How to lose friends and alienate people: Lessons from Kinder Morgan

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For the past several years, the energy giant Kinder Morgan has benefited in the public eye from the simple fact that it wasn’t Enbridge, another big energy company wanting to do what KM wants to do: build a pipeline to carry bitumen from Alberta.

Enbridge took on the role of villain right at the beginning of the B.C.-Alberta pipeline saga. It became the chief focus of attack from various environmental and First Nations groups, as it was painted as a major threat to the environment and the pristine shores of Northern British Columbia.

The company was ridiculed by many for its seemingly tone-deaf approach to shaping public opinion in its favour, or currying much support from the various parties (First Nations, local communities, the B.C. government etc.) for what was required for any chance of success for its proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.

But as Enbridge fades, for now at least, into the background as the perception grows that the Northern Gateway pipeline is unlikely to be built, the focus has shifted to Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline into the shores of Burrard Inlet.

And now it is Kinder Morgan that has taken on the role of villain in the eyes of many, and it can be argued it is outdoing Enbridge when it comes to alienating the public.

Up until a few months ago, Kinder Morgan was engaged in educating the public – through many public meetings and presentations – about the merits of their project.

Concerned about increased tanker traffic resulting from the pipeline? Kinder Morgan officials had a ready, reasonable response.

Worried about oil spills? Hey, said Kinder Morgan, we’ve been using the same pipeline and shipping oil on tankers for years with nary a problem.

The fact that Kinder Morgan had an established pipeline and tanker operation already in place seemed to give it a leg up over Enbridge when it came to establishing good public relations.

However, the company’s deft approach to courting public support has been replaced by a clumsy, ham-handed and confrontational style that has been called bullying tactics by many.

Veteran energy executive Marc Eliesen (an ex-CEO of B.C. Hydro) quit as an intervenor in the federal review of the Kinder Morgan, blasting the National Energy Board as being “captured” by the oil industry. He also accused Kinder Morgan of refusing to answer all kinds of questions, or of offering flippant replies.

As well, Kinder Morgan was not content to simply file an injunction against protesters trying to stop their survey work on Burnaby Mountain. The company (whose enemies love to refer to it as a “Texas-based oil giant”) went substantially further and filed lawsuits against four of the protesters (arguing, among other things, that facial expressions of protesters could be viewed as some kind of assault).

Now, B.C. is no stranger to companies going to court to get injunctions against environmentalists (although arguing facial expressions is a form of assault is a first). In the 1990s, forest companies seemed to be spend their entire legal budgets fighting protesters during the so-called “war of the woods.”

It was expected that for all that time that Kinder Morgan flew under the radar, content to let Enbridge take all the heat and attention, the company would eventually be the prime target of the environmental movement. But launching law suits against individuals (which include Simon Fraser University professors and a citizens’ group) [Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder Morgan Expansion – of course and Alan Dutton] would seem to stray beyond the similar rules of combat in these affairs, and into the more sensitive and worrisome turf of denying free speech and the right of protest.

I’m not one of those who favor shutting down all kinds of resource developments, whether they involve pipelines or not. Saying “no” to everything – energy projects, port expansions, mines, train shipments – seems to be all the rage these days for a determined portion of B.C.’s population.

But while their anti-development positions may well cripple the provincial economy should they ever take hold, these folks still have the right to be heard and to take what reasonable steps – which include civil disobedience – they think are required to achieve their goals.

Kinder Morgan was running with the ball quite effectively for a number of months in this long game of pipeline politics. But as it nears the goal line, it appears that it has fumbled the ball.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C.