Pipeline opponents are ramping up their tactics to the point of “civil insurrection,” the head of the company behind the Keystone XL pipeline said at an industry conference in Houston.
From civil disobedience to coordinated efforts to shut down pipelines carrying tar sands oil to the United States, environmental activists are standing in the way of delivering energy that could help the rest of the world, said Russ Girling, president and CEO of TransCanada Corporation, the developer of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.
The heads of three major North America pipeline companies convened Wednesday evening at the annual CERAWeek energy conference to discuss the trials and tribulations of building pipelines in an era in which the public has been awakened to the impacts of fossil fuel extraction and consumption.
The executives run companies — TransCanada, Energy Transfer Partners, and KinderMorgan — that have built controversial pipelines and have several multi-billion-dollar projects on the drawing board.
During the discussion, the moderator, Daniel Yergin, founder of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, asked Kelcy Warren, the chief executive officer of Energy Transfer Partners, about changes he has seen in opposition to pipeline development over the past few years — especially with Energy Transfer Partners’ hugely contentious Dakota Access Pipeline. Warren responded: “For example, talking about somebody that needs to be removed from the gene pool, we had people drilling holes in our pipe.”
Opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline project, whose route ran near the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, became a focal point of opposition for Native Americans across the country.
In his comment about removing somebody from the “gene pool,” Warren was referring to incidents of vandalism against the Dakota Access pipeline in which someone allegedly burned a hole through an empty section of pipe.
Two women — Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek – claimed responsibility last summer to vandalizing parts of the Dakota Access Pipeline in Iowa and South Dakota. Both are members of the Catholic Worker movement, founded by famed peace and justice activist Dorothy Day.
When the Native American-led protests began in early 2016, Warren said his company was slow to respond to opponents’ use of social media to stop the Dakota Access pipeline. “We had a CEO — me — that was kind of out of touch with that,” he said.
That quickly changed as Energy Transfer Partners gained the support of state law enforcement in North Dakota and police agencies across the country that traveled to Standing Rock camp to violently suppress the protests against the pipeline.
The company also used intimidation tactics against opponents. As the protests at Standing Rock grew, the company sent in private security contractors who used pepper spray and attack dogs on pipeline opponents.
Energy Transfer Partners hired TigerSwan, a private security firm, to oversee protection of the pipeline project. As a U.S. military contractor, TigerSwan turned its military-style counterterrorism tactics against Dakota Access protesters. The company later paid TigerSwan for information that was used to file a conspiracy against environmental groups. TigerSwan did this by infiltrating the protest camps and activist circles and gathering information via fake social media pages.
During the CERAWeek panel discussion, Warren admitted that his company monitors social media. “There are constant lies being said about our company that we’re having to police,” he told the audience.
Warren doesn’t see the rise of anti-pipeline movement impacting his company’s fortunes, though, especially given the need to move natural gas and oil out of areas without the necessary pipeline capacity.
“If you’re a pipeliner, it doesn’t get better than this. We’re lacking infrastructure in places we desperately need it. You just don’t draw it up better than that,” he said. “There are challenges. But that’s what we all do here. And we’re going to keep doing it and doing it very well.”
Yergin, as moderator, neglected, however, to ask Warren about his company’s troubled natural gas liquids pipeline system in Pennsylvania. Early Wednesday, Pennsylvania regulators ordered the shutdown of Sunoco Pipeline’s Mariner East 1 system after sinkholes exposed the bare pipeline in Chester County Pennsylvania. The regulators said the exposure of the pipeline could have a “catastrophic” effect on public safety if it leaks. Sunoco Pipeline is owned by Energy Transfer Partners.
In January, Pennsylvania regulators also ordered Sunoco Pipeline to suspend construction of its Mariner East 2 pipeline system. The massive cross-state project has been plagued by drilling spills and water contamination. Pennsylvania issued a $12.6 million penalty against Sunoco Pipeline for violating conditions in its Mariner East 2 pipeline permit.
As Energy Transfer Partners faces legal problems with Pennsylvania regulators, Steve Kean, president and CEO of Kinder Morgan, noted that the tactics used by pipeline opponents have “devolved” into “law breakage.” Prior to joining Kinder Morgan, Kean served as chief of staff to Ken Lay, the disgraced founder of Enron Corp. who was found guilty of breaking several laws, including 10 counts of securities fraud, that contributed to the downfall of the company.
“Everybody has a right to speak out and should,” Kean told the audience. “But in all of North America, we have processes where if we do disagree with each other, there is a way of addressing those disagreements. Once that happens, we need to abide by it and honor it. We have a mechanism with which those are peacefully worked out.”
TransCanada’s Girling, however, expressed concern with how environmental groups have increasingly become involved in the regulatory process in the United States and Canada.
“Anti-pipeline groups also are engaging in the regulatory process to convince agencies to deny permits for pipeline projects. In addition to the civil insurrection, they’ve become extremely sophisticated in the legal process,” Girling said. “They’ve hired very intelligent, experienced legal counsel to interfere in our regulatory processes.”
Prior to this decade, the energy industry was unaccustomed to public involvement in a regulatory process that they viewed as a domain it could control. But now the public is not only trying to limit the amount of fossil fuel production as a way to protect the environment and the climate, they’re trying to stop the permitting of pipeline projects.
“If you can’t keep it in the ground, they go to the pipelines and try to choke them off. And they’ve used our regulatory processes as a venue to try to stop the pipelines through delay — frustrate the process so much that the investors will eventually quit and quit putting their money into these things,” said Girling. “And therefore the infrastructure doesn’t get built. And therefore it will stay in the ground.”
Girling also emphasized that the pipeline industry must support regulators at the federal and state levels. The pipeline industry views the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as a friendly agency, given its history of rubber-stamping energy infrastructure projects. “We have to support our regulators when they make a decision,” he said.
TransCanada’s pipeline system was targeted by the coordinated campaign to turn pipeline valves to shut off the transportation of oil from Canada to the United States. The activists invited filmmakers to take video of the actions “because they used them for raising money,” Girling claimed. The activists argued in court that their actions were defensible “because there is a greater good of trying to save the world,” he said.
But Girling was pleased to see that climate and anti-pipeline activists are getting convicted. “I’ve seen situations where we’ve had civil insurrection and had to enforce the law,” he said. “I’m gratified lately that the courts are actually convicting folks for things that are illegal.”