Amid growing criticism of the U.S. State Department’s review of the proposed 1,700-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline, the department’s inspector general announced Monday that it is opening an investigation to determine whether the department has complied with federal laws in evaluating the $7 billion project.

The move comes in response to charges by pipeline opponents that builder TransCanada Corp. has improperly influenced what is supposed to be an independent assessment of whether the pipeline is in the national interest and meets U.S. environmental standards.

Critics in Congress and the environmental community have specifically raised questions about the State Department’s hiring of a contractor to help prepare the environmental impact statement for the project. That company, Cardno Entrix of Texas, had previous business connections with TransCanada.

The inquiry could also take in a host of other issues raised by Keystone XL opponents — including whether oil transported through the pipeline wouldbe used in the U.S. or exported; whether the State Department has considered the effects on climate change of shipping tar sands oil through the U.S.; and whether the oil industry is prepared to clean up a spill of the thick, corrosive oil the pipeline is designed to carry.

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