Finding ways to dampen escalating opposition to natural gas and oil development requires a lot of face time, town halls, dinners and no fear, according to a public outreach coordinator with Williams.
Stories about protestors fighting development are nothing new, but it's gotten ugly in some areas where stakeholders are seeing more energy development than ever before. And a lot of them don't like it. One York, OH, landowner has posted a sign threatening to shoot surveyors after learning that contractors working on the proposed Nexus Gas Transmission project were going to come onto the property for surveying purposes. Nexus is designed to carry Appalachian gas from Ohio north to Ontario (see Daily GPI, May 7, 2013 and NGI, Sept. 10, 2012).
A sign posted on the York property reads, "No Trespassing. Due to the High Cost of an Attorney and Our Lack of Patience, WE SHOOT TO KILL." Projects in the Northeast have been receiving a significant amount of pushback from locals (see Daily GPI, Jan. 23).
In Georgia this month, three contractors working for a unit of Kinder Morgan Inc. were charged with criminal trespass by the Screven County Sheriff's Department for ignoring "no trespassing" signs to conduct surveys for the proposed Palmetto Pipeline. As designed, the oil pipe would move products from points in Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina to markets in Georgia and Florida.
"You can't stop the pipeline," contractor Emmett Horn reportedly told a deputy sheriff. Kinder has "enough money to push the pipeline right through the county."
But money alone isn't enough to plug a rising tide of opposition to just about anything involving gas and oil development. Amy Myers Jaffe, executive director of Energy and Sustainability at the University of California, Davis, told an audience at the Gas Processors Association last month protesters are more informed, with politics "increasingly local" regarding the environmental movement (see Daily GPI, April 13).
But, not all protests are local. Even FERC is not immune. A planned May 21 meeting was moved to next Thursday (May 14) "to better ensure the safety of its staff and the public" during expected protests (see related story). The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission adopted a rule in March making it more difficult to disrupt meetings following some recent incidents (see Daily GPI, March 11; Jan. 22; Nov. 7, 2014).
Williams, whose pipeline systems cross North America and the Gulf of Mexico, is acutely aware of how protests may impact operations. To get ahead of misinformation, it has, like other operators, a separate public outreach division, the first contact to establish relationships with stakeholders. About 15 people work for Williams outreach efforts in offices in Houston, Pittsburgh and Salt Lake City.
Megan Stafford, a Williams outreach coordinator based in Houston, has spent a lot of time in Pennsylvania to help smooth groundwork for Atlantic Sunrise, an expansion of the Transcontinental Gas Pipeline LLC system (Transco). Atlantic Sunrise now is being reviewed by FERC, and if approved, it would be able to deliver up to 1.7 Bcf/d of Marcellus Shale gas supplies to Mid-Atlantic and southeastern markets (see Daily GPI, March 31).
"This is the largest expansion that Transco has ever done," Stafford told NGI in a recent interview. As such, Williams decided to take a fresh tack.
"Given the length and the things that we're doing, the leaders of the organization said, 'we need to have a dedicated team for this project,'" something that is not typically used for expansion projects on Transco. In the case of Atlantic Sunrise, the execution team is dedicated to the project from start to finish, allowing it to establish stronger relationships with local communities.
For smaller expansion projects, Transco’s outreach team works on several projects as a time, making initial contacts with local communities where the company has existing infrastructure. After the initial contacts, ongoing relationships are shared with local management and outreach staff. “While this model works well for smaller projects, larger greenfield projects require much more time and resources to establish relationships in areas where the company doesn’t have a local presence,” added Stafford.
"Case in point, is our Constitution Pipeline project. While our outreach staff has maintained a strong presence in the area throughout the regulatory process, in hindsight, we might have been able to educate more folks earlier in the process if we had used the ‘dedicated team’ approach.”
Constitution Pipeline Co. LLC, whose 124-mile, 30-inch diameter pipe would carry up to 650,000 Dth/d from Pennsylvania to Northeast markets, already has a FERC permit, but it still doesn't have all the state authorizations needed to begin construction, which has been delayed for months. (see Shale Daily, April 30).
For Atlantic Sunrise, the project execution team members work together—even relocating offices from different departments to one location. "The environmental folks, the project managers, the engineers, our project director are all in one location to facilitate smoother project execution best practices." On Atlantic Sunrise, "we live and breathe the project together, and we frequently travel together.
"We're doing things a little bit differently on this project because we have a dedicated team that fosters and allows us to build deeper relationships...This is the only project that we're working on. We have the time to do that."
The Atlantic Sunrise approach may be the prototype for the future, Stafford said. Team members are in Pennsylvania so often, "the local stakeholders and the township supervisors and the county commissioners know us. We can call and say that we want to give a project update. We're first on their calendar, which is really helpful."
Stafford was working in the human relations department when she was tapped for the outreach team. Dealing with upset employees sometimes mirrors the public's complaints. "We recognize that community roots run very, very deep. People are very passionate about where they live and the land they own."
Opposition has grown to infrastructure, she said. And it's easier to build a coalition of protesters than supporters.
"It doesn't take long to build an opposition network. But it takes a long time to build supporters and those relationships. It makes our job more difficult, but that's why it can’t be done overnight. You have to be there for the long-haul.”
Opposition groups "are the first out of the gate and they start very early. We start early too, but trust isn’t something you can ask for. It’s something that must be earned over time. It starts with accurate and timely information.
There's "absolutely more interest and more opponents" today than there were about three years ago. "It really started with the Constitution project and it bled over into Atlantic Sunrise..."
In addition, the opposition "is much more educated and uses social media as their platform for organizing like-minded folks. The misinformation generated through social media means that we have to be just as savvy in our digital relationships. We use the same channels, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc to know who the opponents are and to educate the public about the company’s plan for the project. But opponents tend to be more active than supporters."
“We try our best to ensure that no landowner, public official or stakeholder is contacted about any Williams project by outside contractors or the press until they hear from the company first." No letters are sent "until the outreach team has communicated in some way to township and county officials...understand what we're doing, why we're doing it and what their constituents may or may not be seeing."
The company spends a lot of time training its outside contractors and consultants, Stafford said. "We coach them to put themselves in the landowner or stakeholders shoes. ‘If this were happening to you or your home or in your community, think about the questions that you would ask. Where's it going? Why are you contacting me? How long is it? How long will construction be?' It's the sort of normal conversations that you would ask yourself. Think about it from a landowner's perspective."
But Williams "has nothing to hide. It's a public process. We don't gain anything by not telling the truth, being honest with folks." Education is key. Many meetings have turned into educational sessions, where stakeholders learn, for example, how "Transco is the straw that connects" gas to local distribution companies that in turn provide power. "You can see the light go on" when people begin to understand the value of pipelines, Stafford said.