As the U.S. State Department mulls whether to approve a controversial, 1,600-mile oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, some department officials seem to have already made up their minds. "Go Paul!" one wrote in an email last month to a lobbyist for TransCanada, the company pitching the pipeline, regarding news that Montana Sen. Max Baucus had called for the project to be approved. "Baucus support holds clout."

That's one of several eyebrow-raising quotes in a series of emails, obtained by the environmental group Friends of the Earth, that reveal an unusual coziness between the State Department and TransCanada.

Taken together, the emails show the approval process has been "irreparably tainted by department employees' pro-pipeline bias and complicit relationships with industry executives," according to FOE, which sought the emails via the Freedom of Information Act.

In a statement sent to the New York Times and Washington Post, the State Department denies the emails reveal anything inappropriate. "We are committed to a fair, transparent and thorough process," writes department spokeswoman Wendy Nassmacher. "Throughout the process we have been in communication with industry as well as environmental groups, both in the United States and in Canada." Nassmacher also points out the department has been conducting hearings in communities along the proposed pipeline's path.

The emails relate to TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would link Canadian tar sands to Texas oil refineries. The State Department must approve the project since it crosses a national border, and while the department insists its review is objective, critics cite what they call evidence to the contrary. Last fall, for example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was "inclined" to "sign off" on the proposal, even though her department's review wasn't finished. A WikiLeaks document revealed this summer that the U.S. "alleviated" concerns of Canadian officials who feared Keystone XL might not be approved, and even offered "messaging" advice.

And "Paul," the lobbyist who received the congratulatory State Department email last month, is Paul Elliot — a top official in Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign before he became TransCanada's chief lobbyist in Washington. Some critics of Keystone XL have accused TransCanada of using Elliot's connections to grease the wheels, suspicions that helped spur the FOIA requests. In the newly released, emoticon-laden emails, the State Department's Marja Verloop teases Elliot about news reports on those connections, then consoles him.

"Pleased to see your name in print :)," Verloop wrote on Dec. 14. When Elliott said the coverage caused a "sick feeling in my stomach," Verloop replied with a frowning emoticon. "At the end of the day," she added, "it's precisely because you have connections that you're sought after and hired." And when reports focused on the department's refusal to disclose details of its contacts with Elliot, Verloop again teased him: "A new achievement! Subject of a FOIA request, was this on your bucket list??"

Verloop, an energy and environment consultant at the U.S. embassy in Ottawa, also invited Elliot to pay her a visit last December, writing "When are you coming up to visit? It's a snowy winterland here this morning." Elliot responded that he would "have to try to find a way back to Ottawa soon so that we might catch up." In another exchange a few months earlier, Elliot had sympathized with Verloop after her 17-year-old cat died, writing "I'm really sorry to hear about the passing of your kitty."

While the State Department denies the emails are newsworthy — and some do seem to reveal little more than a professional friendship — critics see them as proof Keystone XL isn't facing enough scrutiny for all its environmental risks. On top of more tar-sands production and higher greenhouse gas emissions, environmentalists have warned of dangerous leaks and spills, since tar sands' diluted bitumen is more corrosive than traditional crude. TransCanada estimates Keystone XL will average one spill every five years, but a recent University of Nebraska study estimates "a more likely average of almost two major spills per year."

Author and activist Bill McKibben recently led a two-week protest outside the White House in which 1,253 people were arrested, and another "massive rally" is planned for Nov. 6. The Republican governor of Nebraska has also urged Obama to deny the permit, pointing out risks to the Ogallala Aquifer. Even the EPA has criticized the State Department's review, writing in a letter on June 6: "We have a number of concerns regarding the potential environmental impacts of the proposed project, as well as the level of analysis and information provided concerning those impacts." But the environmental review was released in August, finding that Keystone XL would pose "no significant impacts." A final decision on the pipeline is expected by the end of 2011.

According to a statement from FOE President Erich Pica, the newly released emails "should disqualify the State Department from playing any further role in the pipeline review. ... If President Obama is true to his campaign pledge to end the days of lobbyists setting the agenda in Washington, he must revoke the State Department's authority to approve this pipeline." If Obama does that, Pica adds, "a fair-minded reading of the evidence will force him to reject this dirty and dangerous pipeline, and that is exactly what he should do."

Check out the FOE website for more details and excerpts from the emails.

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

Emails show cozy ties in pipeline review
An environmental group obtains emails that it says show "bias and complicity" in a government review of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.