The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Facts, Listening Key to Energy Infrastructure Development

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted June 3, 2015

The question posed to Dominion Energy President Diane Leopold was about “Keystonization” – referring to the tactical use of protests, process and procedural delays and legal challenges to block safe energy development and key infrastructure projects.

Leopold knows the terrain well. Despite a small but vocal group of opponents, Dominion Energy recently won federal approval to expand its Cove Point, Md., natural gas terminal to allow the export of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

leopoldAt an event hosted by America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) last month, Leopold cautioned that delay of the Keystone XL pipeline for more than six years has generally helped embolden opponents of energy infrastructure (see here, here and here) – making it more important than ever for energy companies to effectively communicate their plans and the benefits of their projects while exceling in community engagement. Leopold:

“Truth is on our side. We are serving a critical public need. We do it safely. We take great care for the environment and for our neighbors. And we are transparent. We need to aggressively communicate the facts and counter the misinformation.”

Diane Leopold (Photo: Sam Harper/ANGA)

According to the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, the United States needs $313 billion in new natural gas pipelines, compressor stations, storage and processing facilities over the next 20 years. Overall, an IHS study found that essential infrastructure needs in the oil and natural gas sector could encourage up to $1.5 trillion in new private capital investment over the next 10 years.

Yet, energy development and infrastructure initiatives face headwinds, with governmental permitting processes offering challenges of their own, creating bottlenecks that opponents of progress may exploit. National Association of Manufacturers President John Engler and Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, recently authored an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal – headlined “It’s Amazing Anything Ever Gets Built” – in which they said federal agency review often is overlapping with no real deadlines – and can be held up for years by lawsuits. Engler and McGarvey endorsed legislation that would address this by setting limits for legal challenges:

The bill would also impose sensible limits on the subsequent judicial review of permits by reducing the statute of limitations on environmental lawsuits from six years to two years and by requiring courts to weigh potential job losses when considering injunction requests.

Leopold, whose company currently is trying to overcome opposition to another project, its proposed Atlantic Coast (natural gas) Pipeline in Virginia, told the ANGA event that vigorous public debate over infrastructure projects is healthy:

“While this might be the most exciting time in our industry, it also may be the most challenging. Some of the challenges are good, the kind that make us better: How do we further minimize the impact of our projects on people, the environment and historical and cultural resources? How do we make our new and existing projects even safer? These are challenges that I’m glad to have.”

But she said there is a new kind of opposition that’s not interested in improving energy projects; it’s only interested in stopping projects altogether. Indeed, while the Cove Point LNG export facility earned federal approval, opponents haven’t given up, filing a new lawsuit this week trying to block the start of construction. Leopold:

“It is the increase in high-intensity opposition to essential infrastructure projects. It is not that the idea of opposition is new. It is not. In fact, it’s rather expected in our open and transparent federal permitting process. And it is not limited to the natural gas industry. Virtually every major infrastructure project encounters it, from electric transmission lines to roads to housing developments.”

More Leopold:

“In Dominion’s case, we recently had opposition to a solar farm from an environmental group that had called on us to build solar. Nor would I call opposition broad-based. It is not. Survey after survey shows the vast majority of Americans support these energy infrastructure projects. But the opposition is intense, it is becoming louder, better funded and more sophisticated. In many cases the opposition is rooted in admirable passion but wishful thinking and unrealistic expectations. Unfortunately, some of the strongest resistance seems to be rooted in the willful denial of fact. And worst of all, their strategies are not bounded by truth.”

She said radical opponents used intimidation tactics to try to stop the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) from approving the Cove Point LNG export facility, which she said goes beyond useful debate:

“Their objective is to overrun a well-tested, open, transparent and effective regulatory model, where opposing views have an appropriate role and a strong voice, in an attempt to bring all development to a dead stop. As a nation we cannot afford to let that happen. The FERC had a message for these groups in its recent order rejecting an appeal of its approval for our Cove Point LNG export project. The commission said a controversy does not exist merely because individuals or groups vigorously oppose or have raised questions about an action.”

Leopold said energy companies and supporters of important, safe energy infrastructure need to tell their story better:

“If this challenge is not addressed by us it endangers the reliability and the affordability of energy in our country. It puts at risk America’s resurgence in manufacturing jobs and the growth of the rest of the economy. This challenge can have real and serious national security implications. … We in the natural gas industry need to speak clearly, speak effectively and, when necessary, speak loudly. We need to make all stakeholders away of how critical it is to our society that we move forward with growing and improving our natural gas infrastructure.”

An important part of what Leopold describes is helping regular Americans learn more about these issues and to get involved in fact-based discussion of the need for more energy and the infrastructure to deliver that energy here at home. Community engagement by companies to promote issue awareness and taking action has never been more critical. Leopold:

“We need to reach out to landowners and their neighbors, elected officials and their staff members, consumers, business owners, organized labor, regulators, environmental organizations, trade associations of all kinds, the news media and everyone else. And we need to call them to action. We need them to stand up and tell others that America’s future depends on getting these projects done. In this case silence is not golden. Silence is a threat to progress. We must ensure an environment where regulators and elected officials can continue to do their jobs. This requires focus on the part of any project that is just as important as route selection, engineering and construction – that’s communicating with and reaching out to the many stakeholders. … We need to be ready to answer the big-picture question from Day 1: What about me? … Communications and stakeholder outreach is a strategic skill and is as important as engineering and construction. It is an absolutely necessary skill. Nothing will get built without it.”

And here’s a big part of the message: The United States is in the midst of an energy renaissance thought unattainable less than a decade ago – thanks to vast oil and natural gas reserves, advanced technologies like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling and a skilled, professional energy industry. As a result we can power our economy and daily lives with more and more home-grown energy, reducing imports and increasing America’s security in the world. But the energy revolution won’t continue on its own. Wise policy choices and forward-looking leadership, encouraged by an engaged citizenry, are needed to ensure that the arc of safe, domestic energy development continues to climb. Leopold:

“This is perhaps the most exciting, most energized time ever in our industry. There is so much need for what we do, so many opportunities and so many important projects. … We know this investment is necessary, because there is no other source that can meet the nation’s needs for clean energy in sufficient volume while also addressing safety, timeliness, reliability affordability and reducing carbon emissions.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.