By Neela Banerjee
President Obama’s reelection campaign has hired a former lobbyist for the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline as a top adviser.
The campaign said that Broderick Johnson, founder and former principal of the communications firm the Collins Johnson Group, would serve as a senior adviser for the campaign. Before founding the firm this spring, he worked for the powerhouse lobbying firm, Bryan Cave LLP, where his clients included Microsoft, Comcast and TransCanada, the company planning to build the $7-billion pipeline to carry crude from Alberta’s oil sands to the Texas Gulf Coast.
Johnson’s federal lobbyist filings indicate that TransCanada paid Bryan Cave at least $240,000 late last year and early this year for Johnson to work on supporting the “submission for a presidential permit for Keystone XL Pipeline.” He lobbied members of Congress, the filings show, as well as the administration and the State Department.
TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha denied that Johnson lobbied on behalf of the Keystone project.
An Obama campaign official said that in his new role Johnson would “serve as a national surrogate for the campaign and our representative in meetings with key leaders, communities and organizations. Broderick will be an ear to the ground for the campaign’s political and constituency operations, helping to ensure that there is constant, open communication between the campaign and our supporters around the country.”
Given his ties to Keystone XL, Johnson is bound to get an earful when meeting with some in Obama’s constituency.
The pipeline needs a permit from the State Department because it would cross a federal border. For more than a year, Keystone XL has been mired in controversy. TransCanada, the oil industry and several labor unions have said the project would create thousands of jobs in the United States and reduce the country’s dependence on oil from hostile or unstable countries. Environmentalists, including many Obama supporters, have argued that the extraction of the crude in Alberta lays waste to the land and increases greenhouse gas emissions. They caution that the proposed route would take the pipeline over the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, the main source of drinking and irrigation water in the High Plains states, and they argue that the number of jobs created would be far fewer than claimed by the project’s backers.
Moreover, in the last several months, emails and other documents have raised questions about the State Department’s impartiality as it weighs Keystone’s permit application. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said late last year that her agency was “inclined” to grant the permit, although environmental reviews had not yet been completed.
TransCanada has hired a phalanx of former Democratic operatives since 2009 to lobby for Keystone XL, including Paul Elliott, the former deputy chairman for Clinton’s failed presidential campaign. Recently released emails show that the diplomat working on energy issues at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa had an unusually warm and collaborative relationship with Elliott. Another top State Department official worked with the Canadians to hone their message about the environmental impacts of developing oil sands. The outside contractor for the State Department’s environmental impact statement also counted TransCanada among its clients. The document was harshly criticized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The State Department is expected to issue a decision as early as November.
Johnson worked as a top aide in President Clinton’s White House and was an early backer of Obama when he launched his campaign. Johnson’s wife is NPR host Michele Norris, who said she would take a hiatus from the show she anchors, “All Things Considered,” while her husband works for Obama and that she would recuse herself from campaign coverage broadly.
An Obama campaign official said Johnson had not been involved in lobbying since April and would not discuss his former clients with the administration or campaign. Johnson also sits on the board of the Commission to Engage African Americans on Climate Change, part of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the official said.
Johnson’s hiring is likely to further anger environmentalists, many of whom are already disenchanted with the Obama Administration.
In an emailed statement, climate change activist and Keystone XL critic Bill McKibben complained: “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.’ ”
McKibben and thousands of others who once supported Obama have launched a protest movement against the pipeline. They have been arrested in acts of civil disobedience at the White House and picketed his fundraisers, including one expected today in San Francisco. But if the State Department does not approve the permit, the administration leaves itself open to further criticism that it has failed to create jobs at a time of high unemployment.
Some of the sharpest attacks on the pipeline have come from Republican politicians in Nebraska who worry that possible pipeline spills would pollute the aquifer. Nebraska’s Republican Gov. Dave Heineman said he planned to call a special session of the legislature “to consider challenging the planned route of a massive transnational oil pipeline,” according to the Associated Press.