The State Department's inspector general has agreed to investigate his agency's handling of a proposed oil pipeline from Canada, prompted by mounting accusations of a "pro-pipeline bias" in what's supposed to be an objective review. The move adds to a growing cloud of uncertainty over the Keystone XL pipeline, and could further delay a decision that was already being pushed back to 2012.

Deputy Inspector General Harold W. Geisel will conduct a "special review," he explains in a memo to Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, pointing out that 14 members of Congress had requested an investigation. The memo, originally sent to Burns on Friday, was released to the public Monday by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., one of the lawmakers who asked for the review.

"The primary objective of the review is to determine to what extent the Department and all other parties involved complied with federal laws and regulations relating to the Keystone XL pipeline permit process," Geisel wrote. The State Department is tasked with approving or rejecting the $7 billion pipeline since it would cross a U.S. border, but critics argue the agency improperly favors the proposal and has ignored its own conflicts of interest.

"I appreciate the inspector general's responsiveness to our request and the willingness to treat this important matter, and the allegations of conflicts of interest, with the seriousness it deserves," Sanders said in a statement Monday. "This is a critically important issue for our environment and the energy future of our country. At a time when all credible scientific evidence and opinion indicate that we are losing the battle against global warming, it is imperative that we have objective environmental assessments of major carbon-dependent energy projects."

Protestors rallied against the pipeline outside the White House Sunday, just days after President Obama said he would make the final decision himself, rather than delegating it to the State Department. That followed an earlier demonstration at the White House in which 1,252 people were arrested over 15 days, and marked another highlight in the growing protest movement led by environmentalist Bill McKibben.

Aside from ecological concerns about Keystone XL — which range from higher carbon emissions and higher risk of oil spills to damaged prairies and wetlands — critics say the State Department's permit process isn't objective. Not only did one of the top lobbyists for pipeline company TransCanada formerly work for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, but a series of emails revealed last month that he now enjoys unusually cozy relationships with staffers at the State Department.

"Go Paul!" the State Department's Marja Verloop wrote to Paul Elliot of TransCanada in September, for example, congratulating him on winning a Democratic senator's support for Keystone XL. Questions have also been raised about why the State Department let TransCanada play a role in selecting the company that conducted its environmental review of the project. The department's review, released in August, ended up finding that Keystone XL would pose "no significant impacts."

In his memo, Geisel says the investigation will be conducted at "appropriate bureaus and offices," and will include "interviews of appropriate officials and an assessment of pertinent documents." The State Department had originally aimed to complete its permit process by the end of this year, but has recently admitted it may miss that deadline. It has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, but neither it nor the White House issued a comment Monday about the pending investigation. According to the Hill, however, TransCanada said in a statement it hopes the review will clear the air so the pipeline can proceed. "At TransCanada, we conduct ourselves with integrity and in an open and transparent manner. We are certain that the conclusion of this review will reflect that," spokesman James Millar said.

McKibben also issued a statement Monday, saying "it's good to see the administration beginning to listen to responsible lawmakers, and we look forward to the results of this inquiry about the warped environmental review process." But, he added, "it's important to understand that the process has always been the smaller of our objections. While we've been dismayed by the corrupt conduct of the State Department, our real problem has from the start been the fact that these tar sands are the second largest pool of carbon on earth. Since the State Department didn't even bother to study that global warming question, the only real answer is to send this back for a whole new review — or, better yet, for the President to simply back up his campaign promises and deny the permit outright."

McKibben's group, Tar Sands Action, is now planning a Nov. 28 protest at Obama's 2012 campaign headquarters in all 50 states.

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

State Dept. faces Keystone XL investigation
Amid accusations of bias and corruption, the agency's inspector general will investigate its review of the proposed oil-sands pipeline from Canada.