Do­min­ion En­ergy

Crit­ics say en­ergy gi­ant’s cam­paign was overkill

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY GRE­GORY S. SCH­NEI­DER

poured ma­jor re­sources into an elec­tion sea­son cam­paign for its nat­u­ral gas pipe­line, an ef­fort that crit­ics called overkill.

rich­mond — Do­min­ion En­ergy was tak­ing no chances with the fate of its pro­posed nat­u­ral gas pipe­line dur­ing this year’s elec­tion sea­son, even though both ma­jor can­di­dates for gover­nor sup­ported the $5 bil­lion project.

The state’s most pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tion, along with part­ner com­pa­nies and the Amer­i­can Gas As­so­ci­a­tion, poured re­sources into on­line groups called En­er­gySure and Your En­ergy Vir­ginia to whip up what it called a grassroots “cam­paign to elect a pipe­line.”

Num­bers from an in­dus­try pre­sen­ta­tion sug­gest the scope of the ef­fort: As of early Oc­to­ber, Do­min­ion had com­piled a “sup­porter data­base” of more than 23,000 names, gen­er­ated 150 let­ters to the edi­tor, sent more than 9,000 cards and let­ters to fed­eral reg­u­la­tors and lo­cal elected of­fi­cials, and di­rected more than 11,000 calls to out­go­ing Gov. Ter-

ry McAuliffe (D) and Vir­ginia’s U.S. sen­a­tors.

Crit­ics say those ef­forts — out­lined in a pre­sen­ta­tion that was not in­tended for the pub­lic but was briefly vis­i­ble on the gas as­so­ci­a­tion’s web­site — amounted to overkill. But the com­pany says the on­slaught is the only way to do busi­ness at a time when ev­ery­thing is politi­cized and op­po­nents can use so­cial me­dia to mag­nify their in­flu­ence.

“We can­not just sit back and hope for the best and hope that the merit of our project will sell it­self,” Bruce McKay, Do­min­ion’s se­nior en­ergy pol­icy direc­tor, said in an in­ter­view. He gave the pre­sen­ta­tion last month at a con­fer­ence in Ari­zona. “Nowa­days [reg­u­la­tors] are be­ing bom­barded by gen­eral cit­i­zenry, by elected of­fi­cials who have asked to in­sert them­selves into the process, and this de­bate swirls around.”

Op­po­nents of the pipe­line — and of the sep­a­rate Mountain Val­ley Pipe­line, backed by a dif­fer­ent set of com­pa­nies — are a frag­mented group of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and landown­ers from some of the most re­mote parts of the state. They have gone to great lengths to get at­ten­tion for their con­cerns, stag­ing art events, post­ing videos on­line and heck­ling po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates.

Just this week, a coali­tion of ac­tivists an­nounced plans for a demonstration on Satur­day in Rich­mond, fea­tur­ing live mu­sic and hundreds of peo­ple hold­ing hands around Capitol Square wear­ing blue rib­bons and scarves “to rep­re­sent our uni­ver­sal con­nec­tion to wa­ter.”

Known for dis­rupt­ing cam­paign ap­pear­ances by Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, a Demo­crat who said he would sup­port the pipe­lines as long as they with­stood strict en­vi­ron­men­tal scru­tiny, the anti-pipe­line groups have promised to con­tinue hound­ing the new ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“Do­min­ion is by far more well­re­sourced. They have gobs and gobs of money,” said Denise Rob­bins of the Ch­e­sa­peake Cli­mate Ac­tion Net­work, which is co­or­di­nat­ing the up­com­ing event. “What we have is pub­lic sup­port and the will of the peo­ple who don’t want th­ese pipe­lines in their com­mu­ni­ties.”

The protesters also have crit­i­cized Northam for fail­ing to dis­close that sev­eral mem­bers of his 85-per­son tran­si­tion ad­vi­sory team have ties to Do­min­ion — a com­pany that has given ex­ten­sively to Vir­ginia politi­cians of both par­ties, and in which Northam owns stock. Do­min­ion and its ex­ec­u­tives gave Northam’s cam­paign more than $87,000 this year, ac­cord­ing to the non­par­ti­san Vir­ginia Pub­lic Ac­cess Project.

Northam’s spokes­woman said he was try­ing to em­pha­size the pub­lic ser­vice of the tran­si­tion team mem­bers in their short an­nounce­ment bios, not their cor­po­rate af­fil­i­a­tions.

To Do­min­ion, such is­sues are a dis­trac­tion from what it sees as the or­derly re­view process. The com­pany ar­gues that deep-pock­eted na­tional en­vi­ron­men­tal groups are help­ing the lo­cal op­po­nents, in­clud­ing the South­ern En­vi­ron­men­tal Law Cen­ter, the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil and Bold Al­liance. McKay’s pre­sen­ta­tion sets out a dark view of the path the mas­sive project must nav­i­gate.

The “his­tor­i­cally non­po­lit­i­cal pro­cesses [are] now po­lit­i­cal,” the pre­sen­ta­tion says. Op­po­nents are ab­so­lutists who be­lieve “nat­u­ral gas [is] worse than coal” and learn tac­tics from protesters at other big projects such as the Key­stone XL pipe­line. So­cial me­dia is fast and pro­vides no factcheck­ing, and other me­dia are “lazy, sym­pa­thetic, of­ten in­ept.”

Prop­erty rights are a key chal­lenge — em­i­nent do­main is “the fight to come” — and there is “no elec­toral re­ward for po­lit­i­cal courage.” Op­po­nents stage events for me­dia con­sump­tion, us­ing “out­rage and in­tim­i­da­tion” as “com­mon tools” to try to dele­git­imize the process. In the wake of Pres­i­dent Trump’s elec­tion, the op­po­si­tion is “more ag­gres­sive, [with] more lit­i­ga­tion, more fund­ing.”

In an in­ter­view, McKay said some of that lan­guage is in­ten­tion­ally provoca­tive to get the at­ten­tion of an in­dus­try crowd. But the com­pany does feel that in the bat­tle for pub­lic im­age, “it’s a strug­gle for us to get equal me­dia cov­er­age.”

So in the lessons learned seg­ment of his pre­sen­ta­tion, McKay ad­vises that while “op­po­nents have in­ten­sity — we have the truth and re­sources.” He adds that “en­gi­neers and lawyers are awe­some but get a ‘ hip­ster’ ” — mean­ing, some­one who can wield the tools of so­cial me­dia.

The in­dus­try’s on­line “grassroots” sites, which play down their cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship, are a way to rally the “silent ma­jor­ity” of or­di­nary peo­ple who sup­port the pipe­line and its jobs and ac­cess to plen­ti­ful en­ergy, he said. Do­min­ion es­tab­lished En­er­gySure in 2015 and uses a mix of in­ter­nal staff and out­side con­sul­tants to main­tain it. The com­pany would not dis­close how much money it puts into the ef­fort, which McKay said is com­pa­ra­ble to what op­po­nents do.

“On the other side, the Sierra Club on any given day, you can go to their web­site and find 10 or 12 take-ac­tion boxes,” he said.

McKay said that the peo­ple who re­spond to the com­pany’s call to ac­tion — mak­ing calls, send­ing let­ters, even ap­pear­ing at pub­lic hear­ings — are vol­un­teers. In some cases they are em­ploy­ees of the com­pany or mem­bers of la­bor unions, but “they’re not paid. They come out and stand up to a mi­cro­phone” on their own time, he said.

Do­min­ion and its part­ners in the en­ergy in­dus­try have to face up to the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate and use the same tac­tics that are wielded against them, he said. “We would be neg­li­gent if we didn’t do what we’re do­ing,” McKay said.

The fact that McAuliffe, Northam and un­suc­cess­ful Repub­li­can can­di­date Ed Gille­spie all said they would sup­port the pipe­line, which has so far cleared ev­ery reg­u­la­tory re­quire­ment, doesn’t lessen Do­min­ion’s ur­gency, he said.

“I don’t think we tend to take any­thing for granted while there are still per­mits un­der con­sid­er­a­tion,” McKay said. “The op­po­nents are not kind of pulling up their stakes.” On that, both sides agree. “The pipe­line is­sue will never go away un­less the pipe­lines go away,” said Josh Stan­field of the group Ac­ti­vate Vir­ginia. Thir­teen of the new Democrats elected to the House of Del­e­gates this month signed his group’s pledge to re­ject money from Do­min­ion.

But the Gen­eral As­sem­bly has lit­tle role in the pipe­line ap­proval process, so most at­ten­tion will fo­cus on press­ing McAuliffe and Northam to ex­ert in­flu­ence on the state’s reg­u­la­tory bod­ies, Stan­field said.

“In my mind, the fate of the pipe­lines right now is en­tirely de­pen­dent on the po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions of Terry McAuliffe,” he said. If McAuliffe hopes to run for pres­i­dent one day, as is widely pre­sumed, he will face at­tacks from na­tional Democrats for be­ing seen as a pipe­line sup­porter, Stan­field said.

Fed­eral reg­u­la­tors have largely cleared the pipe­lines. The next — and pos­si­bly fi­nal — chance to stop the projects comes next month when Vir­ginia’s Wa­ter Con­trol Board holds meet­ings to con­sider wa­ter qual­ity per­mits.

If those hur­dles are cleared, con­struc­tion on the At­lantic Coast Pipe­line could be­gin by year’s end.


Protesters gather in Au­gust out­side a pub­lic hear­ing in Har­rison­burg, Va., for the pro­posed At­lantic Coast Pipe­line.

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