About that Pipeline Secrecy Bill…

About that Pipeline Secrecy Bill…

We hope everyone is enjoying the summer. We certainly are, which is why we’ve been (more than) a little neglectful of the blog of late. We hope you’ll forgive us!

Readers of this blog are probably aware of a certain anniversary that’s coming up in a couple of weeks. We’ll be remembering also. If you’re in the area, you should try to make the event.

And while you’re pondering that dark part of Michigan’s history, you might take a moment to think about how we can prevent such a thing from happening ever again. That’s a heavy task, but we can tell you one thing that won’t help: less transparency from pipeline companies.

We’re reminded of this because of a baffling recent post from our friends up at the Canadian Association of Energy and Pipeline Landowner Associations (CAEPLA). Thanks to the dedication and hard work of their founder Dave Core, they’ve been helping landowners along pipelines and protecting property rights in Canada for a long time and have done tons of good. We appreciate their efforts tremendously and respect the model they have developed, which is quite interesting.

But earlier this month, they waded into matters down here in Michigan and quickly got themselves in way over their heads. The result is a whole lot of misinformation, shoddy argumentation, and factual inaccuracies. We’re disappointed and sorry to see it. But since they’re taking issue with us specifically– well, they try to take issue with us, but they clearly don’t understand the issue or our position– we think it’s only appropriate to respond.

Honestly, there’s so much wrong with CAEPLA’s take on the proposed changes to Michigan’s FOIA laws— what we’ve been calling the Enbridge Secrecy Bill– that we hardly know where to begin. CAEPLA’s argument is convoluted and, frankly, a little bizarre. And if we didn’t know better, we’d think it was cooked up by pipeline companies themselves. In a nutshell, CAEPLA’s position is this: demanding disclosure of pipeline companies’ proprietary information is ultimately a threat to the protection of individual landowner’s personal or private information.

Now, this is both completely nonsensical and completely irrelevant to the debate at hand (over HB 4540). We explain why below. But first we want to say that virtually every sentence of the post contains something objectionable– if not just plain wrong. For that reason, we’re tempted to dissect it sentence by sentence. But that would probably make for tedious reading and this is going to be long enough as it is. So we’ll just point out three big problems:

1. CAEPLA is needlessly snarky

We’re not sure why, but CAEPLA adopts an unnecessarily snide tone, complete with industry-like caricatures and straw-man arguments. Here’s how they begin:

House Bill 4540 is being depicted as a threat to the public because it would make it more difficult for those who “are concerned about” (read: oppose) pipelines to access companies’ “secret” information.

Now, since CAEPLA takes as its example of the bill’s critics this post of ours, one might reasonably think that the quoted phrase “are concerned about” is something we wrote. But it’s not. We don’t know who are what they’re quoting. The quote seems made up so that CAEPLA can engage in that little bit of parenthetical snark, taking a shot at people who oppose pipelines. What that has to do with Michigan’s HB 4540 we have no idea. Nor do we know what pipeline CAEPLA might be referring to; evidently they just want to conjure up some phantom image of a person who opposes all pipelines. Frankly, we’re surprised by this. It’s the same tired line we’ve heard from the industry time and again. It’s disingenuous and lazy. We’ve responded to it on numerous occasions. The fact is that sometimes, for good reasons, we oppose pipelines; sometimes we don’t.

Here’s a second example of how CAEPLA paints a distorted picture of opponents of HB 4540:

Opponents of the exemption for pipeline companies argue that FOI laws are the only way to protect stakeholders – including landowners – from the growing risks associated with aging pipelines, and from the allegedly more dangerous contents coursing through them.

Again, this is nonsense. We don’t know anybody who has ever said FOIA “laws are the only way to protect stakeholders” from pipeline risks. That would be a foolish thing to argue– which is why nobody is arguing it. Opponents of HB 4540, including ourselves, have advocated many ways to protect against the risk of more pipeline incidents. Transparency is just one piece of a very complicated puzzle.

2. CAEPLA thinks apples are oranges

As we said above, the heart of CAEPLA’s argument is that HB 4540 is essentially a privacy issue. For instance, they say:

The word secret is really just another more ominous way of saying private. As in private property.  The private property of pipeline company shareholders, which of course includes proprietary information.

The word secret is not another way of saying private; it’s a way of saying undisclosed. We have no idea why CAEPLA would try to smuggle the word “private” into this discussion. Presumably, it’s meant to push all sorts of buttons, since we all know that privacy is sacrosanct. You don’t want your privacy invaded, do you? That’s actually the line that CAEPLA takes. We’re not kidding. They say so very explicitly:

Threat to Pipeline Privacy is a Threat to Your Privacy

Now that’s just plain weird. In fact, there is no way whatsoever in which this statement is true. It violates about four different logical fallacies, maybe more. Aside from its implied slippery slope (ask the pipelines to reveal their emergency response program and pretty soon you’ll be forced to reveal what goes on in your bedroom!), it conflates things that are actually quite distinct. First, it conflates the ostensible “privacy” of pipeline companies with your personal privacy. But that’s just plain false. Corporations do not have rights to personal privacy like you do. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court just recently made that very clear. Secondly, CAEPLA conflates property rights with privacy rights. But those things, too, are very different. We don’t want to bore you, but we hope you’ll trust us when we tell you that, historically, the whole idea of a right to privacy depended upon distinguishing it from the right to property (in fact, that little bit of history is sort of a thing for us). Thirdly, it conflates pipeline companies’ proprietary information with the public records they are required to submit to state and federal governments. Those things, too, are distinct. It’s the latter that are covered by FOIA laws. The former is irrelevant.

So to sum up: property is not privacy. A corporation’s proprietary information has nothing whatsoever to do with your right to privacy. Nothing. In the same way, Michigan’s FOIA laws (especially as rewritten by HB 4540) have nothing whatsoever to do with your “personal and business documents.” There is simply no way to get from the one to the other. They’re apples and oranges. CAEPLA’s attempt to force the one on the other is at best confused and at worst a cheap ploy designed to scare you. One might even call it–to borrow a term CAEPLA applies to us– “alarmist.” In fact, if you want an example of alarmism, you really couldn’t do better than this:

But the power of government to pry open a privately owned pipeline company’s proprietary information is the same power to pry open any business’s private affairs and property, including yours.

That sounds bad, frightening even. The problem is that the government here is not prying open any company’s proprietary information. Nor is it prying open any individual’s “private affairs and property.” CAEPLA is just making this up.**

3. Which brings us to our final point: CAEPLA doesn’t understand anything at all about HB 4540 or, it appears, FOIA laws generally.

What we’re talking about here– what Michigan’s HB 4540 is about, what FOIA laws are always about– is access to public records, not to proprietary information. Opponents of HB 4540 aren’t seeking to “pry open” anything. They’re seeking to prevent pipeline companies from concealing even more information (that is, public information, such as documents submitted to government agencies) than they already do. This is CAEPLA’s biggest mistake. They appear not to understand the first thing about what HB 4540 says or why people like us think it is a very bad bill. Instead, they mischaracterize the whole debate over the bill as some attempt on the part of “opponents” to gain access to so-called “private” things they don’t already have access to, to try and “snoop” on the pipeline companies. That’s just plain silly. The debate over HB 4540 has nothing to do with “expropriat[ing] a private enterprise’s informational property.” CAEPLA is making that up, too.

Let us be extra clear on this point: nobody– NOBODY– is suggesting that pipeline companies don’t have the right (the property right) to keep certain kinds of information from the public, whether for proprietary or for security reasons. In fact, as we make very clear in the post that CAEPLA links to (which they apparently either didn’t read or didn’t comprehend), both federal and state laws already provide exemptions for that sort of information. We don’t have a problem with that.

The reason that HB 4540 is objectionable is because it goes far beyond those existing rules and laws. It would potentially allow pipeline companies to reveal even less than they reveal now. In fact, the bill’s language is so vague that it could allow pipeline companies to exempt almost anything from disclosure. And we’re not talking here about trade secrets or the emails that Enbridge executives send to their spouses, we’re talking (it bears repeating) about public records, things like emergency response procedures, the results of internal corrosion inspections, and integrity management systems– the kinds of things that would allow the public to participate in safety accountability.

To once again put this more simply: CAEPLA would have you believe that opponents of HB 4540 have embarked upon some kind of invasive endeavor to gain access to (so-called “private’) information they can’t currently access. We’re not sure if CAEPLA seriously believes that or if they are deliberately distorting the situation. Nor are we sure what CAEPLA has to gain by distorting the debate. But whatever the case, the truth is that what we really oppose is a bill that would prevent the public from gaining access to public information.

Honestly, we have no idea why CAEPLA has suddenly decided to carry water for the industry (and Enbridge in particular). Nor do we know why they suddenly decided to weigh in on matters about which they clearly don’t have even the most basic understanding. We hope they continue their good work, advocating on behalf of landowners. We applaud those efforts; we always have. But we also suggest that they might want to do a little more homework or take a little more care before weighing in on matters beyond their immediate purview.

** Even if CAEPLA’s fictional scenario were real (which it is not), here is a clear example of just how far-fetched and ill-informed it is. These are two of the existing exemptions from disclosure in Michigan’s FOIA law specifically designed to protect privacy:

“(a) Information of a personal nature if public disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy.”

“(b) (iii) [Law enforcement records that would] Constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

“I’ve had a lot of promises from Enbridge…”

“I’ve had a lot of promises from Enbridge…”

A couple of weeks ago, you may recall that Enbridge announced, rather triumphantly, that they’re done with Phase Two (the final phase) of the Line 6B replacement. At the time, we pointed out that while they may be finished with the only part of the project that really matters to them– getting oil flowing through the pipe– the project is far from finished as far as landowners are concerned. In fact, a great many landowners on Phase One are STILL waiting for restoration to be completed. And they’ve been waiting a very long time.

The fact is, if Enbridge cared even half as much about the lives and properties of landowners as they do about their profits, they would have treated landowner concerns from the start with the same sense of urgency with which they treated their pipeline installation. But restoration and “making landowners whole” has always been, at best, an afterthought.

This morning, we’re pleased to say that someone is finally paying attention to this sad fact. The always-excellent Rebecca Williams at Michigan Radio’s Environment Report has the story.

“These Guys Have Treated Us Terrible”

“These Guys Have Treated Us Terrible”

Just how many landowners along Line 6B are displeased? There’s no way to know, despite Enbridge’s dissembling. A better question is how many unhappy landowners does Enbridge think is acceptable? We’ve talked to dozens. A number of them have told their stories here. How many others have chosen to simply suffer and stew silently (and perhaps helplessly)?

We raise these questions (again) because we happened to have occasion to speak with a Phase One landowner this afternoon that we don’t really know. We listened to him speak for a good 15 minutes about the awful experience he’s had with Enbridge, an experience that is still not over. (For the record, we did not bring the subject up.) At present, like so many others, he’s waiting and wondering to hear from Enbridge about any number of unsettled matters on his property. The takeaway from his 3-plus year experience with Enbridge: “These guys have treated us terrible,” he said.

As we’ve said before, for every unhappy landowner we know about who is frustrated with and angry at Enbridge, there are surely 5 more whom we have never met, who have never spoken a word publicly. This makes it awfully hard to believe Enbridge when they say they value landowner relationships.

Breaking News of the Weird: Human Skull Discovered

It may well be that various kinds of accidents are bound to happen on a pipeline project. But here’s something probably nobody expected: according to reports, Enbridge construction crews have discovered a human skull in Porter County in Indiana. The area has now been declared a crime scene. It’s not clear whether or for how long the discovery of this grisly memento mori might delay construction.


How Low Can Enbridge Go?

How Low Can Enbridge Go?

Remember that time Enbridge spokesperson Larry Springer, in a ham-fisted attempt to dismiss legitimate questions about Enbridge’s practices, described landowners and other ordinary citizens expressing perfectly reasonable concerns as “special interest groups”? That remark had us so worked up that we devoted a whole series to it (part 2, part 3, part 4). The reason we spent so much time on it– and the reason we return to it every now and then– is because it is so emblematic of the way that Enbridge views landowners, responds to criticism, and communicates with the public. Dishonest,  misleading, and offensive, Springer’s remark also appears to be deeply rooted in Enbridge’s corporate culture, and is part of a strategy (perhaps?) pioneered, but certainly deployed by Enbridge’s former CEO Patrick Daniel.

Well, Larry Springer can finally rest easy. He has at last been outdone. Meet Graham White.

If you’re paying attention to matters up in Canada– Northern Gateway, the Line 9 reversal– you may have encountered Graham White before. He’s one of Enbridge’s chief spokespersons up there (his official title has something to do with business communications and public affairs or something). He gets quoted a lot, much like Jason Manshum here in Michigan. So what is it that Graham White said that surpasses Larry Springer’s now-classically-infamous “special interest groups” comment? Well, let’s take a look:

This week, The Toronto Star ran a fantastic feature called “All Along the Pipeline,” that highlights the Line 9 reversal project and profiles a number of people, as they put it, “whose lives it passes.” It’s a really wonderful piece of journalism by The Star’s Jessica McDiarmid that nicely balances policy and humanity. We wish some reporter in Michigan (about a year ago!) would do the same for Line 6B (yet another opportunity for Jennifer Bowman!). We encourage everyone to read it.

Among those profiled is our friend Emily Ferguson, who maintains the excellent Line 9 Communities blog. The story explains Emily’s first experience with Enbridge:

Then a McMaster University student in geography and environmental studies, Ferguson went to several more. In Halton region, she asked Enbridge for an information package that had been provided to council, which included maps of Line 9’s passage through the area.

Ferguson says a company official asked her who she was working for, then agreed to send a copy — if she showed her driver’s license.

And that’s when Graham White enters the story:

Enbridge offers a different version of events: company spokesperson Graham White says “after an abrupt and confrontational approach from Ms. Ferguson,” an employee asked her who she was but did not request identification.

“We provide our information freely, there is no reason someone would have to show ID,” says White, who characterized Ferguson as “a stringent opponent of the project and an activist.”

There is so much that is wrong and deeply disturbing about this that we hardly know where to begin. But let’s start with the obvious:

Does Graham White really have any idea what Emily Ferguson’s demeanor was at an informational meeting that took place nearly a year ago? Has Graham White ever once met or spoken to Emily Ferguson, anywhere? Was he at that informational meeting to witness her conduct himself? Does he possess such a preternatural memory that he is able to recall every person who comes to every meeting that Enbridge holds all across Canada? Or does Enbridge keep some secret list of “abrupt and confrontational” people that they post somewhere on an internal server, a list that spokespersons are required to memorize so that they can instantly, on command, bring to mind the identities and actions of each and every individual on the list? Or would Graham White somehow have us believe that young Emily Ferguson, college student, was just so extremely abrupt, so extraordinarily confrontational that this incident became a permanent part of Enbridge Line 9 reversal project lore, inscribed indelibly into everyone’s memory, like the moon landing? Or could it be that Graham White is just making things up?

Or, let’s just say for the sake of argument (though we don’t believe it for a second) that Emily was “abrupt and confrontational” that day. What, then, would Graham White’s point be? That those who do not conduct themselves at informational meetings with appropriate deference are asked to identify themselves? Who makes that call and what exactly are the rules of propriety at these meetings? Are they explained before hand? Do you just have to be polite or is some particular form of obsequiousness required? Do you have to genuflect or will a simple curtsy do? Are citizens allowed to make direct eye contact with Enbridge representatives or would that be seen as too confrontational?

If those questions seem absurd, as they should, it’s to point out the absurdity of White’s attempt to mischaracterize Emily’s behavior. There is no good reason for Graham White to describe her as “abrupt and confrontational” other than a desire to cast her, needlessly and gratuitously, in a negative light. That’s clearly what he’s doing. It’s a ploy straight out of the Daniel-Springer playbook: if you can portray your critics in an unflattering way– as “special interest groups” or people who are “abrupt and confrontational”– it’s much easier to dismiss them. White does it again when he describes Emily as a “stringent opponent of the project and an activist.” What is the point of that characterization? Why does Graham White go out of his way to describe Emily in this way? Indeed, why does Graham White feel the need to characterize Emily at all? Again, the answer to that is simple: he thinks that calling her an “activist” is automatically to discredit her– in precisely the same way that Larry Springer thinks that calling people “special interest groups” automatically discredits them. It’s a cheap trick, shabby and lazy.

But if what we have here is just another specimen of what we’ve seen from other Enbridge reps, why dwell on Graham White’s snide comments? What makes White’s remarks so much worse than Larry Springer’s? Well, when Springer made his remarks, he was referring (to the extent that he was referring to anyone real, as opposed to the phantoms conjured by his own corporation’s distorted imagination) to a group of people. Springer might even say he was referring generally to everyone who has ever been critical of Enbridge in Michigan since 2010; heaven knows plenty of people have been, some of them even genuine “special interest groups.” So at least Springer has an out– not a very good one, but an out nevertheless. 

Graham White, on the other hand? He is talking specifically about one single individual, one ordinary Canadian citizen. And while we are personally mighty impressed with young Emily Ferguson, who seems to us quite formidable, exceedingly smart, talented, enterprising, and with a very bright future ahead of her, it’s not as if she is, say, Neil Young.

By contrast, when Graham White speaks, he is speaking as and for one of the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful corporations in Canada, in all of North America, in fact. Yet despite all of its wealth and power and influence, it is also, evidently, a corporation that is so petty, so thin-skinned, so defensive, so stung by even the mildest of criticisms, so unwilling to take responsibility for even the slightest of missteps, so utterly lacking in grace and humility, so stubborn, so ungenerous, and so mean-spirited that it is willing, on the basis of almost nothing, to publicly disparage a single individual for nothing more than saying what happened when she attended a meeting?

That, friends, is just plain crazy.

[Okay. Believe it or not, we’ve got even more to say about this. But since it’s already gotten a bit longer than we planned, we’ll save it for a follow-up post. Congratulations, Graham White! You’ve earned your very own series!]

News of the Weird, part 4

News of the Weird, part 4

A long time ago, we started a series of “weird” Line 6B news items. Honestly, we kind of forgot about it. But an odd report from the Times of Northwest Indiana has given us reason to revive the series:

Apparently, a bunch of construction workers got into something of a scuffle on Monday. The reasons for the altercation aren’t altogether clear, though it appears to have something to do with layoffs. However, because we have heard so many strange, somewhat troubling stories–  ultimately unverifiable (which is why we’ve never written about them)–  about Precision Pipelines, we can’t help but wonder what else might be going on. We have no idea, of course, but it would be interesting to get to the bottom of this.

We do know this, though: we don’t like seeing unhappy workers any more than we like seeing unhappy landowners. In fact, in our view, the labor practices on this project is one of its biggest un-covered and unwritten stories (a whole series of them, we suspect). If we had more time and an investigative team, we’d be all over it. Perhaps a young, hungry, enterprising, creative, hardworking journalist wants to take on that job (yeah, we’re looking at you Jennifer Bowman).