My seven years as a junior Foreign Service Officer with the Department of State left me with a profound admiration for the ability of the Department to ignore reality at the behest of its political, military, economic – and in particular – immediate superior in the career pecking order – overlords. This ability to manufacture whole-cloth cover for manifest stupidity truly is a thing of rare beauty that serves our nation well. As the new Secretary of State recently put it, “Americans have a right to be stupid,” and so does the nation as a whole in some of its policies, and the Department of State must of course loyally find a way of presenting the various ‘shit accompli’ in socially presentable ways. It is, alas, some of what they have to do.
I remember when I was parked in a windowless cubicle on the China Desk tasked with writing National Day greetings for Mongolia (as punishment for issuing some time earlier “too many” student visas to Nepalis though I had done a validation study supporting my decisions) when a memo, no doubt by mistake, came across my desk. It was a draft of the Global Shale Gas Initiative. Wanting to of course get out of hot water, and impress my bosses, and yes, serve my country as I was being paid to do, I cobbled together a summary of some of the major problems facing shale gas (water-intensive operations at a time of increasing water scarcity, pollution of groundwater and the air, the fact that -given the quantity of fugitive methane emissions involved in the process – it appeared to be about as green as the darkest of back coal, and the fact that we were pushing an initiative overseas when our own EPA had yet to weigh in on the environmental merits or lack there of, of the process). It wasn’t long before I was called into my boss’s office and dressed down for daring to reply. “Do you know who was on that e-mail chain?” he said in whispered tones. “God,” I hoped silently to myself, wanting the Creator to know that at least one minor bureaucrat cared about Her Creation.
But anyway, though that pretty much ended my attempt at a career renaissance on the China Desk, I was lucky enough to run into the Special Coordinator for Water while we were both waiting in line to get our security badges renewed down in the bowels of Foggy Bottom (Main State). He made the mistake, given the trouble I later caused for him, of inviting me to come work on his team in the Office of Environmental Policy in the Bureau of Oceans Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES/EAP). At last, I thought, I have arrived at a place in the Department where my desire to save the planet in my own little way is in accordance with the best of US ideals. Being both a naïf and a stubborn cuss, I quixotically continued to try and raise awareness of some of the problems associated with shale gas. Once I was politely taken aside and told by someone with much more experience than me, that in the Department, when environmental issues came up against strategic issues – and shale gas was being pushed for strategic reasons – it was the strategic thinking side which won the day. We were able to score a minor victory, though. We screened “Gasland” at the Department and succeeded, as a result of that or not, in getting a small phrase inserted in the Global Shale Gas Initiative saying it needed to be carried out in an environmentally responsible manner. You might think this is not much of a victory, but given that words are the coin of the realm at State, great swathes of the Department spend considerable resources arguing about semicolons and whatnots and whether a phrase is sufficiently diplomatically ambiguous (or not) just in case reality has the hubris to not always conform with US talking points (although frankly, the Department seemed more afraid of Congress than of reality).
To make my long story short, my brush with Keystone XL did not end happily. There was a bright young former JAG who was shepherding the State Department’s approval process and really wanted to get it right. He started out by giving us copies of the old, widely criticized report, and described the process of approval or not that would take place. He then divided us into different advocacy groups and had us argue it out before a mock panel of judges. I was randomly assigned to the panel of judges. After the mock hearing, the panel voted and unanimously turned down the Keystone application. Asked to explain our reasoning, I pointed to the exceedingly small section of the exceedingly large report that dealt with climate change impacts and said, “the leading US climate scientists say that Keystone XL is ‘game over’ for preventing climate change, and yet this report barely deigns to entertain the possibility. It claims there will only be a minimal impact, but the point is, when our civilization is standing at the crumbling edge of a very large climate cliff, one or two small steps in the wrong direction make a great deal of difference.”
I guess I thought that was that. It really was a no brainer. Ever the hopeful gadfly, I tried to be helpful in further elucidating the obviousness of a thumbs down by circulating additional studies which supported the clear – not requiring years of study, millions of dollars in consulting fees, and wasted reams of paper – necessity of rejecting Keystone XL. My career revival was on track and I was serving my country and the planet to boot! Alas, after circulating a study from a professor at the University of Nebraska that contradicted the report’s findings on pipeline rupture risks (TransCanada’s downplaying estimates had been adopted without even a burp), I was again called from my windowless cubicle into the well-equipped office of the head of the Office of Environmental Policy. “Garrett,” he said, “I’m a bureaucrat. I want you to stop sending items about Keystone. Every time we mention it, somebody or other FOIAs us and we have to waste time finding all of the e-mail correspondence relating to it. Let the scientists deal with it.” The scientists, of course, were working for Cardno Entrix which was working for TransCanada along with Secretary of State Clinton’s former national presidential campaign deputy director. I asked at least to be allowed to screen “Petropolis” (the Greenpeace movie about the Alberta tar sands), as we had Gasland. But with a “no” that could only be interpreted as final, my meager attempts at steering the country toward the shores of climate sanity were over. It was perhaps, 30 or 40 minutes later that I was called into a less well-equipped office, that of my immediate supervisor, the Special Coordinator for Water. “Daniel,” he said, “the Director of the Office of Environmental Policy wants to know when you will be leaving.”