It’s Complicated: The Politics of Pipelines

Robert Carpenter Editor Underground Constructionby Robert Carpenter | Editor-in-Chief

Growing up in rural Oklahoma seems so long ago, so far away. It was a simpler time for many reasons, but nonetheless an enjoyable time and definitely life-shaping.

Back then, the area’s primary economic drivers were wheat, cattle and oilfield (gas was viewed as an unwanted by-product – but that’s another column). My parents ran a retail business and a trailer park (important part of transient life in the oilfield). We also lived a few miles outside of town on a small ranch. That was my playground.

I’ll always remember one particular year when pipeline right-of-way representatives came calling. A new pipeline was being planned, and they wanted to build through the west 40 (that’s rancher talk for 40 acres on the far west side of the property). Dad and Mom welcomed the representatives into our home, Mom made coffee, and both parents listened intently to the proposal and asked a lot of relevant questions.

The ROW/pipeline folks gave assurances, guarantees, procedures and a financial offer. After the family lawyer reviewed the documents, Mom and Dad were finally convinced that it was a good deal. The entire process for both sides was civil (even pleasant), thorough, transparent and in the grand scheme of things, didn’t take much time.

I had the time of my life for a few weeks that summer. Once we moved cattle from the acreage, dozers and excavators started moving in. I hung out all day long playing in the dirt, hanging out and pestering the workers with questions. Most took me with restrained patience, but there were a few really friendly guys who enjoyed having me around. One such worker, Carl Turnage, a native Mississippian, even let me sit on some of the equipment. It was a great time for a just-turned eight-year-old boy.
I actually ran into Carl many years later in the early ‘90s. He was then the vice president of Ozzie’s Pipeline Padders. Over lunch conversation, we discovered that we knew each other from many years earlier. A great friendship was rekindled until Carl passed away a few years ago.

Sadly, for me, the work didn’t take long and was completed with a minimum of disturbance. No cows, coyotes, turtles, deer, horny toads or even prairie dogs were harmed during the construction process. The pasture was restored better than ever, and grass reseeded. That actually was another bonus: the construction process killed a lot of unwanted sage brush and they reseeded it with Bermuda grass rather than native Buffalo grass (the cattle loved that – better flavor and more nutritional grazing).

It was a great adventure for summer vacation, we made a little money and an important and needed pipeline project stayed on schedule. Like the times, it was a simple, straightforward process with mutual benefits for all parties involved.

As we jump to modern times, pipelines have become even more important to the economic health of North America. Further, those pipelines mean safe, environmentally friendly transportation of the most essential fuel (we’re talking both oil and gas) and materials for supporting our modern lifestyles. Petrochemicals touch our lives from transportation to virtually anything plastic – and that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Yet, thanks to aggressive political movements, pipelines have become the face of environmental destruction and devastation, although that image is inaccurately and inappropriately applied.

The politics of pipelines was brought to the forefront of national attention and criticism during the President Obama administration. That has included countless terrabytes of television and internet attention via web, cable, broadcast and print news organizations that lapped up any tidbit of anti-pipeline propaganda with suspect at best, regurgitating the misleading information across broadcasts and blogs. While the most noteworthy of the pipeline projects that were targeted by extremists have largely been completed, the war continues.

A new pipeline proposal – of any size – now meets tremendous resistance from local landowners. The net effect of the Obama/Clinton era pipeline wars is great consternation for anyone living or owning property along potential pipeline routes. Many landowners now believe a pipeline project means destruction and displacement of their property at the very least, with contamination of their land and water supplies a genuine possibility.

Today, when pipeline ROW representatives show up, they are typically greeted with fear and a loathsome attitude. Public hearings have become riotous free-for-alls, with outside agitators whipping up local residents. Negative news coverage of “people opposing deplorable pipelines” is virtually guaranteed.

No doubt pipeline construction can be messy and problematic. But historically, those kinds of issues are astronomically rare. It’s typically fast, efficient and the safest manner to transport energy. What used to be a routine process has become a grinding, stressful battle to get the facts in place and change misguided perceptions.
But it is no longer routine. Rather, it has become a long, difficult, stressful and unnecessarily complicated process. I’m afraid youngsters today see pipelines through jaded eyes, rather than gleeful excitement.

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