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