economic security for the middle class and that provides an opportunity to families working hard to rise above poverty," he said.
But his recent past as a lobbyist has provided further fodder for U.S. environmentalists, already miffed about the close ties between TransCanada's chief lobbyist, Paul Elliott, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The State Department is making a final decision by the end of the year on whether to approve the $7 billion pipeline given it crosses an international border. Environmentalists claim the fix is in, partly because Elliott worked for Clinton's unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.
They point to emails recently released by the State Department following freedom-of-information requests that suggest a cosy relationship between Elliott and some department officials. In one particularly friendly email exchange, a State Department employee working at the U.S. embassy in Ottawa cheers on Elliott's attempts to win approval for the pipeline.
State Department officials are also facing allegations that they hired Texas-based Cardno Entrix, an environmental consulting firm, to conduct an environmental analysis of Keystone XL after TransCanada itself recommended the company. Cardno Entrix subsequently gave the pipeline the thumbs up.
Those allegations have prompted some congressional Democrats to urge Clinton to block the pipeline due to what they've labelled a tainted approval process.
McKibben and other environmentalists are planning an anti-pipeline rally outside the White House on Nov. 6. Hundreds of people were arrested outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue this summer in a series of sit-ins as opposition to Keystone XL galvanized the American environmental movement.
Environmentalists oppose the pipeline because of the high amounts of greenhouse gas emissions associated with Alberta oilsands production and concerns about pipeline leaks along Keystone XL's proposed path through six American heartland states.
Pipeline proponents, meanwhile, argue that the pipeline will create thousands of jobs and help end American reliance on oil from sometimes hostile OPEC regimes. TransCanada has also vowed to adhere to tough safety standards that exceed American requirements.
The pipeline faced another potential hurdle on Monday after Dave Heineman, the Republican governor of Nebraska, called a special session of the state legislature to discuss whether to make an attempt to block Keystone XL "in a legal and constitutional manner."
At odds with other governors impacted by the pipeline, Heineman is opposed because Keystone XL traverses the Ogallala aquifer, a crucial source of drinking water for the region. He wants TransCanada to change the route of the pipeline.
"The key decision for current pipeline discussions is the permitting decision that will be made by the Obama administration, which is why I have urged President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to deny the permit," Heineman said in a statement.
"However, I believe Nebraskans are expecting our best efforts to determine if alternatives exist."