We knew it would come to this. MLive is reporting today that Rover is suing landowners in Washtenaw over their right to survey. This is a matter we discussed in some detail months ago.
Rover’s actions here are bad enough: they continue to fail to cultivate good relations with landowners in Michigan. Just as bad, however, is Michigan attorney John DeVries, who seems to want to pretend that there is something unusual here, that landowners who are refusing to grant permission are extremists and outliers:
DeVries said the cases are a rarity in his career of about 40 years working on about 20 pipeline projects.
“This is the first time, on one pipeline project of many that I’ve worked on, where surveyor permission had been denied,” DeVries said.
Frankly, we’re not buying it. Either that or none of those “20 pipeline projects” are projects from the 21st century.
Happy 2015, everyone! We’re sorry we’ve been away for a while. Since before the holidays, we’ve been attending to some life-matters and over the past few weeks, we’ve been getting back into the swing of a particularly busy new semester.
We do have a bit of news to share, however. Interestingly, the always-excellent Dave Hasemyer at Inside Climate News had a new story out last week featuring our friend Dave Gallagher. The story’s focus is on the incompleteness of restoration on the Line 6B replacement, a good companion piece to Rebecca Williams’ excellent Michigan Radio report a couple months back. Unfortunately, Hasemyer’s story doesn’t really take note of the many and varied other lingering issues on the Line 6B project: it’s not just a matter of restoring people’s land: all sorts of other promises that are not dependent upon the growing season– payments for damages, payments for crop loss, those makeup payments, among other things– have yet to be fulfilled also.
The timing of the ICN story is especially interesting because on Wednesday, we spent about an hour and a half meeting with Steve Wuori, Enbridge’s Strategic Advisor to the CEO; Leo Golden, Vice President of Major Projects; and Jason Manshum. The purpose of the meeting was to address matters like the above– as well as Enbridge’s shabby treatment of landowners generally– in the hopes of getting someone, finally, to take some swift and unequivocal corrective action. As so many readers of this blog already know, Enbridge has shown not even the slightest bit of urgency in attending to these things. Instead, they’re still haggling, hassling, foot-dragging, nickle-and-diming, or just plain ignoring landowners and their remaining concerns. For years, Enbridge has been willing to pay $2000 in attorney’s fees to fight against paying a landowner $1000. It’s time this stops.
We said all of this and more to Wuori, Golden, and Manshum. We did our best to explain– calmly, but in detail– that the mistreatment of landowners on the Line 6B project has been unconscionable, widespread, systemic, and continues still after all of this time– more than 3 years for some of us! We did our best to impress upon them that it is well past time for somebody, anybody, to step up and take charge, since the hapless (or just plain uncaring) people who have failed to get the job done to this point cannot be counted on. As one small example of the current state of things, we described an issue with some landowners who are trying to get compensation they were promised for a fence that was promised but never built. But their land agent is haggling with them over a paltry sum, stalling, and evading. What we said to Wuori is this: “Why not just write the damn check and be done with it? Why continue to torture these people, to frustrate them, to make enemies of them? Just write the damn check.” If Enbridge really wants to begin to try and repair the relationships they’ve damaged, they need to just write the damn checks.
That statement goes for just about everything. People have written agreements stipulating payments for crop loss: just write the damn checks. People have legal agreements for replacement trees: just get them the damn trees. People have unfixed damages to their homes and properties: just fix or pay for the damn damages. Many of these things can be resolved now, immediately, so that everybody can just move on.
The (possibly?) good news is that Wuori, Golden, and Manshum listened very attentively, took notes, and asked questions. At no point did they engage in excuse-making, “explaining,” or justifying of any kind. Frankly, this was a completely new experience for us in our dealings with Enbridge– and a refreshing one. Of course, based on past experience, we have every reason to be skeptical about the assurances we were given. But if we’re being honest– and that’s always been our policy here at this blog– it was probably the best interaction with Enbridge representatives we’ve ever had. For that reason we have some reason for (cautious) hope. For the first time we felt as if we were talking to people who were willing to concede (and they did) that they have failed to live up to their rhetoric and their corporate values and willing to take steps to make things right. We are very grateful they took the time to hear us out.
Most importantly, Wuori and Golden said they were going to get on this; we even received a follow-up email re-stating that pledge. For our part, we vowed to hold them to it– and offered to help in whatever way we can. So if you’re a Line 6B landowner with some outstanding issues or unfulfilled promises, let us know and we’ll be happy to pass them along.
Well, we were able to attend last night’s after all– though we’re not sure it was worth our time. Surprisingly, ET Rover representatives did show up– almost a whole six-pack of them! And they wound up doing most, nearly all, of the talking, though not very satisfactorily. What they said was boilerplate, nothing much new and certainly nothing that couldn’t be learned from other sources, including their website. Honestly, we thought their appearance was mainly perfunctory, evidenced most glaringly by the fact that they couldn’t be bothered to stay one single second past 7:30. Maybe they had a plane to catch or something. But one would think that if they were really serious about honest and open dialogue as they claim to be, that they would be willing to take as much time as necessary to address the questions and concerns of all the people who came to looking for answers.
ET Rover representatives
The press was there as well and a few news stories have been posted (and here and here). But the best account of the meeting we’ve seen comes from a friend of ours, attorney Kim Savage, whose impressions of the meeting are devastatingly accurate. Kim graciously agreed to let us post her comments here. So we’ll just shut up and turn it over to her:
by Kimberly Savage, Savage Law PLC
My thoughts on Rep. Graves’ Town Hall with Energy Transfer Partners, in a nutshell: It could have been a really good thing – a real opportunity to engage and connect with landowners – but it just plain wasn’t. Instead, it was frustrating to sit through, and part of me regrets that I made the drive.
Notwithstanding, I commend Rep. Graves and his staff for this attempt, and I’m glad they were able to bring the ET Rover folks to the table, truly I am. But, I am extremely disappointed that bringing ET Rover to the table seems to have come at a such a price. The bottom line: I think Rep. Graves, intentionally or not, sold out his constituents in order to get ET Rover to attend this meeting. In so doing, he underestimated the intelligence of his constituents – who know by now that the sort of “we will work with you” responses they received tonight are nothing more that pure BS, designed to lull landowners into signing easements. After all, as a state, we’ve lived through the Enbridge disaster and the subsequent “replacement” project, and we’ve heard the exact same things before, more times than we can count.
Here’s my take on the whole thing tonight: ET Rover was given all the time it wanted to sugar-coat the plain and simple fact that it is seeking to permanently take private land for a song and for purely corporate profit, and it was given a stage to try to put a different spin on that and to convince all of us that this project does in fact benefit us as Michiganians.
On the contrary, the ET Rover guy seemed to admit that our distribution utilities are not currently considered “customers” of the proposed project. If I heard him right, even though approximately 18% of the production of the Utica and Marcellus shale might flow through Michigan on its way to Canada, no Michigan utility has indicated a desire to purchase that gas. Instead, I think he admitted that it’s all going to Canada, after Defiance, OH. In fact, I think I heard him advise us to urge our local utilities to contact them, implying that they had not yet done that.
To me, it seemed that Rep. Graves’ office likely promised (in order to get the ET Rover people to come) that the “town hall” would not “degenerate” into a real public forum, where hard questions would be asked and the pipeline company’s answers considered. Rep. Graves’ staff person, whoever that guy was, protected the ET Rover spokesperson throughout the way-too-short meeting. He shut down every landowner attempt to ask the questions that so obviously mattered to landowners, and then, as moderator, he picked through the submitted questions, and only lofted the softballs. In short, he didn’t select a single question that addressed landowners’ rights, and I left feeling like I was misled by the announcement that “Rep. Graves is holding a public forum to explain landowners’ rights.”
I am undoubtedly biased, but it seemed to me that landowners were much more interested in learning about their rights as landowners, to either oppose this project altogether, or to have a real voice as to where it is sited, or to negotiate more favorable easement terms or compensation. It seemed to me (based on the shouted, but unanswered questions) that landowners were substantially concerned about the fact that Energy Transfer Partners will likely be granted the right to condemn their land for, let’s be honest here, private corporate profit. But as it was, “Mr. Staff Person” did not ask a single question about condemnation, at least as I recall. I am also admittedly cynical, but this does not seem coincidental. In fact, I submitted several questions personally on this topic, and none of my questions were selected to pose to the ET Rover spokesperson.
Regarding missed opportunities, ET Rover staff could have elected to stay and engage with impacted landowners. Imagine what it would have been like to have your concerns heard and noted. Had ET Rover stayed longer (and responded to all questions, not just the softballs), chances are they would have found a way through these landowners’ lands.
But, as with all early-on meetings with Enbridge, I was left with the sinking feeling that landowners (a characteristically non-litigious bunch) are truly are on their own when confronted with these projects. The MPSC admitted outright tonight that it really plays no role in projects like the ET Rover project. You should read that as, “we won’t be there when all the rosy promises fall flat”– for example, “we will restore your land to the same or better condition as existed prior to construction.” Heck, the MPSC wasn’t even there for landowners on Enbridge’s (supposedly) intrastate Line 6B project, when a long list of promises were ultimately broken. Nor will FERC be there when the time comes, I suspect. They didn’t even bother to show up tonight.
Once again, if they have any hope for relief, landowners will be forced into the ridiculously uncomfortable position of having to file lawsuits to receive only what they’re entitled to under the law, against a proverbial Goliath. To be crude, if experience holds, most landowners will simply bend over rather than file suit against such an intimidating enemy. The current system is not fair, nor does it do much at all to make landowners whole.
As my client and friend Carol said tonight, we need to change the laws. REPEAT, WE NEED TO CHANGE THE LAWS. In the meantime, we need to challenge this private corporation, and not be lulled into complacency, as our regulators and legislatures seem to have been.
Today in the comments section of one of our posts, a reader reports that ET Rover is or will soon begin making cash offers to landowners to acquire easements from them. We cannot verify this. But it’s not at all hard to believe. Pipeline companies acquire easement rights well before projects are approved all the time. In fact, it serves the pipeline companies quite well because– among other things– it lets them say to regulatory agencies that landowners approve of the project. Just look at how many easements we’ve already acquired!
It’s also a way for pipeline companies to take advantage of landowners, who may not really know what they are getting into. And let’s be honest, when someone says pleasing-sounding things to you and waves a check in front of your face, it’s awfully tempting. But this is why it is so very important that landowners inform themselves. To help with that education process, we recently posted some “basics” that landowners need to know about ET Rover along with some links to valuable resources. Please visit that post and those links. In it, we also provided some advice, based on experience, that we’re going to reproduce below.
We’ll just preface this advice by saying that land agents can sound persuasive. They can even be likable. You will want to believe them. But you really shouldn’t. The truth is that you simply cannot trust them. Their job is just to get you to sign an easement. Despite what they will tell you, they don’t really care very much about you or your property or your concerns– none of that is what gets them paid. Therefore, you should be very skeptical of everything they tell you, especially as it relates to time. There is NO rush for anyone to sign any agreements. ET Rover has not even filed an application with FERC yet. Approval, if the project is approved, is probably two years away. Even if you believe the project will ultimately be approved, it is important to understand that there is NO advantage to signing early. In fact, the opposite might very well be the case. Do NOT be pressured into entering into an easement agreement until you have a full command of the facts and implications of that agreement and are completely and totally certain that you are not being taken advantage of in any way. We beg you!
That said, here is the substance of our advice from the earlier post:
- Don’t trust land agents. We’re sure some of them are honest and professional. And many of them are perfectly pleasant people. But their interests are NOT your interests. Their job is to tell you pleasing things. But those pleasing things often do not correspond to reality. Be skeptical. Protect yourself.
- Understand eminent domain. They can’t (and don’t want to) take your house or your whole property. They only want to access a portion of it. If they do get that easement, they do not own that part of your property. You do. There are restrictions on what they (and you) can do with that portion of your property.
- Money isn’t everything. A certain monetary offer for easement rights might sound appealing. But keep in mind that there are many, many more things that come with the installation of a pipeline on your property. The stress, strain, disruption, destruction of your property, and potential accidents might well make whatever dollar amount you are eventually offered seem not so great in retrospect.
- Lastly, if it does come down to negotiating an easement (though again, this is probably two years away), consult an attorney with experience in this area. There are dozens of things that the ordinary landowner would never think of that could be a potential problem. Just ramble through our archives (like these posts) and you’ll see what we mean.
Enbridge is up to some dirty tricks.
Before we explain, we need to share something positive. A few months back, we had some fairly serious problems on our property related to pipeline construction that needed to be addressed. After more phone calls and emails than should have been necessary, we finally touched base with our land agent, who took up our concerns, called in the restoration contractors to see what could be done to resolve our problems, and followed through on resolving the issues. Because of those contractors in particular, it turned out to be one of the best, if not the best, experiences we’ve had with Enbridge since this project began.
That new restoration contractor is Bowman’s Excavating. A while ago, we’d heard some good things about Bowman’s from some of our fellow landowners. We’re glad to report that we, too, think they’re doing excellent work and that, unlike Enbridge’s previous contractors– careless outfits from Wisconsin and Idaho–we believe that the crew at Bowman’s genuinely wants to do right by landowners and therefore treats them with respect and works hard to makes sure they’re well taken care of. We’re sure such care and responsiveness has a lot to do with the fact that Bowman’s is a local company. And unlike Enbridge, the good people from Bowman’s really are our neighbors. Honestly, based on our dealings with Bowman’s, we can’t say enough good things about them.
The sad part, however, is that they may be stretched a little thin, since they’ve been tasked with RE-DOING pretty much ALL of the restoration work along Phase One– because the “work” done by Enbridge’s first contractor was so bad, so shoddy, and so terribly sloppy. Because Enbridge hired such thoughtless, hurried contractors the first time around and allowed them to get away with a bunch of half-assed work, Enbridge is now paying a new contractor to do it all over again. How’s that for efficiency and good business? We’ve heard tales that those other crews are still around working on Phase Two, though we’re not certain. But we will offer this bit of advice for Phase Two landowners: if you see trucks from Indianhead Pipeline (they’re from Wisconsin) or Blue Sky Construction (from Idaho) in your area, contact your land agent and tell him or her that you’d rather have Bowman’s doing restoration on your property.
Now to our main point: while this latest interaction was for us, on the whole, a very positive one, it was very nearly spoiled when our land agent asked us to sign a document releasing Enbridge from further restoration obligations as a precondition to settling our outstanding problems. We had heard some stories that Enbridge was pulling this trick with other landowners. So we weren’t altogether surprised. But we were taken aback, particularly since the problems we were settling had nothing to do with restoration; they were about damages to our property. For that reason, the demand that we sign off on restoration sounded to us like some kind of extortion tactic, an attempt to strong-arm us into releasing Enbridge from further obligation– and that’s exactly how we responded at the time. Fortunately, the agents backtracked before we really blew our stack. And while we have great confidence that Bowman’s has done a great job restoring our property, we have not signed off on restoration nor are we under any kind of obligation to do so–now or ever. Neither is any other landowner, despite what a land agent may tell you. You may choose to sign one of those waivers, but you do NOT have to.
But here’s the bigger problem: we know that Enbridge has been employing this tactic with lots of other landowners as well: withholding restitution owed for damages and other things (like those makeup payments) until landowners agree to sign off on restoration. We think almost anyone would agree that this is wrong, unfair, unethical, and certainly unneighborly. We can’t help but wonder if Enbridge’s senior executives know about this or whether it’s some scheme cooked up by the land services department. More importantly, we can’t help but wonder whether this coercive little ploy is even legal. Perhaps some of our readers from the law firm of Fraser Trebilcock Davis & Dunlap can look into that question and let us know. In the meantime, we’re going to see if any of the journalists we know can find that out. We’re also going to ask the Consumer Protection Division of the Michigan Attorney General’s office what they think about it.
We’ll let you know what we learn. In the meantime, we would recommend that you not allow Enbridge to pressure you into signing any documents releasing them from further restoration obligations if you do not feel completely, totally, 100% comfortable doing so. Enbridge has a legal obligation to restore your property to pre-construction condition and to compensate you for damages incurred during construction– and that obligation is NOT contingent upon you signing any documents whatsoever. Don’t let your land agent tell you otherwise. But don’t just take our word for it. If you’re not sure what to do, contact an attorney.
As we’ve said many times before, Enbridge just can’t seem to get even the simplest things right. Yesterday, we received our 1099 tax from from Enbridge– a form that was supposed to have been issued by Jan. 31st– only to find that the number reported on the form was wrong. Completely wrong. In fact, the number entered on the form appears to be completely random. We are receiving reports that other landowners also received incorrect forms.
Needless to say, this is a ridiculous situation. Enbridge’s handling of tax reporting is already a problem, since the way they report landowner payments does not distinguish between the portion that is taxable (the pipeline receipt and payment for temporary workspace) from the non-taxable portion (compensation for damages). Landowners are left to sort all of this out for themselves. And now, to make matters worse, Enbridge appears to have problems figuring out what they paid to whom. We’d like to know how this sort of mistake happens– bad land agent bookkeeping?
Whatever the case, please pay careful attention to the forms you receive. Enbridge is aware of the problem, but it looks like they’re not going to proactively contact landowners to alert them (big surprise!). We have been told that Enbridge will reissue inaccurate 1099 forms, but we can’t say for sure. If and when we learn more, we’ll let you know. In the meantime, please share this post with your neighbors. And if you want more information, call the number listed on your 1099.
Yet again, Enbridge appears to go out of its way to make things as difficult as possible for Line 6B landowners. It never ends.