Commissioners pipeline meeting: strategy and why it’s worth the bother

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Previously: Report on the meeting, background, and the statement I prepared for it. In this last installment I’ll look at why we approached the meeting the way we did, and what we hoped to get out of it.

A group staging or participating in a public event should give some thought to how it plans to conduct itself. For instance, will it be compliant or disruptive? If the group believes the fix is in, the event sponsor is hostile and the whole thing is just a dog and pony show, disruptive may be the way to go.

Oil Pipeline
Oil Pipeline

The 2009 Congressional town hall meetings during the Obamacare debate were a good example of that. Show up, make lots of noise and drive home your points as vehemently as possible. These actions were arguably quite successful: While Obamacare ultimately passed, the confrontations may have served as a rallying point for conservatives in the following year’s wave election. Confrontation can come across as extreme and unreasonable, though, turning off neutral observers and keeping allies away. It’s a high risk/high reward strategy.

The other basic approach is compliance, and that too has risks and rewards. Compliance is probably best when one expects at least a sympathetic hearing, if not substantive results. No sense in alienating potential allies. The upside with compliance is coming across as sober, serious, and willing to work within the system. The downside is coming across as meek and ineffectual, and never actually being able to change the system. Depending on the situation, sometimes it’s best to be nice and polite; other times to make noise and rattle cages.

For the pipeline meeting, our group decided on the former. The commissioners have been very willing to listen to our members and to make time for us. I would say the pipeline meeting was an example of our efforts bearing fruit: citizens were able to express their concerns,1 and it was the first time the company answered questions before public officials. While it may have been late for this pipeline (see below), it’s something that could be repeated, hopefully earlier, with future ones.

Some might wonder why to bother showing up for a meeting like this. The pipeline is already about 80% built and is expected to be operational by summer. The meeting clearly happened very late in the process. Did it do any good? I think so, for a few reasons. The first is simple civic engagement. Citizenship is about more than showing up on election day to cast a ballot – it’s an ongoing process. We became aware of this project after it began, but still wanted to raise our concerns. To me, that’s part of being a citizen.

We also wanted to raise awareness for those who were still being approached about easements (particularly the shaky eminent domain assertion), and to the wider community. Pipelines are becoming a hot topic, and other residents of northeast Ohio might want to know about these kinds of grassroots efforts. We succeeded in that regard: our county paper ran two pieces on the pipeline in the following days, and Cleveland’s NBC affiliate WKYC ran a segment about it on their evening news.2 Other towns might want to have their own public meetings, and maybe learn from our example. Learn from our mistakes as well: we clearly would like to have had the meeting before the pipeline was nearly complete.

Then there is the simple act of going on the record. We know the state is enthusiastically in favor of fossil fuel extraction, and that the law has been fixed so that companies have little risk of local communities stopping them. But meetings like this can prompt a responsiveness from pipeline companies that “call our customer service help line” will not. If we can get just a modest improvement in how the thing is constructed, monitored and repaired, well, that’s better than what we’d have had otherwise.

If even that doesn’t happen, at least we will have a public record of our concerns. As I said in my statement, pipelines leak. Pipeline companies often do not detect leaks. There are real hazards associated with them. Should there be some substantial impact on our community because of it, at least we will be able to say: Yes, we knew that was one of the risks you posed. Don’t tell us no one could have known; don’t say it was completely unforeseen; don’t say some process had an unexpected blind spot or breakdown. We knew all of that from day one, we raised our voices about it, and that is precisely why we opposed it.


NOTES

1. If you are going to speak in public, consider preparing both a full statement and an abbreviated one. Sometimes things change at the last minute. In our case we expected to have three minutes each but it was shortened to one. At the meeting I made a number of hasty edits – crossing out lines and paragraphs of my prepared statement, adding rough transitions and grammatical changes, etc – and still didn’t make it through the shorter version. If you take an analytical approach it’s good to at least have note cards, if not a printed statement. If you plan to speak extemporaneously and from the heart, at least think about the major topic(s) you want to cover.
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2. WKYC has done a phenomenal job covering local oil and gas issues. I approached reporter Kristin Anderson after the meeting and thanked her station for that. I also told her the station has changed my opinion of local news. I’ve long had a jaded view of it, and written it off as devoted to stereotypical “if it bleeds it leads” sensationalism. WKYC, though, has shown that local TV news can provide invaluable coverage on the issues facing a community. Full credit to them for it.
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Photo from Joel Penner licensed under Creative Commons

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