Photographer: Brett Gundlock/Bloomberg

Cuffed for a Pipeline: The New Blitz by Keystone-Savvy Activists

  • Environmental activists prepared to risk arrest to block lines
  • Gas companies dismayed over `intentional criminal acts'

The battle to build natural gas pipelines in the post-Keystone XL world has moved from the hearing room into the streets.

Developers are squaring off against activists like Nick Katkevich, who’s prepared to risk jail time to block new pipelines. Their actions have forced companies like Spectra Energy Corp. to take counter measures that include training staff and contractors to cope with acts of civil disobedience, arranging undercover security and monitoring opponents’ websites and social media postings for signs of protests.

Katkevich, a 30-year-old self-described professional activist from Providence, Rhode Island, says he’s been arrested 11 times for non-violent protests, most recently in September when he chained himself to construction equipment at a Spectra pipeline project. Driven by a desire to hasten the end of the fossil-fuel era, Katkevich said he draws inspiration from the dozens arrested in Texas, Oklahoma and Washington protesting the Keystone pipeline.

“We’re going to keep resisting and costing them money,” Katkevich said in an interview. “We don’t need to be investing billions of dollars in another fossil fuel like fracked gas.”

Opponents are staging sit-ins and rallies against lines to New England where, in 2014, customers paid record prices for the heating, cooking and power-plant fuel. Their goal, to foster policies that promote solar and wind power, threatens to saddle consumers with higher bills and shortages, gas providers say.

Spectra fell 0.3 percent to $28.96 at the close in New York. A Bloomberg Intelligence index of midstream companies that includes Spectra, Kinder Morgan Inc. and Williams Cos., has declined 26 percent this year. 

Criminal Acts

“What’s different, and I’ve been in the business 35 years, is seeing the amount of, in my mind, intentional criminal acts that are occupying first responders’ time and trying to stop our projects,” Susan Waller, Spectra’s vice president of stakeholder outreach, said in a phone interview. “That’s disheartening.”

Spectra’s bid to build a 5-mile (8-kilometer) spur off a main line west of Boston faced a yearlong campaign that included rallies and acts of civil disobedience. Spectra ultimately won the approval of regulators. Three people were arrested Oct. 6 for blocking construction crews.

Better Future Project/350 protest
Better Future Project/350 protest
Source: Better Future Project/350 Massachusetts

“It’s the the kind of project that a few years ago, would have gone by basically unnoticed,” said Emily Kirkland, a spokeswoman for the Better Future Project, which helped organize opposition around Boston. “After Keystone, opposition to gas pipelines is more sophisticated, more united and more varied in the tactics it uses than ever before.”

Kirkland, 26, cut her teeth in climate activism at a 2011 sit-in at the White House to protest Keystone. The pipeline, first proposed by TransCanada Corp. in 2008, would carry crude from western Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. The project, under review at the U.S. State Department, has faced criticism from President Barack Obama. Environmental groups like 350.org and the Sierra Club have helped bring thousands out to protest the line.

American actress Daryl Hannah sits in front of the White House during a protest against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
American actress Daryl Hannah sits in front of the White House during a protest against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Social Media

Among them were actors Mark Ruffalo, Robert Redford, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. “Splash” star Daryl Hannah has been arrested at least three times at Keystone protests -- once after chaining herself to the White House fence.

“We see it,” Curt Moffatt, general counsel for Kinder Morgan, said in a phone interview. “They’re active. They’re using social media very effectively to organize. There’s a significant movement that is opposed to the continued utilization of any fossil energy.”

Stop the Pipeline, a group opposed to the Constitution Pipeline, used a different strategy. It encouraged opponents to flood regulators reviewing the project with comments in a bid to foster delays, according to Brandon Barnes, a Washington-based analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence. The line is designed to clear shipping bottlenecks between New England and Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale where hydraulic fracturing has ushered in a surge of new supply.

Polar Vortex

“Many who take this position base it on a belief that embracing natural gas means you can’t support alternative fuels,” Tom Droege, a spokesman for Williams, lead developer of the Constitution line, said in an e-mail. “States’ ability to incorporate more wind and solar energy into their power mix is dependent on natural gas.”

Gas-fired plants accounted for 48 percent of power generated in New England so far this year, up from less than 30 percent in 2001, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show. That has left the region vulnerable to price spikes like one during a 2014 cold snap dubbed Polar Vortex that saw gas for New York City and New England surge to records.

Developers say new pipelines like Kinder Morgan’s Northeast Energy Direct can help. New Englanders would have saved as much as $3.7 billion on power during the Polar Vortex had one or more new lines been in service, Joel Bluestein, senior vice president at ICF International said in an interview.

Chuck Collins wasn’t thinking about his heating bill when he surrendered to police after painting a day-glow orange strip down a Boston street to mark the route of Spectra’s spur in May. Vandalism charges were dismissed after Collins told a magistrate his aim was to alert neighbors to the project. In a separate incident, he was one of three arrested Oct. 6 at the Spectra construction site.

“Few people knew about it,” said Collins. “This was kind of a Paul Revere moment: The pipeline is coming! The pipeline is coming! It was very successful.”

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