Flickr / Dakota Access Pipeline (under construction), Lars Plougmann, CC BY-SA 2.0

Climate Change is Fueling the Debate

Energy pipeline projects in North America have been increasingly inciting opposition, sometimes vehement, over the past decade. Pipelines have always raised public concern about safety and local environmental, land, and cultural impacts. But this opposition has been supercharged by deep worry about climate change. Pipelines have become a focal and local point of conflict for a global problem because they are visible, extensive, and tangible.

The Dakota Access pipeline project is perhaps exhibit one of this enormous challenge. The project sparked significant reflection on how the development and construction of natural gas, liquids, and oil pipelines are viewed and managed. Under the current legal framework, certificates are frequently granted by state and/or federal regulators to proceed with pipeline construction with limited public engagement. These somewhat top-down decisions predictably set off waves of complaints that fill the inboxes of company, tribal, community, and governmental leaders, and fuel protests that are launched on tribal lands and at construction sites.  With proposed changes to NEPA review of pipelines, the controversy and contention is only likely to grow.

The need for strategies that help build collaborative, long-term relationships with stakeholders and mitigate or avoid conflict is clear. These strategies and practices require more than a procedural understanding of and basic compliance with laws and regulations concerning community engagement, worksite safety, cultural resources, and constitutional rights like free speech.

Exploring Better Practices: The Process

CBI and its partner Environmental Resources Management (ERM) undertook a research project to determine better approaches to addressing conflict related to construction of pipeline projects. The project focused on best practices for mitigating conflict-related risks for construction activities that take place after the routing process has been completed.  This narrowed scope prompted participants to discuss a tension-provoking and all-too-common circumstance: pipeline construction has been approved to proceed, yet dissenting stakeholders feel they have been ignored or overruled.

CBI and ERM conducted almost 30 in-depth interviews with diverse stakeholders – from companies to tribes to advocacy groups – involved in pipeline projects and a literature and media review, and then designed and convened a multi-stakeholder workshop in Minneapolis in February 2019. Over two days, the team asked community and industry leaders to generate “better practices” for preventing and managing conflict around pipeline construction across interests and sectors. Through this work, CBI and ERM sought to identify new, more collaborative approaches related to five key topics: 

  1. Communicating and Engaging with the Public and Communities
  2. Communicating and Engaging with Landowners
  3. Engaging with Tribes and Mitigating Cultural Damage
  4. Improving Safety and Security during Pipeline Construction and Related Conflicts
  5. Mitigating Natural Resource Impacts

Exploring Better Practices:  Sample Recommendations

Some of the key recommendations from the project follow. Detailed recommendations can be found in our report.

  1. Companies should broaden their outreach and deepen the level of communication with key stakeholders. They should not limit communication to those they think care, but instead should communicate to anyone who will or might want to listen. Despite corporate communication efforts, many residents, town officials, and others feel they have not been informed of, or given a voice in, projects being developed in their region.
  2. Land agents, the parties who are responsible for securing easements across the pipeline route, must be trained in and incentivized with the values and goals of clear, consistent communication; cultural sensitivities; respect; honesty; and transparency. Land agents also need to be given the time needed to respectfully negotiate with landowners. Right-of-way (ROW) agents should follow up on promises, particularly quality-of-life assurances, and respond quickly to grievances registered during construction. Whatever their contractual relationships with companies, land agents are the front line of how the company is perceived by landowners and communities. Our research shows that companies’ efforts to effectively engage with landowners have been far from satisfactory, leaving a trail of bitter constituents during and after pipeline projects.
  3. Companies should fund tribes to do their own ethnographic studies prior to construction, and hire/utilize tribal monitors during each phase of a project, including surveying, negotiating mitigation agreements, and construction, regardless of state agency requirements. It is especially important that monitors be present during any ground-disturbing activities during construction, even on locations that have not been identified as containing Native American cultural, historic resources, or artifacts.
  4. Prior to construction, pipeline companies must liaise with, and discuss needs and concerns with, tribal officials and law enforcement, determine traffic routes for construction vehicles, and listen to other local concerns. Local officials and emergency response officers can provide information on their capacity (in remote and rural areas, they may have few people to handle emergencies).
  5. Companies should work with local, tribal, and state resource managers to accurately and precisely map and inventory natural resources along the pipeline routes, especially when state or tribal databases are incomplete or insufficient. They can then step up their resource protection actions during construction, deploy more sensitive construction methods in these areas, and be prepared for increased concern by stakeholders and regulators.

Exploring Better Practices: There is no “Best Practice”

Addressing numerous issues and concerns during pipeline construction is complex and difficult, and will continue to cause and sometimes exacerbate societal conflict. Companies stand to benefit by doing better: reducing conflict, obtaining more “social license” from regulators and influencers, truly abiding by their corporate sustainability commitments, and reducing delays and litigation costs in some cases. There is no one menu of best practices, nor a perfect set of actions or solutions to avoid conflict. However, this project identified numerous ways that companies can improve the way they engage with, treat, and respond to stakeholders and rightsholders.