Newsmaker of the Year: Pipeline expansion dominates the headlines

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Kinder Morgan’s pipeline expansion proposal made headlines in a big way in 2014, culminating in two weeks of protests in November that dominated the Twittersphere.

The project, to almost triple capacity on the Trans Mountain pipeline between Edmonton and Burnaby to export oil sands crude to overseas markets, has been in the news for the last couple of years.

But 2014 was the year when people had a chance to apply to participate as intervenors. The National Energy Board (NEB) accepted 400 as being directly affected while many others were turned down. It was also when Kinder Morgan decided it preferred routing the pipeline in a tunnel through Burnaby Mountain itself, causing the NEB to extend the review process.

It was the year when both the company and City of Burnaby waged a legal battle, with the city attempting to stop survey and geotechnical study work in Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area after several trees were felled.

And when the NEB granted the company an order preventing Burnaby from interfering, and the courts granted an injunction to keep protesters away from the work site, that’s when protesters actively took to the mountain.

About 100 protesters defied the injunction, and were arrested for civil contempt last month, only to have the charges thrown out after the company admitted it inadvertently provided the wrong GPS coordinates for the area that was off-limits.

But for Lindsay Meredith, Simon Fraser University marketing professor, the pipeline story was a classic case study in what companies ought not do.

Resource companies and businesses who sell to other businesses, have been slow to realize the game has changed now that the Internet and social media have leveled the playing field, Meredith said. “Corporations ignore this stuff at their peril.”

In the past, such companies were involved in one-way communications, “which was government and big corporations talking to the rest of the peons.” It used to be “nobody else could do it when you had to cough up a couple million dollars on an ad campaign, but anybody can put up a website and anybody can get on a social network site.”

As a result, small groups with small budgets “very quickly become very, very accomplished marketers.” They’ve become adept at getting out their messages highlighting the negative attributes of a project such as the Trans Mountain pipeline project.

Meredith specifically cited First Nations groups and environmentalists as becoming “extremely accomplished” at this game.

“Guys like Kinder Morgan are running smack into the old glass plate wall and getting their nose smashed in. And they’re in shock, they can’t figure out what the hell happened. Now they’re starting to catch on very quickly.”

In recent months, Kinder Morgan, Enbridge, and other energy-related companies have been “advertising like hell,” all trying to position themselves as being part of the community.

“They’re all trying to basically play the same game, which is grassroots consumerism, trying to get back down to that level to try and gain a toehold to counter this negative attribution because the environmentalists and the natives are cleaning their clocks.”

All that advertising is an expensive way to try and get people on side, but they have the means and the stakes are high.

When social media sites get critical mass, generating lots of attention, mass media start to take notice, Meredith explained. The mass media then draw even more attention to such smaller groups, creating even more critical mass at the grassroots level and in turn generating even more media coverage.

Everyone is trying to influence that silent majority that rarely gets the attention that the squeaky wheels do. And once public sentiment goes one way, “that scares the hell out of the politicians,” he said. Political stakeholders then influence government regulatory bodies, and in one scenario, a project can be rejected.

With the next federal election scheduled to take place in 2015, before the NEB is slated to make a decision on the pipeline application, there will continue to be a push to influence public opinion before voters go to the polls.

“Kinder Morgan should’ve seen this one coming more and got much more active before the protests ever got off the ground.”

Meredith noted if your company has had bad publicity in the past, “it will come back and haunt you.”

He believes that’s the case with Kinder Morgan whose pipeline was ruptured by a backhoe in 2007, showering the Westridge neighbourhood in crude oil. The Transportation Safety Board concluded the incident was due to outdated pipeline maps, exacerbated when the company responded to the spill by turning off the flow of oil at the tanker ship it was loading, not at the source.

Why the company would choose to involve the same neighbourhood in its expansion plan is a head scratcher, said Meredith.

“There are so many signals, hey boys, give your head a shake, you’ve got a problem here. That is what I like to put so delicately¬óthat’s what you get, serves you bloody right when you let a bunch of engineers run things.”

Meredith suggested it would have made more sense, at least from a marketing point of view, to route the pipeline down to Delta, through farmers’ fields, “and put a great big nice deep-water offloading oil port and keep those tankers way down there, way out of sight.

“Instead, let’s choose the difficult ground. Go over an area in North Burnaby where we already pissed off the locals. Get a whole bunch of freighters coming through a narrow gap and getting [Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, both outspoken opponents of the project] worked up and then start saying, ‘OK, gee I wonder why people kinda hate us?’ ” he said.

“Not in my marketing class.”