RICHMOND -- Dominion Energy was taking no chances with the fate of its proposed natural gas pipeline during this year’s election season, even though both major candidates for governor supported the $5 billion project.
The state's most powerful corporation, along with partner companies and the American Gas Association, poured resources into online groups called EnergySure and Your Energy Virginia to whip up what it called a grassroots "campaign to elect a pipeline."
Numbers from an industry presentation suggest the scope of the effort: As of early October, Dominion had compiled a “supporter database” of more than 23,000 names, generated 150 letters to the editor, sent more than 9,000 cards and letters to federal regulators and local elected officials, and directed more than 11,000 calls to outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Virginia’s U.S. senators.
Critics say those efforts - outlined in a presentation that was not intended for the public but was briefly visible on the gas association’s web site - amounted to overkill. But the company says the onslaught is the only way to do business at a time when everything is politicized and opponents can use social media to magnify their influence.
“We cannot just sit back and hope for the best and hope that the merit of our project will sell itself,” Bruce McKay, Dominion’s senior energy policy director, said in an interview. He gave the presentation last month at a conference in Arizona. “Nowadays [regulators] are being bombarded by general citizenry, by elected officials who have asked to insert themselves into the process, and this debate swirls around.”
Opponents of the pipeline - and of the separate Mountain Valley Pipeline, backed by a different set of companies - are a fragmented group of environmentalists and landowners from some of the most remote parts of the state. They have gone to great lengths to get attention for their concerns, staging art events, posting videos online and heckling political candidates.
Just this week, a coalition of activists announced plans for a demonstration in Richmond on Dec. 2, featuring live music and hundreds of people holding hands around Capitol Square wearing blue ribbons and scarves “to represent our universal connection to water.”
Known for disrupting campaign appearances by Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, a Democrat who said he would support the pipelines as long as they withstood strict environmental scrutiny, the anti-pipeline groups have promised to continue hounding the new administration.
“Dominion is by far more well-resourced. They have gobs and gobs of money,” said Denise Robbins of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which is coordinating the upcoming event. “What we have is public support and the will of the people who don’t want these pipelines in their communities.”
The protesters also have criticized Northam for failing to disclose that several members of his 85-person transition advisory team have ties to Dominion - a company that has given extensively to Virginia politicians of both parties, and in which Northam owns stock. Dominion and its executives gave Northam’s campaign more than $87,000 this year, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
Northam’s spokeswoman said he was trying to emphasize the public service of the transition team members in their short announcement bios, not their corporate affiliations.
To Dominion, such issues are a distraction from what it sees as the orderly review process. The company argues that deep-pocketed national environmental groups are helping the local opponents, including the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Bold Alliance. McKay’s presentation sets out a dark view of the path the massive project must navigate.
The “historically non-political processes [are] now political,” the presentation says. Opponents are absolutists who believe “natural gas [is] worse than coal” and learn tactics from protesters at other big projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline. Social media is fast and provides no fact-checking, and other media are “lazy, sympathetic, often inept.”
Property rights are a key challenge - eminent domain is “the fight to come” - and there is “no electoral reward for political courage.” Opponents stage events for media consumption, using “outrage and intimidation” as “common tools” to try to delegitimize the process. In the wake of President Trump’s election, the opposition is “more aggressive, [with] more litigation, more funding.”
In an interview, McKay said some of that language is intentionally provocative to get the attention of an industry crowd. But the company does feel that in the battle for public image, “it’s a struggle for us to get equal media coverage.”
So in the lessons learned portion of his presentation, McKay advises that while “opponents have intensity - we have the truth and resources.” He adds that “engineers and lawyers are awesome but get a ‘hipster’” - meaning, someone who can wield the tools of social media.
The industry’s online “grassroots” sites, which downplay their corporate sponsorship, are a way to rally the “silent majority” of ordinary people who actually do support the pipeline and its jobs and access to plentiful energy, he said. Dominion established EnergySure in 2015, and uses a mix of internal staff and outside consultants to maintain it. The company would not disclose how much money it puts into the effort, which McKay said is comparable to what opponents do.
“On the other side, the Sierra Club on any given day you can go to their web site and find 10 or 12 take-action boxes,” he said.
McKay insisted that the people who respond to the company’s call to action - making calls, sending letters, even appearing at public hearings - are volunteers. In some cases they are employees of the company or members of labor unions, but “they’re not paid. They come out and stand up to a microphone” on their own time, he said.
Dominion and its partners in the energy industry have to face up to the political climate and use the same tactics that are wielded against them, he said. “We would be negligent if we didn’t do what we’re doing,” McKay said.
The fact that McAuliffe, Northam and unsuccessful Republican candidate Ed Gillespie all said they would support the pipeline, which has so far cleared every regulatory requirement, doesn’t lessen Dominion’s urgency.
“I don’t think we tend to take anything for granted while there are still permits under consideration,” McKay said. “The opponents are not kind of pulling up their stakes.”
On that, both sides agree.
"The pipeline issue will never go away unless the pipelines go away," said Josh Stanfield of the group Activate Virginia. Thirteen of the new Democrats elected to the House of Delegates this month signed his group's pledge to reject money from Dominion.
But the General Assembly has little role in the pipeline approval process, so most attention will focus on pressing McAuliffe and Northam to exert influence on the state's regulatory bodies, Stanfield said.
“In my mind the fate of the pipelines right now is entirely dependent on the political ambitions of Terry McAuliffe,” he said. If McAuliffe hopes to run for president one day, as is widely presumed, he will face attack from national Democrats for being seen as a pipeline supporter, Stanfield said.
Federal regulators have largely cleared the pipelines. The next - and possibly final - chance to stop the projects comes next month when Virginia’s Water Control Board holds meetings to consider water quality permits.
If those hurdles are cleared, construction on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could begin by year’s end.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that 13 of the new Democrats elected to the House of Delegates pledged to oppose the pipeline. They promised not to accept campaign donations from the utility. This story has been updated.