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In this file photo, a worker monitors the water in Talmadge Creek in Marshall Township, Mich., near the Kalamazoo River as oil from a ruptured pipeline, owned by Enbridge Inc., is vacuumed out the water. A pipeline rupture spilled more than 800,000 gallons of crude oil into the river nearly two years ago. Today’s topics: Enbridge’s failures; the minister and the visa; blame corporatism, not collegialism; copyright time-out … and morePaul Sancya/The Associated Press

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When the winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for national reporting was announced Monday, it marked more than a major coup for the obscure environmental news website that took home the trophy.

It also marked more bad news for the promoters of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Few outside the environmental movement had even heard of Inside Climate News before it won what is considered the most prestigious prize in American journalism. The choice was newsworthy mainly because ICN is a not a traditional media organization and, though it purports to practise objective journalism, it has a clear environmentalist bent.

Indeed, the non-profit site draws most of its funding from three U.S. charitable foundations that explicitly back environmental causes, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Marisla Foundation and the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment.

The Pulitzer, for which it beat out The Washington Post and Boston Globe, thrust ICN into the national spotlight – along with its abundant and overwhelmingly unfavourable coverage of Canada's oil sands.

ICN won the Pulitzer for its extensive reporting on the 2010 leak of an oil pipeline near Kalamazoo, Mich., that is owned by Calgary-based Enbridge Inc.. In particular, it raised red flags about the risks involved in transporting ever larger quantities diluted oil sands bitumen – known as dilbit – through the U.S.

"What happens when dilbit contaminates water? How do you clean it up? Is it more toxic than conventional oil? Is it more corrosive to pipelines?...Finding experts to address these questions was difficult, we discovered, because little information is available about dilbit and how it might react in a spill," says the ICN report, which has been packaged into a 71-page e-book that sells for $2.99 (U.S.) on Amazon. It has shot to the top of the site's best-seller list in its category.

There is no disputing that this is an impressive piece of work, layered with moving stories of the people whose lives were upended by the Kalamazoo spill. It tackles legitimate questions that are of public interest. But whether it qualifies as journalism in the vein of past Pulitzer winners is another question.

What is certain, however, is that the sudden interest in ICN has also focused renewed attention on Enbridge and its handling of the Kalamazoo leak, which – with a clean-up bill of almost $1-billion and climbing – ranks as the most costly onshore oil spill in U.S. history.

That will not make it any easier for Keystone's backer, TransCanada Corp., to counter the wave of negative media coverage and anti-pipeline advocacy advertising that has been ramping up in anticipation of a final decision on the proposed conduit by President Barack Obama. Keystone would ship diluted oil sands bitumen to refineries on the U.S. Gulf of Mexico Coast.

If ICN becomes the go-to source for U.S. coverage of the oil sands, Keystone is in trouble.

Konrad Yakabuski writes about public policy for The Globe and Mail.