The pipeline industry has been a very slow learner when it comes to combating fractivists and the reasons are relatively easy to understand if you know both.
The pipeline industry (“mid-stream” in oil and gas lingo) has flopped, floundered and, far too often, failed in its dealings with fractivists. It’s been a little like that memorable Independence Day movie scene as the Earthlings (the industry), not imagining they even had enemies, has suddenly faced a terrifying one from another planet. Run and hide was the first response, followed by trying to play nice and welcoming the aliens, only to be blasted apart by invaders who shared no such illusions. It’s been painful to watch for those of us who are veterans of land use and fractivist battles and realize they are not table games but, rather, life and death struggles in a figurative sense. The pipeline industry needs to learn a few things and very quickly.
The pipeline industry is filled with good people who follow the rules. They love rules, in fact, because so many of them are engineers. All they need is the book of rules and formulas and they can do anything. Voluminous studies, lengthy planning, long permitting processes; these are games they completely understand and thrive upon. They wouldn’t have it any other way. Hand them the FERC regulations or the design problem and they’re rolling in the mud and having the best time imaginable.
Confronted with opposition they’ve never had before and the sudden need to defend themselves, though, these same fearless problem solvers resort to worst of tactics – a deadly combination of risk-averse lawyering, PR speak and surrender. It’s a function of the fact they’re all about the real and have never had to operate in the unreal world of fractivism. Fighting isn’t in the rule book. When trouble’s on the horizon you simply ask the lawyers to tell you what to do. They recommend issuing a meaningless press release along the lines of “XYZ Pipeline Company is committed to protecting the environment and serving the needs of the community.” You might call it another version of the “Welcome Aliens” signs in Independence Day:
The failure of the pipeline industry to recognize the danger and deal with it effectively has several explanations but it all boils down to a huge cultural divide between the industry and its fractivist opponents. The pipeline guy or gal lives in a world where PR speak is the only safe way to talk, as it gives away literally nothing of substance. Moreover, the corporate ivory tower is the only possible source of wisdom and the in-house legal counsel is always the final word. Decisions are made by individuals who’ve never talked to a landowner or a consumer except through leases, other legal documents and tariffs.
“Grass-roots,” for those at the top in the pipeline industry, is about weed spraying and “organizing” is just another term for mobilizing equipment and manpower out in the field. Those field people are pawns to be moved around on the chess playing board as needed while the queen and attendants protect the king. Field staff knowledge and opinions about how to deal with landowners and local opposition is irrelevant. “What local opposition, after all? Didn’t we give them $5,000 for their fire company two years ago? Just give then another $5,000. We need to be liked, so throw some more bones their way.”
Such is the depth of strategic political thinking at the top of far too many pipeline companies. It’s a “keep things close to the vest, rely upon the rules, trust the bureaucracy and, when in doubt, issue another PR speak press release” strategy. It’s the same strategy that has led to one fiasco after another as the aliens have bullied governors, disrupted plans and intimidated one agency after another while the pipeline industry has played nice, following the rule book, the advice of its lawyers and the decisions of corporate leaders far removed from the action.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the cultural divide, are the fractivists and their funders. Many don’t work much, living instead off their trust funds. Virtually none work with their hands. Most of them don’t even know an engineer. They don’t generally associate with people lacking a college degree or having attended a land grant school. They don’t own land or, if they do, don’t manage it, although a few have hobby farms. They’ve never struggled to pay real estate taxes or make a real economic living off the land. They don’t know know anyone who buys used cars and mostly hang out with people who don’t drive much at all.
They know even fewer people who drive trucks. They don’t know anyone with a generator keep his food cold and toes warm when the electric goes out. They don’t know anyone who has to travel further than around the corner for groceries and many have someone to do it for them. There are few large families among them and almost no one has ever had to have their furnace cleaned, replaced a car battery, mowed a lawn, owned a garden or other tractor, kept large animals, lived without air conditioning, filled their own car with gas, plowed their driveway or tried to run a business depending on economical gas and/or electric prices.
Oh, there are exceptions, of course. No one said you won’t find an occasional fractivist or two out there in the hinterlands that pipelines run through, but they’re darned few and a long way in-between. Many are second-home owners or trust-funders living out some pipe dream connected with a trendy backyard farm as they find themselves. You can bet there’s usually a source of other income, though, to support the hobby enterprise. The bulk of fractivists are unconnected with the real world and just as far removed from reality as the pipeline industry executives in those ivory towers who suppose the way to communicate and turn things around is a handful of token grants, a vapid news release or two and slogging it through the bureaucracy, trusting its agents to act in the public interest.
If you think I feel strongly both ways, you’re correct to a point but make no mistake; I side with the pipeline industry. I just know its way aren’t just old school, but failed school. These approaches are totally unsuited to land use and ideological wars, which is where we are today. The pipeline industry needs to completely re-invent itself in terms of political strategy.
At the risk of sounding like Dick the Butcher in Henry the Sixth, perhaps the first thing to do is to rein in the lawyers and remember they’re just tools and shouldn’t be doing PR or strategy, as important as they are to the enterprise. Secondly, the pipeline industry needs to fight and fight hard; hitting back “twice as hard” as our last President said, when fractivists spread lies, countering them with hard-hitting facts not only to correct the record but also to challenge the credibility of those doing the lying and expose their funders.
The pipeline industry also needs to be far more aggressive in doing grass-roots organizing by empowering its field staff to work closely with natural constituencies such as farmers, landowners and economic development interests in showing up at hearings and writing letters to the editor that don’t sound like pablum. But, there needs to be much more.
There is a need for counter-protests at fractivist events, for example. And, why couldn’t there be protests outside of the Delaware Riverkeeper’s gas-heated offices in Bristol, Pennsylvania or, better yet, the offices of the Heinz Endowments or the William Penn Foundation? Someone should also be challenging the tax-exemptions granted to these “charities.” The industry should be challenging the authority of states to use water quality certifications as political weapons and the authority of river basin commissions to regulate pipelines.
How much of this happening? Well, a little, now that several companies have been burned by their faith in the ability of government to resist the onslaughts by tiny minorities of fractivists and other malcontents. But, it’s not nearly enough. The pipeline industry needs to learn who its enemy really is and how to fight back and it’d better do it soon.