The State Department will post all public comments on its review of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline on a website, reversing its position, according to a department official.
The department, which in March said it wouldn’t release the comments, also will provide additional opportunities for public input during the National Interest Determination period, said Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of State for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs.
The National Interest Determination period takes place after the close of public comments and is the final step before the State Department notifies the president whether the project is in the nation’s interest.
Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, a policy institute in Washington, said the decision reflects a recognition that the State Department “needs to be more transparent and more accurate about how it’s evaluating whether this project is in the national interest.”
“Attempts at secrecy are almost always a bad idea for any government agency,” Weiss said in a telephone interview. “It’s good that the process will become more transparent.”
A new public comment period would begin after a final environmental impact statement is released. It wasn’t immediately clear whether that would extend the process of approving the pipeline.
The public comment period is scheduled to end on April 22, a day already important to the environmentalists who oppose Keystone because it is Earth Day and the day that the BP Plc (BP:US) rig Deepwater Horizon sank in 2010 after an explosion set off the world’s largest accidental marine oil spill.
A second department official said the agency has received formal requests to extend the public comment period to 120 days from the current 45 days. The State Department is considering that request now. It has already received more than 800,000 comments responding to the review, Jones said.
“This is the Department of State’s process so it will be up to them to determine,” said Shawn Howard, a TransCanada Corp. (TRP) spokesman. “However, this is already the most extensively reviewed cross-border pipeline ever.”
The Calgary-based company wants to build the pipeline to bring oil from the Canadian province’s tar sands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
The mechanics and timing of the changes on the public comments are still being worked out, Jones said. The decision was made to maximize transparency, she said, even as officials know there will be a high volume of comments.
The State Department, which held a hearing in Grand Island, Nebraska, today to hear comments on the pipeline, has come under fire for the lack of transparency on Keystone.
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