Democracy is missing from pipeline debate

The vast majority of Granite Staters can’t afford to hire lobbyists or candidates of their own

Growing up in Temple, there were few things we valued more than our land, our voice and our independence from outside interests. When it came time to repave a road or buy a new fire engine, our duly-elected selectmen would gather proposals and make their case to the town. Come town meeting in the spring, we all got to have our say.

That’s the New Hampshire way.

Now, Temple and neighboring towns are facing the biggest threat to land and self-determination I have ever seen.

In 2014, Texas-based energy giant Kinder Morgan announced plans to build a natural gas pipeline through 17 New Hampshire towns, complete with a 41,000-horsepower compressor station in New Ipswich.

The Northeast Energy Direct pipeline would originate in western Pennsylvania and deliver 1.3 billion cubic feet per day of fracked natural gas to New England – more than twice the projected need for the region.

In order to install the 77 miles of pipeline through southern New Hampshire, Kinder Morgan would cut a 125-foot path and maintain a permanent 50-foot easement through private lands, as well as the existing right-of-way. 

Regardless of whether you support or oppose the project, every Granite Stater can agree that it is fundamentally a local concern. The decision must be based on a careful weighing of the costs and benefits to the affected towns and the region, not Kinder Morgan’s bottom line.

Yet most of us in New Hampshire do not have the means to buy a seat at the debate table in a political process increasingly dependent on money. 

Over the last two years, Kinder Morgan the company has spent more than $100,000 lobbying in New Hampshire. The $50,000 they spent on lobbying in 2014 was more than any public interest, nonprofit or labor organization spent that year, and it is expected to rise even higher in 2015. (The New Hampshire Secretary of State has thus far failed to publish the mandatory lobbying disclosures for the second half of the year). 

Grassroots groups opposing the pipeline did not make any lobbying expenditures of their own, according to the Secretary of State.

That means that long before state leaders heard a word from their constituents about the proposed pipeline, they had already been contacted by well-paid lobbyists arguing in support of the project. Official disclosures reveal that those same lobbyists have given thousands of dollars to help fund state lawmakers’ campaigns. 

Over the same period, Kinder Morgan has spent nearly $450,000 lobbying in Massachusetts and another $260,000 lobbying the federal government, for a combined $1,000 per day. Over $100,000 of their federal lobbying expenditures were specifically targeted at influencing the FERC process to ratify the NED pipeline.

And while Kinder Morgan touts its policy of political neutrality by saying the company does not make any campaign contributions, many of its top executives do precisely that.

Since 2012, Kinder Morgan employees and their families have invested millions of dollars in state and federal races, including current presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz. In 2015 alone, Chairman Richard Kinder and his wife have already spent $2.2 million to influence the presidential election. 

In a political system where elected officials set energy policy – directly and via appointments to the FERC – while simultaneously raising millions of dollars from special interests to get elected, Kinder Morgan’s investments make perfect business sense. But what about the vast majority of Granite Staters who cannot afford to hire lobbyists or candidates of our own?

As Kinder Morgan holds its obligatory public hearings across southern New Hampshire, complete with slideshows and dozens of company representatives, I can’t help wondering if it isn’t just a charade. Why would a company spend millions of dollars to influence the political process if the voices of affected citizens are the central concern? And how can a democratic republic allow unlimited spending by special interests in the first place?

For the sake of my old town and the values we hold dear, I hope citizens across New Hampshire will make their voices heard in the current pipeline debate and put an end to endless spending in elections.

Daniel Weeks of Nashua is executive director of Open Democracy, a nonpartisan organization working for transparent and accountable governance in New Hampshire.

Categories: Opinion