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Keystone XL's Hired Guns Have John Kerry Connections, But Does It Matter?

Getty/Carl Court

After four long years, millions of dollars spent on lobbyists, massive protests in Washington and a dramatic pre-election presidential punt, the campaign to get a pipeline built from the Alberta tar sands to the heart of the Midwest is nearing its end. Within weeks, the State Department is expected to decide whether to recommend the approval of Keystone XL's northern segment, which it must do for pipelines crossing international borders. If the department decides in favor, all that's left is the White House’s thumbs-up.

But there's still time for one last push from the pipeline’s backers. In early April, the province of Alberta brought on Boston-based strategic communications firm Rasky Baerlein and the D.C. powerhouse Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti to engage in “direct lobbying of U.S. government officials.” Both firms have something curious in common: Employees with ties to newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry. Detecting the draft of a revolving door, environmental groups went ballistic. 

“Something stinks in Foggy Bottom," Ross Hammond, a Friends of the Earth campaigner, wrote in a press release decrying the State Department’s refusal to release its communications with well-connected lobbyists. "One has to wonder what exactly the State Department is hiding." "It really does outrage me," said climate activist Bill McKibben, president of "These guys, having lost the argument, decided instead to buy the outcome."

The outrage has been building for a while. For the anti-Keystone groups, the Castagnetti and Rasky hires were just two more bullet points in a long list of cozy relationships between Canadian governments, oil interests, railroad companies, and the U.S. officials who will decide the pipeline’s fate. Back in 2011, Friends of the Earth uncovered friendly e-mail exchanges between TransCanada director of government relations Paul Elliott, who served as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's deputy campaign manager in 2008, and an assistant to Clinton's chief of staff, asking for meetings and even appearing to offer TransCanada's help in influencing the Canadian government in upcoming climate negotiations. Last fall, the New York Times reported that President Barack Obama's former communications director Anita Dunn was working for TransCanada (her firm says it only ran print, television, radio and online advertising campaigns for TransCanada until October 2011). Then there's Brandon Pollak and Broderick Johnson, both TransCanada lobbyists who worked on Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. Oh, and three former Canadian ambassadors, one of whom served as a top bundler for Clinton's presidential campaign, have worked for either TransCanada or Alberta. 

But does hiring a lobbyist who worked or fundraised for a Secretary of State actually help your case? Connections and affiliation do matter when working, say, the halls of Congress, which is a much less uptight place than a government agency; lobbyists can walk right in and buttonhole lawmakers or staff, and a familiar face will likely get deeper into a congressional office than a stranger will. "The relationships on the Hill can be more informal, friendly," says Jordan Tama, an assistant professor at American University. "Congress is a more open institution, so Hill staffers will be more forthcoming with information." 

Lobbying federal agencies can be more difficult, though, because bureaucrats don't have to face re-election every few years. Meetings must be pre-arranged and will usually involve several people, rather than the one House or Senate staffer tasked with a particular issue like Keystone. Agency employees’ decisions are also much more governed by statute, and are subject to lawsuits if they don't adhere to the letter of the regulations. The State Department is even more difficult to influence than other agencies because it's not charged with responding to domestic issues at all.

"Most Secretaries of State are in a different situation from the Department of Transportation. They're not as subject to this kind of direct advocacy," says James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. "Most of the advocacy that goes on is likely to be on foreign and defense policy from diplomats, rather than a Boeing Aircraft or a TransCanada. I think there are some that are more insulated from advocacy than others, but the State Department is out there by itself." 

The people hired by the Alberta government and TransCanada aren't even recent Kerry employees; David Castagnetti and Rasky Baerlein's Graham Shalgian worked on his 2004 campaign for president. What's more, former Kerry staffers turned lobbyists—and there are a lot, given Kerry's long career—swear up and down that their old boss isn't subject to influence peddling. 

"He's going to do what he's going to do, just like when he was senator," said one ex-employee who's tried to lobby Kerry on different issues. "He went against my clients a lot. I did no better with his office than with other Senate offices." 

Your best bet, said another former staffer, would be to come up with an excellent policy rationale to support your client's position, and communicate it through an outside campaign involving think tanks, advertisements, and newspaper op-eds. Trading on a pre-existing relationship, on the other hand, might just backfire.

"There are things that you can do institutionally," said this staffer. "But in terms of 'hiya, i'm a John Kerry guya, I'm for hiya, please don't call me a liya,' it's a complete waste of time. If you do it, it's going to piss people off internally. You'll get a bad reaction. It would be completely counterproductive."

That dynamic was evident in the correspondence between TransCanada's Paul Elliott and his former colleagues at the Clinton State Department: Although company officials met with agency staff, requests for meetings with his campaign contact were rebuffed. Which doesn't necessarily mean all attempts to influence the State Department are on the up and up. For instance, Mother Jones revealed one cover-up: that State Department contractors who wrote an environmental impact statement favorable to the pipeline had previously worked for TransCanada.

For its part, Rasky Baerlein is following that ex-Kerry staffer’s advice, and simply trying to inject “facts” into the conversation—like the existence of Alberta’s carbon tax, the risk that tar sands oil would be transported by truck if the pipeline weren’t built, and the value of having energy available from as longstanding an ally as Canada if supply from less stable regions of the world were to dry up. 

“I spent a good period of time working in Massachusetts state government, in the environmental secretariat,” explains Joe Baerlein. “If there's one thing I left there with was an impression that it was a fact-based business. One of the things that I think is relevant here is that groups on all sides of this issue who have been opining on what they see as the merits, or in some cases the demerits of this project. Yet up until recently, the province of Alberta had not had the opportunity to offer their opinion. We are trying to offer opportunities for their leadership to offer their opinions.”

Rather than leveraging relationships with Kerry’s people, though, Baerlein is facilitating media interviews and think tank appearances with Alberta officials, in the hopes that their arguments will percolate into the right places at State and on the Hill. The biggest influencers on the final Keystone decision, after all, aren't lobbyists or communications strategists at all. They're the myriad constituencies that Obama risks offending: labor unions, who see thousands of jobs created in the building of a pipeline; Canada, one of the U.S.'s closest trading partners, for whom the pipeline would increase oil exports; and environmentalists, who've rallied against this issue, more than any other, for the past five years. The fact that Keystone lobbyists worked on Kerry's presidential campaign nearly a decade ago should be the least of pipeline opponents’ worries.