Election may be pivotal for infrastructure projects

By Hannah Northey | 06/17/2016 07:00 AM EDT

As the fight over energy policy in the upcoming presidential election heats up, one issue has emerged as a lightning rod among conservatives, liberals, industry and environmentalists: pipelines.

When presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s senior policy adviser Stephen Miller took the stage in Georgia this week to welcome the billionaire mogul, he quickly pivoted to energy.

"[Hillary Clinton] will put our unions out of work," Miller said to a shouting sea of supporters at the Fox Theatre in downtown Atlanta. "She wants to shut down the coal mines, she wants to shut down fossil fuels, she wants to put millions of union workers out of work."

As the fight over energy policy in the upcoming presidential election heats up, one issue has emerged as a lightning rod among conservatives, liberals, industry and environmentalists: pipelines.


Developers of oil and gas projects have complained in recent months of growing opposition in the environmental community, triggering longer environmental reviews. That slowdown is also affecting union workers seeking to capitalize on the country’s newfound shale plays.

But activists energized by the demise of the Keystone XL pipeline and the administration’s increasingly public skepticism of fossil fuels, say their fight is just beginning.

"I cannot imagine an industry who is more at risk than the pipeline guys," said Mike McKenna, a Republican political strategist on energy issues. "I think it’s probably the most unwritten story of this election cycle. I think energy in general but really specifically pipelines."

Activists opposed to the proliferation of gas and oil infrastructure agree. Many of them are backing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has shifted to the left on energy issues in recent months in an effort to defeat Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination.

"We are at a fork in the road, and if Secretary Clinton is elected, I think you’ll see a major shift to massive clean energy build out," said Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Nebraska and a prominent voice opposed to the KXL pipeline.

"If Donald Trump is elected," she said, "our communities will continue to be sacrifice zones and our farmland will continue to be taken away for fossil fuel corporations."

KXL has for years been a favorite election year talking point, particularly for Republicans. But this time around, the debate involves a whole range of projects. And the candidates’ comments on the issue stand in stark contrast.

Clinton has criticized the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for failing to fully weigh concerns about climate change and the impacts of energy development on communities, a move environmentalists praised (Greenwire, Oct. 21, 2015).

At a stop in New Hampshire earlier this year, greens applauded the way Clinton was "echoing" their concerns when she criticized federal pipeline reviews for failing to give enough weight to public opinion in areas along the route of proposed gas pipelines.

But, an industry source pointed out, Clinton continues to support natural gas as a bridge fuel cleaner than coal and a way for the country to meet its 2025 international climate commitment. She may also move a tad more to the center during the general election.

What’s more, Clinton faces a delicate balance in attempting to appease both environmental groups and unions. In the latest skirmish of a long simmering disagreement, a number of building trade unions blasted the AFL-CIO for partnering with billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer (Greenwire, June 8).

The building unions — including the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA)
and the International Union of Operating Engineers
— accuse Steyer of threatening union jobs through his staunch opposition to fossil fuels and projects like KXL (E&E Daily, May 17).

LIUNA was particularly vocal in supporting the pipeline from Canada, which Steyer opposed. But the group is supporting Clinton, even though she also spoke out against the project.

"It’s a difficult issue for Democrats, there’s no doubt," said Brian Obach, a professor of sociology at the State University of New York. "The instances are rare and in the vast majority of cases, there’s clear, common ground between unions and environmentalists in terms of generating jobs and protecting the environment."

Democrats, Obach said, can stave off some of that potential contradiction by staying on the message of job creation through environmental initiatives and clean energy, something that Clinton has focused on.

Focus on eminent domain

When it comes to pro-development Republicans, McKenna said Trump "scrambles the egg in many different ways."

The Republican standard-bearer supports the use of eminent domain for projects and has publicly said he leans toward approving a surge of proposed oil and gas pipelines that are cropping up across the United States.

"My basic bias would be to approve" pipelines, Trump said during a rally in North Dakota last month before unveiling his energy policy menu (E&E Daily, May 27). And even though union leaders have denied it, the mogul says his point of view will lead workers to defect to his camp.

Some analysts say the next president will have little sway over the existing pipeline permitting regime. At the same time industry sources, many of whom are hesitant to talk about Trump in public, pointed out the White House can influence regulation by appointing a new chairman at FERC or pushing legislative changes.

Kleeb said activists are taking the fight to both the state and national stage. On the local level, her group is mobilizing a national network of pipeline fighters with directors in Nebraska, Iowa, Louisiana and Oklahoma.

Nationally, Kleeb and other activists are using the issue of eminent domain as a weapon to turn people against fossil fuel infrastructure and attract conservative landowners.

Ultimately, Kleeb said she’d like to see legislation to end the use of eminent domain, especially in states like Virginia, West Virginia and North Dakota where landowner fights are taking root. Industry sources, however, said that’s not likely to happen.

"It’s obviously my goal that eminent domain become [an] issue in the presidential campaign and I definitely think it can," Kleeb said. "There’s real potential of making this a big campaign issue, expressly in a swing state like Virginia, especially if Clinton picks [Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine] as her [vice president]."