Creative Commons-licensed Flickr photo by Elvert Barnes

A Web-based electronic docket is setup for public comments on the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline before the State Department makes the final decision on whether to approve the project. But, the comments themselves are not going to be available online for the public to access and read, according to John Cushman of Inside Climate News.

Two days ago, Cushman reported the “only way to see the comments themselves” will be by “filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, a process that can take so long that the Keystone debate could be over before the documents are made available.”

He noted:

Federal electronic dockets are routinely opened to the public in other circumstances. For instance, people who want to comment on the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules to control pollution under the Clean Air Act can go to Regulations.gov – a site that handles public comments for federal agencies. Not only can they file their own comments, but they also can read any other comment that has been filed.

The public comment period is 45 days and began on March 1. According to Inside Climate News, it appears the secrecy may include withholding comments from government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and Departments of Energy, Interior, Transportation and Commerce.

The contractor hired by the State Department to handle public comments is Environmental Resources Management (ERM), which Mother Jones‘ Andy Kroll reported last week once worked for TransCanada, the multinational corporation seeking approval of the pipeline project.

The State Department hid this fact when it released a 2,000 page draft report on any environmental risks posed by the project:

…Experts who helped draft the report had previously worked for TransCanada, the company looking to build the Keystone pipeline, and other energy companies poised to benefit from Keystone’s construction. State released documents in conjunction with the Keystone report in which these experts’ work histories were redacted so that anyone reading the documents wouldn’t know who’d previously hired them. Yet unredacted versions of these documents obtained by Mother Jonesconfirm that three experts working for an outside contractor had done consulting work for TransCanada and other oil companies with a stake in the Keystone’s approval…

ERM submitted a conflict-of-interest filing that was released by the State Department. The biographies of experts were redacted to hide the fact that Andrew Bielakowski, “ERM’s second-in-command on the Keystone report,” had previously worked on pipeline projects for ExxonMobil, BP and ConocoPhillips, which, as Kroll pointed out, are “three of the Big Five oil companies that could benefit from the Keystone XL project and increased extraction of heavy crude oil taken from the Canadian tar sands.”

Others working on the project previously worked for Shell Oil or the Koch Gateway Pipeline Company, which both have a financial interest in seeing the Keystone XL pipeline built, had their biographies concealed as well.

Steve Horn reported this week ERM gave the green light to the “1,300 mile-long Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) Pipeline environmentally and socio-economically sound, a tube which brings oil and gas produced in the Caspian Sea to the export market.” The “environmentally volatile” pipeline had an explosion in 2008. According to a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks and sent in August that year, the BTC pipeline experienced an “explosion in a mountainous area of eastern Turkey, [where] ERM [had] said the pipeline was environmentally sound.” The explosion, as Horn noted, “spewed 70,000 barrels of oil into the surrounding area.”

Instead of making all comments submitted publicly available, ERM will be  “summarizing the comments and incorporating changes based on them into the final report.” The public can be certain the summary of selected comments will accurately reflect the interests of ERM over the interests of the environment in the United States.

A post from the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) reacted to the State Department’s “blackout of public comments” on the draft environmental impact statement. SEJ suggested this shows “a lack of confidence” that the draft environmental impact statement “can withstand public scrutiny.” SEJ noted the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires “public participation” in federal decisions and an “open public comment process” is typically an “expected ingredient of public participation.”

“Only rarely are such public comments not published, and when that happens agencies may be subject to withering criticism. No law prohibits the government from publishing online dockets for environmental impact statements (EISs),” SEJ added.

Rick Piltz of The Washington Spectator appropriately concluded, “This appears to be yet another case in which it would be helpful to have an internal whistleblower who could tell us more about exactly what is going on at the State Department as it moves toward making a determination, as required by law for a pipeline crossing the U.S. border, of whether the proposed project is in the national interest.”

In an effort to force some transparency, Inside Climate News submitted a FOIA request for “the release of the most significant comments—those expected from the major adversaries in the long-running dispute.” It asked for expedited processing so it might hopefully get the documents before the pipeline is approved and there are key government decisions still to be made.

Unfortunately, the State Department does not have a particularly stellar record when it comes to FOIA. In 2012, the State Department and CIA were the two top agencies most likely to deny FOIA requests outright (44% and 59% respectively). Because the current justification for not posting public comments is they are “draft documents” since they are in response to an impact statement that is not final, the State Department could very well refuse to respond to FOIA requests with copies of comments before a final decision is made.

Keeping public comments secret in what is supposed to be an open process may seem absurd, but then remember this is happening under the administration of President Barack Obama, which accepted a transparency award behind closed doors in 2011.

“The most transparent administration ever” has consistently outdone itself in devising ridiculous schemes under the guise of transparency that actually keep what is happening with key policies and government procedures from being known to citizens so corporate and executive power can go unchecked.