May 2017, Vol. 244, No. 5


Pipeline Protest: The New Playbook

By Kevin Ewing and George Felcyn, Bracewell LLP

In the last few years, the pipeline industry has been swept into an escalating whirlwind of public protest intended to challenge whether we should continue to rely on pipelines to deliver energy in the United States. Unmoved by the federal government’s assessment that “pipelines are currently still the safest means of transporting hazardous liquids and natural gas…,” opponents have become mobile, confrontational and media-savvy as they attempt to stanch the delivery of natural gas, crude and refined products to the U.S. economy.

The midstream protest movement has gathered numerical force by seeking linkages to social justice issues and other environmental issues, like climate change, with established networks of advocates. Cross-linkage has fostered shared funds, perspectives and techniques, allowing concerns in one area to be transferred to other areas, like midstream energy, that used to be outside the public’s attention. Midstream is now a public target.

How does a pipeline project proceed, knowing that protest is more likely than ever? It helps to review some of the techniques that are becoming increasingly common in midstream protest, and to focus on concrete preparations that enhance the project’s resilience in the event that protest flares.

Opposition Tactics

Confrontation: Active resistance can take a number of forms, from protest marches and encampment to vandalism and deliberate safety incidents, such as leaping into staged pipe or into the trench. Each tactic can generate compelling visuals that attract further attention, support and funding.

Media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat – all have distinct roles to play in organizing protests, spreading news and sharing experiences in real-time. Some protest groups may generate their own steady stream of press by crowd-sourcing funds for freelance reporters and using drone-based photography to create visual interest and alarm.

Coordination: Numerous protest groups have been hosting regular national conference calls to build cohesion among protest groups, aligning strategy, tactics and messaging. These efforts diffuse ideas/tactics and cross-link geographically diverse groups.

Fundraising: Fundraising is the art of storytelling or, more accurately, of placing a particular project within the familiar frame of a well-known tale, like David vs. Goliath.  Artful fundraising allows the public to jump to conclusions about villains and heroes, fostering support (in the form of donations) for the story’s preferred resolution.

Building Resistance

While there are no quick-and-easy answers when dealing with the midstream protest movement, there are common-sense actions by which pipeline companies can stay informed and organize themselves for success in the face of protest threats.

Know the opposition: Study the groups gathered around other pipeline projects to understand the relationships between organizations, favored media outlets and key supporters, including celebrities. Then look at your own project for issues and storylines that could be used to spark attention.

Monitor activity online: The public face of protest is built on social media platforms that are easily accessible. Spot early calls to action on Facebook and Twitter; look for crowdfunding efforts to support protesters; closely watch local media outlets, and prepare yourself for spoofed websites that misdirect the public about the facts.

Proactively generate support: Focus the public on the vital role of midstream infrastructure. Pipelines create jobs. They’re quiet and safe, replacing trucks, trains, and barges. And they deliver energy where U.S. industry and the consumer need it most. Tell your story to local officials, get it in the media, and identify credible allies to speak on your behalf in the places you’re planning to operate.

Anticipate protest sites: Review your maps to spot the pinch points where physical confrontation could have a significant impact. While it might be the right-of-way, it could just as well be staging areas or access roads. Avoid provocation (and make sure contractors who represent you in the community get this message). Steer away from threats or the use of dogs, water cannons and other intimidating shows of force that affirm the David vs. Goliath narrative.

Coordinate with elected leaders and law enforcement: Make sure boundaries and jurisdictions are crystal clear and clarify distinctions between security and emergency response. The goal here is to make your intentions clear and establish shared expectations with officials. Set up open lines of communication between the company and those who can affect the dynamic on the ground.

Advance training: When action starts, events evolve quickly. Don’t be caught flat-footed; train in advance for opposition engagement, adverse media and even physical conflict. Train well beyond your optimistic assumptions, or you may find it difficult to overcome surprises.

Authors: Kevin Ewing is a partner at the law firm of Bracewell, LLP and advises energy companies in dialogue with the federal government concerning project development, major incidents, and regulatory issues.

George Felcyn is senior director at Bracewell’s Policy Resolution Group where he provides strategic and crisis communications counsel to clients in the energy sector.

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