TransCanada Steps Up Defense of Keystone XL Pipeline

Faced with formidable opposition from environmentalists, TransCanada is redoubling its efforts to rebut claims made against its flagship project, the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline that the Canadian company is seeking President Obama’s permission to build from Alberta’s oil sands to the Gulf Coast.

This month, the company hired Matthew John as an “external communications specialist” to help feed its blog. On Monday, John wrote a particularly critical 1,400-word post responding to claims made by Tom Steyer, a billionaire venture capitalist who has become especially active opposing the pipeline in the past several months.

“Mr. Steyer continues to peddle the false dichotomy between fossil fuels and renewable energy in an attempt to stifle a pragmatic, fact-based debate,” John wrote in one of his first posts on the company’s website.

Since the company’s blog was launched last fall, about 60 entries have been posted, and almost all of them—save for a very small handful, including Monday’s entry—are positive in nature. Monday’s comments are a sign that TransCanada is ready to do some criticizing of its own.

“One of the issues we have had since the fall of 2010 is trying to rebut what our opponents are saying with respect to Keystone and to correct any factual inaccuracies,” TransCanada spokesman James Millar said in an e-mail to National Journal Daily. “This takes resources, and we have been dwarfed by the content the activists have and are posting online with respect to Keystone XL. Matt’s addition gives us the ability to develop that factual content and to post it on our KXL microsite and our blog, leveraging Twitter for awareness.”

John has no experience in energy issues, though, at least according to his LinkedIn profile. After graduating from Mohawk College in Ontario in 2004 with a degree in journalism and communications, he worked for a travel website, the Calgary Board of Education, and the Corpen Group communications firm before joining TransCanada in June, according to his online profile. TransCanada didn’t respond to a request to interview John.

Millar said that TransCanada may again seek counsel from SKDKnickerbocker, a Democratic strategic-relations firm run by former Obama communications director Anita Dunn. The company has used the firm before on Keystone communications. “We have not rehired SKD but they may yet offer us some support in 2013,” Millar said.

Environmentalists say the new hire by TransCanada is a sign of their own success in campaigning against the pipeline.

“The fact that they’re playing defense on media communications means our message is getting out,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth. “This makes sense in their final push to get approval to focus more on the blog and broader media communications.”

Since the collapse of comprehensive climate-change legislation in 2010, environmentalists have seized on the pipeline and sought to make it a referendum on Obama’s commitment to combating global warming. The result has been heated debates about the project on Capitol Hill and throughout the country. Through all of this, TransCanada has mostly stayed out of the legislative battles and instead built a behind-the-scenes presence in Washington, urging the State Department to approve the necessary permit, which it applied for in September 2008 (and then reapplied for in 2012 after Obama denied it because Congress had tried to force a deadline).

The State Department said last month that it has received more than 1.2 million comments—many of them form letters—on its most recent environmental impact statement for the Keystone XL project, and that it continues to review TransCanada’s permit application “in a rigorous, transparent, and efficient manner.”

As time has worn on, opponents of the project have gotten louder, while TransCanada’s voice has not, especially within social media. That could change.

“A quick current scan of Google shows at least seven blogs/posts with content opposing the development of KXL published since June 7. This pattern has been consistent since 2011,” Millar said. “We are attempting to move toward leveling the playing field somewhat, but we know we will still be far behind.”