We’ve been thinking a bit about regulatory matters today— and oh! have we got a lot to learn–as we try to get to the bottom of Enbridge’s seemingly unverifiable claim that certain features of the new Line 6B exceed certain federal regulations (which features and which regulations? Enbridge prefers not to say…).
But this put us in mind of some things we heard and learned at the Pipeline Safety Trust conference earlier this month. As we’ve said before, we spent much of that conference being reminded of how much we don’t know about so many things. We also learned, in a couple of instances, that we’re a little naive. For example, the Friday morning keynote address at the conference was delivered by Cynthia Quarterman, chief Administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the federal regulatory agency responsible for oil pipeline safety and oversight. As it turned out, that morning we were sitting with our friends Beth Wallace and Robert Whitesides, who mentioned to us in passing that Ms. Quarterman, prior to her appointment to PHMSA, worked for a Washington D.C. law firm and represented oil industry companies including– are you ready?– Enbridge. We did not know this. Which, to be honest, made us feel a little silly.
But back in 2010–when we were nothing more than a gleam in the eyes of our pipeline safety parents– Quarterman, not surprisingly, found herself on the business end of a lot of sharp criticism after the Marshall spill for her ties to Enbridge. In fact, she recused herself from all Enbridge-related matters, no easy task when Enbridge-related matters were among the most urgent matters with which her agency had to deal. Needless to say, such an intimate relationship between industry and regulatory officials does not engender a lot of confidence, especially in this particular case: you’ll recall that the NTSB report on Marshall is every bit as critical of PHMSA and its “inadequate regulatory requirements” (among other things) as it is of Enbridge and its particular failings and failures.
All of this may well place in context (for us, anyway) one of the more head-scratching, perhaps even inflammatory, remarks of the conference. In a “briefing” on PHMSA’s current activities, another PHMSA official, associate administrator Jeff Wiese, cited the following as two of the “environmental” challenges facing his agency:
- Terribly under-informed populace highly dependent on a fossil fuel fed, overly lean, energy supply chain
- Growing public intolerance to risk – but highly rate sensitive
It’s safe to say that this didn’t sit that well with the citizen advocates at the conference. In fact, for a listener disinclined to give Mr. Wiese some benefit of the doubt (we’re on the fence about this), one might easily see this as an expression of some contempt for the public– ignorant, mindlessly addicted to fossil fuels, and cheap. If we’re being honest, it reminds us a bit of the sort of contemptuous attitude toward ordinary landowners we’ve seen on more than one occasion from Enbridge representatives: Joe Martucci, for instance, at a Groveland Township meeting shifting in his seat impatiently and sighing as landowners express reasonable concerns, then reminding us all (again) that cars use oil.
Wiese’s remarks are also reminiscent of Enbridge insofar as they appear to shift a portion of the blame for his organization’s failures on to others. In fact, we thought much of Wiese’s presentation demonstrated the same tendency we’ve seen from Enbridge to avert its gaze when shown a mirror. Or perhaps we’re just a bit too sensitive on the point: judge for yourself.
As we said at the beginning, we’re still learning when it comes to these regulatory matters. And we don’t know that much about either Cynthia Quarterman or Jeff Wiese, so we don’t want to be unfair. But it doesn’t inspire much hope to learn that the two organizations most responsible for the disaster in Marshall (Enbridge and PHMSA)– the two organizations we all have to rely on to ensure there won’t be another Marshall– have such a close relationship. Nor does it help when they appear to exhibit the same troubling set of attributes.
We kicked off our series of reports on last week’s Pipeline Safety Trust conference in New Orleans by describing some of the response from attendees to our presentation (if you haven’t seen it yet, you can still watch it here). In that report, we described Enbridge’s odd (but ultimately not surprising) snubbing of us. We’ve been mulling this over and can’t quite decide if it’s because we are simply insignificant to them (this is likely; we have no illusions about our importance) or because we’ve become a slight menace to them (probably less likely) or because they really just don’t want to hear from any of their critics (in our view, by far the most likely option).
One reason we think the last explanation is the most likely is because we learned at the conference that other companies do want to hear it– or at least they are willing to listen. Craig Pierson and Randy Stansberry from Marathon Pipe Line, in particular, struck us as quite sincere about wanting to take a hard look at their own practices. We thought the same of of Francisco Salguero from Pacific Gas & Electric. And we know that Vern Meijer from TransCanada actually took the time to sit down with Bonnie and Jon Kruse after their rather scathing presentation on how TransCanada has treated landowners out west.
We mention Marathon, TransCanada, and PG&E again because one of the things we learned at the conference is just how much these companies are inevitably linked together, rather than simply separate and in competition with one another. For instance, a refrain among regulators at the conference was the importance of companies’ willingness to share information when it comes to safety– whether that information is data, best practices, or technology. Claudia Bradley from Canada’s National Energy Board stressed the importance of sharing, as did Mark Rosekind of the NTSB. In fact, Rosekind made the point quite forcefully, almost as an injunction: “You don’t compete on safety!” he said. So while it may make for good advertisement for a company like Enbridge to claim (as they do) that “Enbridge is recognized as an industry leader in pipeline safety and integrity,” Rosekind’s point was that no one (or, if you prefer, everyone) should be the industry leader in safety.
A similar need for a confluence of interests (or so one would hope) was implicit in Carl Weimer’s (and others’) discussion of the strange and disturbing story of how industry standards become incorporated into federal regulations. Because they often rely on consensus, industry standards may not always reflect best practices when it comes to matters of safety (since standards may need to be watered down in order to achieve consensus). Within such a system, it’s not hard to imagine how a handful of bad actors– who place self interest ahead of safety– can actually work against outcomes that are in the best interests of everyone.
The same holds true, we believe, when it comes to the treatment of landowners. One of the things we said to those executives from other companies (and we weren’t telling them anything they didn’t already knew) is that Enbridge’s bad behavior, its alienating actions, aren’t just bad for Enbridge and bad for the landowners who are forced to bear the brunt of them. They’re bad for the whole industry. They’re bad for Marathon and PG&E and TransCanada. After all, the general public (understandably) doesn’t much distinguish between one pipeline company and the next. So when Enbridge violates a local ordinance, deals unfairly with a landowner, or ignores its own safety protocols, those actions reflect upon every pipeline company; they tarnish everybody’s reputation. Frankly, if I were Craig Pierson, I’d be furious with Patrick Daniel and I’d be on the phone with Al Monaco telling him to get his house in order. Enbridge may not want to listen to ordinary people like us, but we suspect they’d listen to their industry peers.
In lots of ways, the Pipeline Safety Trust conference was a humbling experience. It didn’t take long– about a minute into Carl Weimer’s opening remarks, in fact– to realize just how little we know compared to all the smart, knowledgeable people in our midst. We learned a great deal and came away with so much to think about. Fortunately, the PS Trust has made it possible to go back and revisit things with their terrific webcast– available here.
We need to mention one little unfortunate note about the webcast, however: the best session of the conference (in our view)– the Environmental panel featuring Beth Wallace, Anthony Swift, and Gabe Scott– wasn’t filmed. We have a hunch as to why (it’s no fault of PS Trust’s!) and will discuss it in another installment in the series, one devoted entirely to that panel. Yes, that’s a teaser.
For our first installment, however, we’re going to talk just a little bit about ourselves, begging forgiveness. If you missed our presentation, you can still watch it here. (And don’t neglect our fellow panelists Emily Krafjack and Bonnie and Jon Kruse— they were excellent. To regular readers of this blog, there wasn’t a great deal that was new in our talk and so we’re not going to rehash it. Instead, we want to say a few words about the aftermath:
More than a few people approached us afterwards– that afternoon and evening and the next day. Precisely who approached us and why, we think, is quite telling. Here’s a rundown of some of the folks who found what we had to say useful or thought-provoking:
- Francisco Salguero, Executive Manager at Pacific Gas and Electric. Francisco deals with public awareness and landowner relations. He was the first person to approach us to ask a question that nearly blew us away. After noting that his job entails working with landowners and the public, he said, “what can I do better?” And he meant it. We had a terrific exchange.
- Craig Pierson, President of Marathon Pipe Line, LLC. Over beignets at Cafe du Monde, Craig said that our presentation had the contingent from Marathon all abuzz, asking themselves, “is that us? are we treating our stakeholders that way?” And already– the very night of our talk– Craig and his team were talking about ways that they could find answers to those questions and adjust their practices accordingly. Wow.
- Randy Stansberry, Region Manager, Marathon Pipe Line. Randy approached me and reiterated some of what we discussed with Craig Pierson. We got him thinking, he said, “are we living up to our values?” To try and get some answers to that questions, Randy described their plan to contact landowners for focus groups in order to gather feedback. This was, you can imagine, tremendously heartening.
- Vern Meijer, Vice President, U.S. Operations, TransCanada. Vern also thanked us and noted that our presentation caused him to think about his company’s treatment of landowners. Incidentally, we found ourselves sitting next to Vern during the final session of the conference. As landowners and other advocates spoke, he was actively taking notes!
We spoke with a number of others as well. But these four are the main industry reps who went out of their way to speak with us– something they certainly did not need to do (after all, who are we to them?). We plan to follow up with them and, in some small way, cultivate beneficial relationships with them.
Now we’re sure that by this point, our readers, a perceptive bunch, can see where this is going: PG&E, Marathon, TransCanada. We did NOT spend our 15 minutes talking about the ways these companies treat landowners. So it would be reasonable for you to expect us at this point to recount the conversations we had with people from Enbridge or to tell you about the productive dialogue with Enbridge attendees that our presentation initiated or to describe to you how the conference helped extend and build upon the conversations we’ve had with Mark Sitek.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you any of that. And the reason I can’t tell you any of that is because the Enbridge representatives at the conference– there were, we believe, five of them– all but ignored us. With just one exception, not exactly related to the primary theme of our talk (we plan to make that encounter the subject of another installment of this series), the Enbridge representatives in attendance did not seek us out for more conversation. They did not thank us for our perspective. They didn’t ask a question, offer a point of clarification or even of rebuttal. Unlike the folks from PG&E, Marathon, and TransCanada, the Enbridge attendees could not be bothered to talk with us at all. In fact, they didn’t say a single word to us.
Actually, that’s not strictly true. There was our brief encounter with our old friend Larry Springer– you remember him as the guy who singlehandedly sparked a series of posts a while back. Standing in line for lunch on Thursday, we happened to see someone in front of us with an iPad, upon which was displayed this very blog. Unable to contain ourselves, we politely interrupted just to say, “hey, that’s our blog,” to which the gentleman with the iPad replied, “Yes, I know”– and then turned away before we even had a chance introduce ourselves and engage in what one would expect to be the ordinary pleasantries of such a moment. But he was turned toward us long enough to afford a quick glimpse of his name badge. Yes, that’s right, Larry Springer actually– and quite rudely, if we’re being honest– snubbed us.
Now, we’re not much bothered that Larry Springer snubbed us. But one would have thought that, say, Lorraine Little would have introduced herself. After all, she’s one of the people at Enbridge we’ve tried (and failed) to engage. Still, we’re not that bothered that she didn’t speak with us either. No, what really bothers us is this:
All of those people from Enbridge at the conference who couldn’t be bothered to speak with us? They’re all from the PR department. I mean, Craig Pierson is the actual President of Marathon Pipe Lines. Vern Meijer is the Vice President of operations at TransCanada. These are people who make real decisions, people who are in a position to institute real changes, people whose jobs are not primarily devoted to spin. The Enbridge attendees, by contrast: all spin doctors.
What’s so baffling about this is that the conference actually presented Enbridge with an opportunity to prove us (a little bit) wrong. They had a chance to show that they really are willing to listen carefully to landowners, that they really are interested in open and honest communication, that they really do, as their values state, “take the time to understand the perspective of others.” They had a chance to cause us to come home and type up a blog post praising them for treating us respectfully, a post describing our new Enbridge friends. They could have given us cause to write an entry expressing gratitude toward them just as we’ve expressed gratitude toward Salguero, Pierson, Stansberry, and Meijer above. They could have given us a tale of a positive encounter with Enbridge to bring to our readers. And the truth is– perhaps they simply don’t believe this–we would LOVE to tell that tale. But Enbridge (stubbornly? willfully? deliberately? we have no idea) failed to take advantage of that opportunity.
Instead– and it gives us no real joy to gloat about this–they simply confirmed so many of the things we’ve said about them time and again– the very things we said in our presentation. They once again showed themselves unwilling to engage openly and honestly with stakeholders unless on their own narrow terms. They once again showed themselves unwilling to take a sober look at their conduct and practices and engage in a bit of serious introspection. They once again showed that even matters as vitally important as landowner relations and pipeline safety are to them not much more than p.r. matters.
Oh boy, have we got things to write about! We were already backed up with need-to-get-to material (court hearings, telephone conversations, permitting processes, advertisements, Indiana matters– and more). But we learned and experienced so much at our first Pipeline Safety Trust conference that now we’re really in the woods. It’s going to take us a while to sort through our notes and say all that we’ve got to say. Which means, of course: a new series!
In lieu of a first entry in that series (coming up, we hope, right quick), here’s a quick rundown of some (not all) of the highlights of our conference experience (in random order):
- Mark Rosekind of the NTSB reminding everyone of how Enbridge ignored their own 10-minute rule
- Ben Gotschall (brilliant) on milk
- Kim Savage (cutting and wise) on minding your manners
- Beth Wallace (with aplomb) brooking no nonsense from TransCanada execs
- Anthony Swift on rhetoric versus reality
- Legal confabulations (way out of my depth) with Sara Gosman and Rebecca Craven
- Sharing fried alligator with Mike Watza
- Hearing Glenn Archambault’s horrifying story over a stiff drink (the only way to endure that particular tale)
- Learning about whales’ olfactory sense from an actual whale hunter, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak
- Gabe Scott reminding us that differences matter
- Deb Miller and Sue Connolly nearly exploding when Enbridge’s Denise Hamsher got defensive about Marshall
- Breakfast with fellow Hoosier native Nate Pavlovic
- Terrible Bourbon Street daiquiris with Mike O’Leary (and others)
- Carl Weimer with a face full of beignets
- Kim Savage’s (extraordinarily well-behaved) 9-year old son asking me, “Mr. Jeff, did you ever study chemistry?”
We’re at the Pipeline Safety Trust conference in New Orleans. Much of the conference–including our panel at 4 pm Central time– will be webcast live. You can watch by following this link.
Here is a terrible picture of PS Trust Executive Director Carl Weimer welcoming us to the conference. You can’t tell, but it’s a packed house.