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National View: Pipeline protesters risk environment, communities

Four anti-energy activists recently broke into a northern Minnesota facility in an attempt to shut off the flow of energy through an Enbridge oil pipeline. Referring to themselves as the "Four Necessity Valve Turners," these individuals posted a Facebook video showing themselves banging on the valve with a wrench and using other tools to try to turn the valve. Fortunately, they were arrested by Itasca County law enforcement who took them into custody at the scene.

Brigham McCownIntentionally interfering with infrastructure is not new. Anti-energy activists and eco-terrorists have been tampering with infrastructure around the world for a number of years. Despite wanting to bring attention to their cause, these individuals threaten to harm the environment, as explained in my recent Forbes article. These actions are not cute, nor are they safe. Committing such acts only places protestors, first responders, local landowners, and citizens at risk.

A similar episode occurred in 2016 when four activists, also self-described as "valve turners," broke into a different Enbridge valve site in Clearbrook County, Minn., by using bolt cutters to gain access to the facility. Three individuals were charged with a felony for property damage, and the flow of oil was temporarily halted out of an abundance of caution to allow for safety inspections.

Not to be outdone, dozens of anti-pipeline protesters blocked streets and intersections in downtown Bemidji, Minn., last August to protest Enbridge's Line 3 pipeline. While demonstrators ultimately dispersed, 26 people were cited for disorderly conduct.

Cases like these only undermine any legitimacy to activists' stated claims of protecting the environment. Yes, we should all be concerned about the environment, and we should all be concerned about promoting and improving the highest and best safety practices. The fact is, however, that pipelines are the safest, most efficient means of transporting energy resources like crude oil, gasoline, diesel, propane, and natural gas.

Efforts by a vocal few to disrupt new projects do not stop the flow of energy products we must use each day. They rather have the potential to shift that burden to other transportation modes, potentially adding thousands of trucks to our already congested highways, displacing agriculture shipments on rail, or placing these commodities on our waterways. For example, oil shipments by rail more than doubled in Minnesota in 2018. Not only does that raise costs for consumers, it places these shipments onto transportation assets that would likely result in more harm to the environment.

As uncertainty clouds the developments of pipeline projects like Enbridge's Line 3, shippers already have shifted toward rail. We should be reminded of a 2017 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which backed up federal government data, showing that pipelines represent the safest way to transport large volumes of energy supplies over great distances.

Leaving aside these national impacts, breaking into private facilities, attempting to manipulate valves, and causing property damage do nothing to improve environmental stewardship. We should be welcoming attempts to improve the safety and security of our infrastructure; and we should be actively encouraging companies to modernize, update, and improve pipelines. That means pursuing line-replacement programs and shifting operations to brand new lines awaiting permits.

Minnesota is certainly not alone in these challenges. Half a million dollars' worth of equipment was recently burned at a Mountain Valley Pipeline construction site in Pittsylvania County, Va. A few days before that, 27-year-old Emma Howell was arrested after locking herself to a horizontal drill. These untoward tactics are also occurring more often in Louisiana and Pennsylvania.

The right to free speech is an integral component of our democracy. Anti-development and anti-fossil fuel rhetoric masquerading as infrastructure safety concerns is, however, intellectually disingenuous. We should all encourage greater independence from carbon-emitting fuels, but we should do so in a responsible manner by focusing on long-term strategies that will move us toward a carbon-neutral economy.

When pipeline activists in places like Minnesota attempt to vandalize the infrastructure we require for our daily lives, they run the risk of causing us all to pay higher prices. Worse, they risk damaging the same environment they claim to be protecting.

Brigham McCown is based in Washington, D.C., and is the former head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. He contributes to Forbes and founded the nonprofit Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (aii.org). He wrote this for the News Tribune.