Conference panel addresses questions on Dakota Access Pipeline

By Staff | August 01, 2017

At the Bakken Conference & Expo last month in Bismarck, a three-member panel discussed what the oil and gas industry should learn from the protests and events surrounding the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

The $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile-long pipeline was built by Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas to carry 570,000 barrels per day of Bakken crude from western North Dakota to a hub in Patoka, Illinois. Violent protests over the pipeline’s Missouri River crossing near the Standing Rock Reservation made international headlines and halted construction for months. Despite pending legal issues, DAPL entered service June 1 this year.

Two organizations supporting the project were the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) and the Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now (MAIN) Coalition. Michael Zehr, vice president and federal policy advisor with CEA in Washington, D.C., and Craig Stevens, vice president for media relations and crisis communications with the DCI Group heaquartered in Washington, D.C., represented the groups. The third panelist was Troy Eid, attorney and Native American law specialist with the Greenberg Trauig law firm in Denver.

After discussing how consumers benefit from pipelines and why they provide a safe, reliable and environmentally friendly way to move energy over long distances, Zehr zeroed in on the “keep it in the ground” anti-energy movement aimed at stopping all forms of fossil energy. He noted that groups such as the National Resources Defense Council, Earth Justice, Greenpeace and others receive hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from private foundations, public charities and trusts.

During the DAPL protests, Zehr said environmental organizations used grassroots messaging and “pushed the envelope in ways we haven’t seen before.” Their tactics included threats, intimidation and cyber-bullying, such as publishing the home addresses and cell phone numbers of people involved in the pipeline’s construction. He said they also used websites and social media to spread misinformation about the DAPL project.

Zehr said CEA is attempting to counter this on the national and regional levels by initiating a pro-energy dialogue to demonstrate how energy is good for consumers, families and businesses. Most people don’t understand the link between pipelines and the energy they use every day, he explained.

Furthermore, Zehr emphasized that those most impacted by stopping pipelines and other energy infrastructure projects are the 43 million Americans living at or below the poverty line who have to cope with higher energy costs. He said CEA’s goals are to develop a consensus on establishing a balanced, rational permitting process; help the public understand the need for more pipeline capacity; and respond aggressively when pipeline projects are at risk.

Stevens said that he become involved in the DAPL issue as the spokesman for the MAIN Coalition after the protests became violent in September last year. He now serves as the spokesperson for Grow America’s Infrastructure Now (GAIN), a coalition of businesses, trade associations and other groups dedicated to rebuilding and strengthening U.S. infrastructure.

“The environmental left is really focused on stopping development,” Stevens said. “They want to kill the heart by cutting the veins.”

According to Stevens, the coalition’s goal was to fill the information void by using facts and being a good source for reporters. He said they provided information that was fact-based, well sourced and unimpeachable. The group also relied on a coalition of labor unions, agricultural groups and businesses that had credibility.

Stevens said one of the biggest challenges was battling the false narratives spread by the environmental activists through the mainstream media and social media. The coalition worked to identify key audiences, including the media, candidates for political office, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the public.

Eid, an expert on Native American law with the Greenberg Trauig law firm in Denver, approached the DAPL issue from the perspective of an attorney who has worked successfully with pipeline companies and tribal governments to reach negotiated agreements. On the Ruby Pipeline, which carries natural gas from Opal, Wyoming, to Malin, Oregon, he worked with 43 different tribes over five years. Hundreds of “micro-reroutes” along the pipelines rout were made to satisfy tribal concerns cost. Although this $11 million, it ultimately saved $250 million in construction costs, according to Eid.

“We have to think differently about how we get projects built,” he said. “I don’t think DAPL was a one-time adventure. I think that’s probably the world that we live in and that the world is changing.”

Following their presentations, the panelists answered the following audience questions.

How or why did Energy Transfer Partners not stand up and take on the media and take on a campaign in an issue that is so big?

Stevens: ETP wasn’t built for public relations and media affairs. Their media affairs shop was outsourced to a relatively small PR (public relations) shop. I don’t think they had any idea as to the scope or magnitude that this actually would engage. I think a lot of folks—including myself who was a casual observer at the time—did not think that this would escalate as quickly as it did. Now for other companies, I think it’s incredibly important that they have a game plan. I think this is the new order. This is a new cost of business. It’s recognizing that these protests are going to happen. It’s not just engaging the protesters, it’s also ensuring that there are public relations and media affairs professionals engaged in issues and talking to members of the media about how they cover this. The major oil companies, of course, they all have huge PR shops. Some of these pipeline companies don’t.

How much of the required engagement with the tribes is just pure blackmail versus how much is truly derived from social issues?

Eid: I remember vividly communicating with pipeline proponents several years ago on DAPL and they didn’t have a clue about tribes. They didn’t understand the lessons from those of us who have worked in this field for 25 years. We may be lawyers, we may be engineers or whatever, but we know under the current laws of the United States, tribes can slow down projects and sometimes stop them. Why the heck would you not want to work with them? Figure out which ones you can get to support or not actively oppose your project. With all due respect, that did not happen.

I think part of the problem was that on state-permitted projects like oil pipelines, what I’ve noticed is that the proponents go to each state. They think, ‘Oh, we’re fine. We went to the state’s PUC.’ They don’t understand the tribe’s relationship. They (the tribes) perceive relations with the federal government, not the states. So you’ve got to go that extra step to individually reach out to the tribes. Not just to say, pat on the head, ‘Nice meeting,’ but to say, ‘What’s your issue? What are the issues going to be?’

To be blunt with you, I remember vividly in Bismarck in 2014 in another setting with several other state officials and others, having discussions with tribal members about what was going to happen on this project. A lot more can be done earlier on to make sure that specific issues that are going to be of concern are addressed. That water crossing was always going to be a huge issue on Lake Oahe. But they could have done more—I would say respectfully—to think about how to mitigate the perceived risk to a tribe that had a border that was less than a mile away. You may say, ‘Well it’s blackmail.’ Whatever it is, if you’ve got a right to sit down on a project, why the heck wouldn’t you take that extra step and avoid losing $83 million a month and keeping people from doing work?