Here’s one we’ve been trying to steal some time to write about for a couple of months now: if you haven’t heard, Enbridge is planning to build a new 600 mile pipeline from North Dakota to Superior, Wisconsin– what they’re calling the “Sandpiper Project.” Not surprisingly, this proposed project has had some landowners worried and concerned, especially a smart and well-organized group of farmers and others in Minnesota calling themselves the Carlton County Land Stewards.
Thanks to their efforts, Enbridge announced last week that it would alter its originally proposed route through Minnesota to minimize disturbances to critical forests and farming operations. Enbridge’s announcement came on the heels of a unanimous vote by the Carlton County Board backing the revised route for the pipeline.
Now, this decision by Enbridge is certainly to be commended. As we’ve said almost from the day we launched this blog, responsiveness to the concerns of landowners and local authorities is absolutely critical for establishing and maintaining good relations between pipeline operators and the public; it’s good for property rights, good for the environment, and good for pipeline safety. The trouble, of course, is that down here in Michigan, Enbridge has too often NOT been responsive or receptive to the concerns of landowners and local citizens. That’s mainly what we’ve spent so much of our time documenting for well over a year now. And that’s why we are calling the news out of Minnesota “good” with a question mark to indicate our wariness, a wariness we’re pretty sure is shared by the Carlton County Land Stewards.
Here’s a bit of context:
A tour through our archives will provide you with plenty of examples of how Enbridge has repeatedly proven itself unresponsive: from failing to hold public informational meetings on this side of the state to declining to attend township meetings, or meeting with municipalities reluctantly, flouting local ordinances, dragging its feet on agreements and actions, failing to return emails and phone calls from landowners, and on and on. We have spent far too much of our time trying to wrap our heads around this pattern of behavior, trying to figure out why it seems to be so hard for Enbridge to act according to its stated values. And we’ve been told more than once by Enbridge representatives that our experience here in Michigan is not ordinary, that it’s an “anomaly,” that for various reasons not clearly explained, the Line 6B project has been unusual. (Of course, in saying this to us, those Enbridge representatives have not taken any real responsibility for the very serious problems they have caused here; they’re just trying, once again, to explain themselves.)
We’ve always found this pill– that matters in Michigan are unique and not the norm for Enbridge– rather hard to swallow. We’ve heard too many stories from elsewhere, like in Canada, that suggest otherwise. Consider, for instance, this profile of Enbridge executive Janet Holder published in a Canadian paper a couple of months back. The article focuses on Holder’s attempts to repair the companies strained relations with the people of British Columbia, whose support is desperately needed by the company in order to get its embattled Northern Gateway project approved. What’s most striking about the article, however, is just how familiar the story it tells is. Initially, Enbridge tried to have its way, to run roughshod through B.C. Only later, after pushback from First Nations and others, did Enbridge launch a PR-style campaign to try and repair the relations it damaged. This is likewise– minus much effort at repairing relations– the story of the Line 6B “replacement.”
Just how endemic to the company is this lack of consideration toward communities and landowners? The most extraordinary part of the article is when it quotes a former Enbridge executive:
But even a former Enbridge executive said the company has done a lousy job of community engagement.
Roger Harris, a former Liberal MLA and Enbridge vice-president, said he quit the company in 2010 after it developed a “grid system” for deciding which public meetings to attend.
He said the grid assigned demerit points for meetings based on the size of the audience, the likelihood of negative questions and whether the media would be present.
Meetings that accumulated too many demerit points on the grid — indicating the company might get a rough ride in front of a large audience with reporters watching — were skipped, Harris said.
“They were afraid to attend meetings other than small, private gatherings of their supporters when they should have been embracing the outrage and trying to win over critics,” Harris said.
“They had to go into rooms of people who didn’t support them, but they refused and it just bred more suspicion.”
Janet Holder is dismissive of these remarks. But for anyone who has attempted to communicate with Enbridge, Harris’s account seems utterly plausible. It’s an explanation for the bizarre pattern of evasive engagement and poor communication we’ve encountered in numerous situations. In fact, what Harris says here is essentially what Enbridge V.P. Mark Sitek told us when he mentioned that Enbridge is reluctant to hold public meetings because it often feels “ambushed.”
So what does this have to do with Minnesota? Well, the very same week that the Holder profile appeared, one of the Carlton County Land Stewards, a farmer named Janaki Fisher-Merritt published an editorial in a local Minnesota paper. In the excellent piece, Fisher-Merritt carefully describes the reasonable concerns of Minnesota citizens about the Sandpiper project (read more on those concerns here and here). But perhaps the most striking things he says is this:
Unfortunately, there seems to be no avenue for public comment on the project at this stage. My neighbors and I have requested to meet with Enbridge to make our concerns clear. Unfortunately, the company’s officials will not meet with groups of landowners or discuss our concerns comprehensively. They instead seem to prefer to single us out and only discuss our small pieces of land, not the route as a whole.
Once again, we have the same story: a reluctance (if not outright refusal) by Enbridge to meet with communities and groups of landowners and a reliance instead on the deeply flawed and alienating land agent system.
The situation in Minnesota parallels our in Michigan in other ways as well. In another article just a few weeks ago, landowners express their frustration at Enbridge’s abuse of easement rights. It seems that Enbridge’s surveying crews were staking on properties without the property owners’ permissions. Evidently, just as they did in Michigan, Enbridge has been exerting eminent domain rights before being granted those rights by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The article also documents some familiar instances of the kind of non-communication so many of us have experienced from Enbridge: evasions, non-explanations, failures to follow up.
Based on this evidence, it’s hard to accept the notion that things in Michigan have somehow been different, that some unique set of circumstances beyond Enbridge’s control have caused all the trouble here. Quite the contrary: it appears that we are simply experiencing some version of the shabby treatment the people of British Columbia experienced. And now the people of Minnesota (and elsewhere) are experiencing the same. This is why we are cautious and chary about how “good” the news is from Minnesota. It appears to be a positive first step. We are very glad Enbridge has taken it. But, as the Carlton County group understands, it’s only a first step. There is much more work to be done. We will continue to watch the story and support our Minnesota friends in whatever ways we can.
If you are in Minnesota and want to learn more or add your voice to the chorus of concerned citizens, there is a public forum planned for later this week. Details are available here.