Federal regulators and pipeline industry representatives are eager to hear more from the public — in civil forums that avoid emotional, project-specific discussion.
That was the takeaway from a series of sessions at a conference last week in which top Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration officials and representatives from pipeline companies, the American Petroleum Institute and other national organizations sat alongside stakeholders from community groups, state regulators and smaller environmental organizations.
The conversation took place at a yearly conference hosted by the Pipeline Safety Trust, a group chartered to advocate for public safety in the industry and whose annual gathering is one of the few events to bring a significant number of civil society speakers together with pipeline industry representatives.
Several people involved with fighting oil and natural gas pipelines in their local area expressed frustration that the pipeline developers they work with brush off the concerns of those in the project's charted path.
Take Irene Leech, an associate professor at Virginia Tech whose family farm will be bisected by the planned Atlantic Coast pipeline, a 600-mile project to carry shale gas from West Virginia to markets along the Atlantic Coast.
Leech described her efforts to move the planned pipeline off the property that her family has owned since 1902, where she and her husband raise cattle. "We engaged real early in the process," Leech said, intervening with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to have a formal say in project development.
Leech said she first hoped to have the pipeline rerouted off their land and then, when it became clear that would not happen, to have it moved from the middle of a field to the field's edge so it would not interfere in the farm's operations.
"They told us where the location was going to be, and our input didn't matter," she said.
Patty Cronheim, outreach coordinator with ReThink Energy NJ, a group that steers New Jersey away from fossil-fuel-based energy toward renewables, said she has seen numerous instances of pipeline developers avoiding even simple questions at community forums convened to discuss proposed pipelines, among other interactions that residents take as signs of a lack of respect for them.
"We don't have a lot of open space, [and] what we preserve, it's for a reason. It's where our drinking water is, we pay for it with our taxes," Cronheim said of her state.
Jessica Wentz, a senior fellow with Columbia Law School's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said she sees the communication gap between pipeline companies and affected communities as a symptom of the power imbalance between the two groups. "People have procedural rights but they don't have any substantive rights" in pipeline project development, she said.
'Real and legitimate' concerns
Chuck Lesniak, who recently retired from his role as environmental officer for the city of Austin, Texas, agreed. "The regulations give most of the power to the industry," he said. "When I've seen the process go well, it's when the industry has stepped up significantly beyond what the regulation requires."
Lesniak said he built a productive relationship with the operator of one of the four major transmission pipelines that run through Austin, but doing so required several years of good-faith engagement and came only after the city lost a bid to reroute the pipeline away from the city.
He had advice for pipeline companies that want to engage more fruitfully with the public, as well as for stakeholder groups that want to be taken seriously.
"The industry side tends to hide the ball; the environmental community tends to grandstand," Lesniak said. "Good communication," he added, "occurs when there is a level of trust and understanding between the parties."
For pipeline companies, that means proactively sharing information that communities will reasonably want and being forthright when there are legitimate reasons why specific information cannot be shared. For the community, it means asking questions up front rather than "ambushing" project representatives in public forums, he said.
Lesniak said pipeline companies should respect the intelligence of the people they talk with; an engineering degree is not a prerequisite to understand the technical and regulatory issues around pipelines.
Many companies avoid discussion of the hazards that are of most concern to communities on a pipeline path. But Lesniak said they would be better served to address those head-on.
"Acknowledge and accept there are facts and perspectives that may be counter to your position, but are real and legitimate," he said. For example, pipeline accidents do have a very low probability of occurrence, but they also can have very high consequences. "It makes you seem obtuse if you don't acknowledge both things are true," he said.
'It needs to be routine'
Representatives from oil and gas industry groups said input like Lesniak's serves as valuable feedback that they don't often hear.
"Having these discussions when you're away from a specific project is really important," said Mark Hereth, chairman of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America Foundation.
"This conference is the one conference a year where I know I'm going to come and get a good perspective" from the stakeholder community, said David Murk, pipeline manager for the American Petroleum Institute.
"It needs to be routine that we're having this discussion," Murk added. "It needs to be outside of a project."
Rick Kivela, manager of operational compliance for Enbridge Inc., said the pipeline industry historically hasn't done enough to engage the public and explain what it does and why. "We need to do more to improve our pipeline safety performance, and we need to do a better job communicating to the public."
Murk suggested that pipeline companies may need training on what issues concern stakeholders. "We do polling, we do other things to understand what it is around pipeline safety that you don't understand," he said, but he added that there is room for more work there.
Several industry speakers acknowledged that the industry needs to change how it talks with the public. But some public-sector stakeholders said that view misses the point because they want companies to listen and respond to their views, as well.
Others grumbled that the industry stakeholders' expressions of concern stand at odds with the feedback they frequently receive from people affected by pipeline projects, both directly through company officials and contractors and indirectly through pipeline opposition campaigns, that there are major, unaddressed problems in how the companies relate to communities.
Alan Mayberry, who as PHMSA's associate administrator for pipeline safety is the agency's top career official, said public involvement in projects leads to better outcomes. He noted feedback the agency has heard that "public awareness is telling people, but public engagement is asking people."
Mayberry said PHMSA aims to get more involved in public meetings about controversial pipeline projects, though he declined to elaborate on what that could look like.
Cost of engagement
One means for public engagement in projects is a formal "recommended practice" for public awareness programs for pipeline operators, adopted by PHMSA.
The American Petroleum Institute is leading work on an overdue update to the standard, with a working group that aims to finalize a revision by consensus among the industry stakeholders, regulators and members of the public involved.
Early this year, the Pipeline Safety Trust withdrew from the revision process, citing an imbalance of interests in the process and the financial challenges of participation. Attending the frequent, in-person meetings of the working group on the standards costs thousands of dollars for travel, presenting a barrier to participation for members of the public.
"Us being there just seemed to legitimize the process," Carl Weimer, PST's executive director, said of the decision to pull out.
Weimer said he believes that API is not the right organization to be in charge of developing a standard for communications, because the subject is not technical and the industry group has no particular expertise in it. He also questions whether taxpayer resources should be used for developing the public awareness practices behind closed doors, rather than running "a true public comment process" to bring in broader inputs.
Without the trust's involvement, the process has become "adrift," Weimer noted, as it is unclear whether the working group meets the standard-setting organization's requirement for public-sector involvement without the group at the table.
'Fear is not a good thing'
Andy Dinniman is a Democratic member of the Pennsylvania Senate who has engaged on pipeline issues after Sunoco Pipeline LP's Mariner East 2 pipeline project caused sinkholes to appear in residential areas, among other problems (Energywire, March 8).
Dinniman expressed frustration that as a state lawmaker who supports energy development, he has little leverage to force the industry to be a better steward of the public trust.
"You have people being very fearful, not having information, and fear is not a good thing," Dinniman said. "You have this trust that evaporates," he added, "because by law, as a company you don't have to share anything. You don't have to share [your risk analysis] with the school, you don't have to share it with first responders."
Dinniman said state leaders feel stuck. "What do we do? Do we make regulations, do we make statutes? ... They're there to promote energy, but what happens if that balance goes awry?"
In Dinniman's view, the pipeline industry needs to move past basic pipeline awareness efforts to address the public's substantive concerns. "The citizens understand the gas lines, they understand the prosperity that comes from it, but you have to find the right way to assure them that they are safe," he said.
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