There Are Two Unsung Heroes in the Keystone Pipeline Fight, Esquire ($)

One of them is a very good interview. The other is not.

By Charles P. Pierce, Aug. 9, 2017

LINCOLN, NEBRASKA—There are two unsung major players in the eight-year saga of our old friend, the Keystone XL pipeline, the continent-spanning death funnel and current conservative fetish object. One of them is orange and black and it has six legs. The other one doesn’t. However, the two of them were among the first people to throw a spanner into the works of what looked like a done deal. One of them is a very good interview. The other one isn’t.

Since it can’t speak for itself, let us speak on behalf of the American Burying Beetle. The American Burying Beetle is an endangered species, which is something I learned covering this story, and because I thirst for knowledge. Anyway, in 2011, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service prevented a researcher from relocating the American Burying Beetle from the proposed pipeline route on behalf of TransCanada, the Canadian energy behemoth that would own and operate the pipeline. As it happens, TransCanada was trapping and moving the beetles before TransCanada had received permission from the State Department to do any work on the pipeline route at all. Environmental groups sued and won, and the American Burying Beetle became the first plaintiff to beat TransCanada in court. This delayed the project.

(Catching and moving the American Burying Beetle is not the glamorous job it might appear to be. The American Burying Beetle is a carrion beetle. Catching it requires a five-gallon bucket. And a dead rat.)

The second unsung player is a fellow named Sean Sweeney, a Ph.D economist with CUNY’s Murphy Institute. He does not have to use dead rats in his work. Around the same time that the American Burying Beetle was gumming up the works on the ground in Nebraska, Sweeney and colleagues Lara Skinner, Ian Goodman, and Briged Rowan published a report that was the first major shot below the waterline of what were then TransCanada’s rather ludicrous predictions concerning the number of jobs the Keystone project would produce.

“We were approached by the Tar Sands Action and they said a study commissioned by TransCanada, sponsored by the Perryman group, is claiming this number of jobs for the pipeline. At that time, I’d barely heard of the pipeline, it wasn’t a big news item,” Sweeney said. “We started asking the basic question—how did they arrive at this number, 119,000 jobs? Usually, you would get to that number by a certain amount of data would have to be inputted and a certain number of jobs would have to come out the other end.

“We started asking the basic question—how did they arrive at this number, 119,000 jobs?”

“We quickly found out that the data was proprietary, and the preface to the report said we can’t tell you what data we used to reach this conclusion. It was going to be difficult right from the start. So we went to the State Department to see the numbers that TransCanada had submitted as part of its application, and those numbers were not consistent with Perryman’s numbers. They were considerably lower, both for the direct jobs and for the indirect jobs. It was not substantiated, their claim of 119,000 jobs. It was probably—direct jobs for the entire pipeline—was probably in the realm of 4,500, which is their numbers, which they submitted to the State Department.”

Sweeney’s report detonated. The New York Times wrote an editorial based on it that was intensely critical of TransCanada, and the report was the first real dent in the company’s sales campaign. The Perryman report disappeared from the corporation’s website, never to return. Between them, Sean Sweeney and the American Burying Beetle were responsible for delaying the project for the first time for long enough for the opposition to get organized, and for the people and their representatives to look seriously at the project. Not that the propaganda war ceased: Sweeney was red-baited by several conservative outlets, and John Boehner was still using the obsolete 119,000 jobs figure as late as 2014. 

All of this was the reason Sweeney was in Lincoln on Wednesday, purportedly to testify on what he knew about this piece of the pipeline’s alleged economic impact. He flew in from New York. However, in the mid-morning, when he was called before the Public Services Commission, he was sworn in and that was pretty much the last thing he said. The lawyers from TransCanada declined to question him. Therefore, there would be no cross-examination by the lawyers representing the landowners and Native peoples opposed to the project. Sweeney was there and gone in only a few minutes.

Looming above this was the ever-present shadow of something called the Major Oil Pipeline Siting Act (MOPSA), which was passed through Nebraska’s unique unicameral state legislature in 2011. The PSC hearings over the last year, including this week’s climactic ones, were being conducted under the provisions of that law, and it was MOPSA that allowed presiding judge Karen Flowers to restrict severely the areas of allowable testimony. (For example, witnesses are allowed to speak on the potential environmental hazards involved in building the pipeline, but not about potential environmental hazards that may occur once it’s in the ground.) MOPSA was passed to replace a 1963 law under which TransCanada was running roughshod over property rights in the state, but it was influenced heavily by a massive lobbying campaign by the corporation, which spent an estimated $1 million getting the law tailored in the Unicameral. One of the things that happened was that the new restrictions under MOPSA did not apply to the Keystone project. 

Even then, the corporation wasn’t satisfied. A year later, after President Obama killed the project, however temporarily, a Nebraska legislator named Jim Smith proposed a law that would allow pipeline companies to submit plans directly to the state Department of Environmental Quality and thence to the governor. At the time, the DEQ had no protocols in place to evaluate the impact of pipelines. Once the governor signed off on this bill, the old Wild West concept of eminent domain would come back. Landowners were outraged. They sued, and they got Smith’s law overturned in a Nebraska district court. That decision later was overturned by the state’s supreme court on a technicality. The law stands at the moment but, by now, the opposition had grown strong enough to moot its political effects.

So Sean Sweeney didn’t get to talk about jobs before the Public Service Commission on Tuesday, because the TransCanada lawyers decided not to ask him about them. This rather stunned most of the people who had been fighting the project over the years. “I can’t believe they didn’t want to talk about jobs,” said one of them. “That’s all they wanted to talk about for a long time and now they don’t.” Out on the Carlson farm, where one of the solar installations in the path of the pipeline stands amid the corn, there is a plaque honoring the contribution of the American Burying Beetle to the struggle. A five-gallon bucket and a dead rat are the kind of things on which great decisions turn.

This post has been updated to reflect that Dr. Sweeney is with CUNY’s Murphy Institute, not Cornell University, and to include additional authors on his report.