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A Tale of Two Pipelines

Since the Obama Administration rejected Transcanada’s over seven year old permit to build the Keystone XL Pipeline in November 2015, the issue has moved away from the mainstream media. However, for several years, Keystone XL dominated the news. In early 2013, the Sierra Club and other organizations planned a rally in DC that was attended by 35,000 protestors calling for President Obama to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline phase. Hillary Clinton was hounded by the media to declare a position during her run in the Democratic primary. Current Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein was arrested for trespass trying to deliver food and supplies to the Keystone XL protestors. Trump, Rubio, Cruz, and every other Republican presidential candidate made statements in support of the pipeline while Sanders, Clinton, and O’Malley came out against it. Keystone XL was the environmental issue for the past few years. In the end, the environmentalists won, and President Obama rejected Keystone XL.

Compare this to what’s currently happening in the Dakotas. How many people reading this have heard of the Dakota Access Pipeline (also known as the Bakken Oil Pipeline)? I’m guessing not many and would certainly guess not as many as have heard of Keystone XL. In a nutshell, the Bakken Pipeline is 1,172 miles of pipeline that would transport crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa and end in Pakota, Illinois with a capacity of 570,000 barrels per day. By comparison, the Keystone XL Pipeline would’ve been nearly the same length, 1,179 miles with a capacity of 830,000 barrels per day. Yet just last month, the Army Corps of Engineers cleared the final regulatory hurdle for the Bakken Pipeline by concluding that the pipeline proposal complies with federal environmental laws.

So what went wrong for Bakken opponents that went right for Keystone XL protestors? The environmental concerns are of the same nature and magnitude and both were heavily contested by tribal groups out of concern that the pipelines would encroach upon and contaminate sacred land. Both pipeline constructions would have involved the heavy-handed use of eminent domain, transferring land from one private citizen to another, made possible by Kelo v. City of New London and reviled by Libertarians and most Republicans. So why were the results so drastically different? Why was Keystone XL shuttered while Bakken protestors are resorting to arson and destroying one million dollars’ worth of construction equipment?

The short answer to these questions appears to be, because of awareness. High profile issues, especially when fighting against the government, require awareness by the public. Comparing these two pipelines highlights the importance of third party allies when trying to deliver a message. “Third party allies” is not just a buzzword we in the public relations industry like to throw around; they can have a real and demonstrable effect on the awareness and legitimacy of your message. Other than the international nature of Keystone XL (which actually should have worked against blockage of the pipeline since President Obama was risking offending one of our staunchest allies), the two pipelines were very similar. However, while Iowa landowners and Sioux tribal representatives were in court fighting the legal battle, they did not have the third party allies on the outside making noise that they needed. They needed the 35,000 protestors, the (third party) presidential candidates getting arrested, and Robert Redford. They needed the director of the Sierra Club, not the director of Sierra Club’s Iowa chapter, championing their cause.

Maybe if they had, Bakken Pipeline would have become a household name just like Keystone XL. Maybe if they had, we would’ve heard Donald Trump taking Jeb Bush to task for his contradictory opposition to eminent domain but support for the Bakken Pipeline rather than Keystone XL.

It’s impossible to know for sure what could have happened, but we do know for sure that the opponents of Keystone XL had a lot more in the way of third party allies and were a lot more effective at getting their message out into the public. We also know for sure that the Keystone XL project has been scrapped while the Dakota Access Pipeline moves forward.

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