On Saturday, a Canadian television report on Enbridge’s proposed Line 9 reversal in Canada got us thinking (yet again!) about Enbridge’s habit of alienating landowners and municipalities by failing to do what one would think is the easiest thing in the world: just being honest, straightforward, and forthright. But for some reason, that is something that is extremely difficult for them.
We were also reminded of that fact a couple of weeks ago, when we read the latest on Enbridge’s quest to secure a dredge pad site for their work on Morrow Lake. On Monday, the Comstock Township Planning Commission finally gave Enbridge approval, with conditions, for a new site. We don’t know the first thing about the new location and are therefore in no position to comment on its suitability. We are inclined, however, to give the Planning Commission and Comstock Township Supervisor Ann Nieuwenhuis the benefit of the doubt on this one.
In order to secure the site, however, Enbridge evidently decided they needed to bring in the big guns, so they sent Vice President of Operations Rich Adams to speak with some Comstock Township residents the week before the Planning Commission meeting. The circumstances of that meeting (as reported by MLive), and Adams’s comments to the press, struck us as absolutely emblematic of the way Enbridge “communicates” with the public. Let’s see how Adams operates according to the Enbridge communications playbook:
1. Carefully control and manage the setting. One of the first things we ever learned about Enbridge was just how reluctant they are to engage the public when they can’t dictate the precise terms and conditions under which that engagement takes place. VP Mark Sitek more or less conceded as much when he told us they worry about being “ambushed” at public meetings. That fear is also why Enbridge reps once told us they were trying to find “the right person” for us to talk to. And it’s surely why Enbridge spokesperson Graham White fabricated a story about Emily Ferguson as some kind of “combative” “activist” raising cain at a public meeting– because like an elephant cowering before a mouse, Enbridge, despite its overwhelming wealth, power, and influence, seems to live in fear of anyone who might confront them with even the mildest word of criticism.
This need to control the setting in which communication takes place is also surely why, as MLive reports, the “informational session” at Comstock Township was “invite-only.” We suspect that that the invitation only idea was Enbridge’s and that, going into the meeting, they were very careful to make sure that they created a situation that would protect Rich Adams as much as possible from any of those scary angry citizens.
2. Never listen; always condescend and dismiss. We also learned quite early on that Enbridge’s style of communication consists almost entirely of attempts to explain itself, not to listen or solicit feedback or cultivate dialogue or consider other points of view than their own and certainly not to engage in any kind of honest self-reflection. We’ve seen this over and over, both in our conversations with Enbridge reps and in their dealings with various municipalities, particularly with Brandon Township. This tendency is part and parcel with Enbridge’s generally dismissive attitude toward anyone who criticizes them.
Adams applies this principle when he explains what went wrong the last time Enbridge tried (and failed) to secure a dredge pad site. He says, “I think that’s what happened the first time around — in terms of us not getting approval — I don’t think we provided the education.” This is a rather extraordinary account of what happened last time. According to Adams, it’s not that Larry Bell and other Comstock residents had legitimate and reasonable concerns about the other dredge pad site; it’s not that Enbridge tried to circumvent the approval process; it’s not that Enbridge failed to consult with Comstock Township authorities. Adams dismisses (by failing to acknowledge) all of those concerns. By his account, the problem “the first time around” was all because Enbridge just didn’t provide the proper education– which is really just his condescending way of saying that all of those people– Larry Bell, Comstock residents, Township officials– just didn’t (or don’t) understand. We can’t help but wonder: does he really believe that? Which leads us to one final principle of Enbridge communication with the public:
3. When in doubt, dissemble. This one is generally the province of Enbridge’s spokespersons and its marketing team; we’ve noted numerous examples over the past couple of years. But even those at the very top at Enbridge are prone to unfair or distorted characterizations of people and situations. Adams himself tried to peddle a pretty distorted account of the dredge pad situation to the EPA late last year.
So what is Adams saying now? Well, this is what he said at the recent Comstock informational meeting: “We were in a real tight timeline and were trying to push it through a little fast and this time we were kind of afforded the opportunity to do it right and kind of present that information.” That is one way to put it, we suppose, if you don’t want to face the realities of the situation or take responsibility for what brought you to this point. We’re especially fond of the part where he says that Enbridge was “kind of afforded the opportunity to do it right”– as if circumstances, rather than their own actions and decisions, prevented them from doing it right the first time; as if an already broken EPA deadline and an order to keep working is just “an opportunity,” as opposed to a responsibility or an obligation; and as if they’ll only do things right when given the opportunity, not as a matter of routine or regular practice.
On more than one occasion over the past couple of years, Enbridge officials have told us that the Line 6B situation in Michigan is anomalous– presumably meaning that the contention, the poor communication, the acrimony, and the miscues (on their part) are out of the ordinary. Elsewhere and in the past, they would have us believe, Enbridge does not and has not conducted itself the way it has conducted itself here.
Unfortunately, too much evidence suggests otherwise. The latest glaring example of this has to do with Line 9 in Canada. Line 9, you will recall, runs across Ontario to Sarnia (where Line 6B terminates). Enbridge is currently seeking to reverse the flow of that pipeline, raising serious concerns on the part of residents all along that route.
Just this week, a Canadian television program, CTV’s W5, ran a major story on the project, uncovering some troubling facts about the integrity of Line 9, which is 38 years old. (The video is currently unavailable in the U.S., but we’ll link to it once it is viewable); they even came to Michigan to speak with residents here, like our friend David Gallagher. Among other things, the report discovered far more incidents on the line, including at Enbridge facilities, than previously reported publicly.
Most striking to us about the report– and in a follow-up story at the Toronto Star— is the reaction to this news by local officials. Their refrain is one that we and many others all across Michigan have been singing for a very long time: Enbridge does not, despite all of their claims to the contrary, communicate openly, honestly, and straightforwardly. For instance:
Landowners like Walker living along Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline say that when problems arise on the pipelines running through their land they struggle with getting answers and help from the company.
“I didn’t believe that a pipeline or anybody would kind of leave you holding the bag the way that they’ve left me holding the bag on this one,” says Walker.
W5 called the municipalities where these spills occurred and the majority of them were not notified. The Mayor of Sarnia, Mike Bradley, where thousands of litres of product released at an Enbridge terminal, said he wasn’t informed of the nine incidents there since 2006 and believed that regardless of the fact that they were on Enbridge property, he thought the city should be informed.
“If you want to have a good relationship with your community, and you want to get rid of the distrust that is out there for the pipeline industry you disclose everything,” said Bradley.
And in the Toronto Star:
“It’s quite alarming,” said Brian McHattie, a city councillor in Hamilton, where seven leaks over the years have released nearly 3,000 litres of crude oil at company facilities northwest of the city. “This is new information for me.”
McHattie said the information raises concern about what is shared with municipalities. Hamilton staff met regularly with Enbridge officials since the company submitted its application, but none, to McHattie’s knowledge, were ever informed of the spills.
“They just haven’t been very forthcoming with us,” said McHattie. “It just makes you less confident in their integrity as a company and their willingness to share information and be above-board.”
Cramahe Mayor Marc Coombs said he first learned of five spills that together leached 1,824 litres of oil when he was contacted by a W5 reporter.
“We were not notified of any of them,” said Coombs. “It does (raise concerns), from the point of view of transparency.”
Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley said the city isn’t usually notified when spills are contained within facilities and don’t require municipal staff to be involved in containment or cleanup. He said the city hadn’t heard about the nine spills linked with Line 9 facilities in the past decade — but it should.
“It’s just a good practice to notify, and then we can make our own judgment whether we need to do anything further,” said Bradley. “Just tell us. That’s all we want — to know.”
In both reports, Enbridge spokesperson Graham White– he’s the guy who not long ago out-Springered Larry Springer by fabricating a story about one citizen seeking more information about Line 9–is on hand with all of the standard excuses and platitudes. In fact, it appears that he and his team of spin doctors even tried a preemptive strike, sending out a letter to local officials criticizing the report before it had even aired.
Of course, to those of us in Michigan, there’s nothing new about any of this. Enbridge’s failure to communicate honestly with landowners, municipalities, and the public and its desperate attempt to try and solve all of its problems via its vast (and inept) public relations apparatus has been the predominant theme of this blog for a very long time; just see, for example, this and this and this and this. Perhaps Canadians will have more success convincing elected officials and regulators to step up and protect the public than we have in Michigan.
Speaking of the remarkable similarities between the experiences of people along Line 9 and along Line 6B, the latest entry by our Canadian friend Emily Ferguson over at the Line 9 Communities blog is well worth your time. It tells the story of a landowner frustrated by an Enbridge integrity dig. His experience, unfortunately, mirrors the kinds of maddening experiences we have documented here so extensively. Check it out.
This week, we received a corrected– and accurate– 1099 tax form from Enbridge, along with an accompanying letter that says they issued SIX THOUSAND incorrect forms (frankly, we’re shocked that they would admit such a thing). So it appears Line 6B landowners aren’t the only ones affected this latest Enbridge gaffe, though it also appears that they’ve straightened it out. We’re assuming you have also received a corrected form; if not, please let us know. More importantly, you should let Enbridge know.
While we’ve got you, here are a few other quick news items worth noting:
We have some good news to report on the Michigan legislative front– of a minor sort. You might recall that at the end of last month, we had ourselves pretty worked up about some seemingly minor changes proposed by state lawmakers to the Crude Oil and Petroleum Act. The bill that had us most concerned was a companion to another bill that will reduce the oil and gas severance tax in the state. HB 5254, as it was originally introduced, would have changed the word “landowner” to “owner of agricultural property,” thereby eroding the already scant protections afforded to property owners affected by eminent domain. Needless to say, this is for us a rather sensitive topic.
So we wrote to our House Representative Joseph Graves as well as the House Energy and Technology Committee, multiple times to express our concerns. Promisingly, we then saw those concerns expressed in the Committee’s deliberations on the bill. Yet we weren’t certain as to whether those discussions bore any sort of fruit. Then last week we spoke on the phone with Representative Graves, who reported to us the good news that the Committee removed the offending change from HB 5254, leaving its original language intact (here is the bill as passed by the House).
Score one for landowners!
Admittedly, this is an exceedingly small victory, but at the very least it shows that Michigan legislators do recognize the need to protect property owners and are capable of listening to their constituents. We are grateful to Rep. Graves and other members of the committee, Marilyn Lane in particular, for their responsiveness on this question. We also spoke with Rep. Graves about pursuing further discussions regarding the treatment of landowners by Enbridge. If something comes of that– and we plan to follow up– we will of course let you know.
We’re assuming that by now, all Line 6B landowners have received their completely incorrect 1099 tax forms. Since we first mentioned this extraordinary error— strong and disturbing evidence for theory #3 as an explanation for why Enbridge can’t do better— we have heard from a number of you confirming completely mistaken forms. We have also received confirmation from some who were able to contact land agents that Enbridge does plan to re-issue them. Unfortunately, that means we should probably all hold off on filing our taxes. Yep, apparently Enbridge now gets to dictate that part of your life too.
Worst of all? As far as we know, Enbridge has taken NO proactive steps whatsoever to notify landowners of this mistake. How’s that for “doing the right thing,” “taking accountability,” “following through on commitments,” and “treating everyone with unfailing dignity”?
Whatcom Creek, Bellingham, Washington
In better news, we just returned from a trip to Bellingham, Washington, where we attended our first-ever Board of Directors meeting for the Pipeline Safety Trust. We were just recently appointed to the Board and our humbled to get to work with such good and remarkable people. You’ve heard us talk about the PS Trust a lot around here in the past. Our debt to them is truly enormous and we are eager for the opportunity to get to pay that back in some small way by working for and with them and with so many other wonderful people, like our friends in the New Voices project. Michiganders will be especially pleased to know that there are now three of us on the Board: the brilliant environmental law professor Sara Gosman and Michigan’s own hero Beth Wallace are the other two. We’re lucky to be in their company. We will of course keep you updated here on much of the Trust’s important work on behalf of the public interest.
Lastly, as we mentioned a week or so ago, the Michigan CATS activists were convicted and remanded to jail pending sentencing (the remand was completely unnecessary and, in our view, another example of this Judge’s disproportionately churlish and mean-spirited treatment of these three by a Judge oddly prone to chest-thumping displays of his power). At any rate, we want to once again state our support for these three committed individuals and we hope you’ll do the same. They’re receiving support of all kinds from all over the country. To find out what you can do for them, please head over to their website.