The long-running battle over the Keystone XL pipeline ended last November with President Obama rejecting the project. He did so in large part because of aggressive campaigning by environmental groups that are simultaneously engaged in dozens of other anti-pipeline efforts across the country.
Such battles do not come cheap. Nationwide, anti-pipeline advocacy organizations, both small and large, have turned to a little-known education and awareness grant program through the U.S. Department of Transportation to help fund their efforts, tapping into taxpayer money as they simultaneously work to halt projects that supporters say would aid in economic development and job creation.
The Technical Assistance Grant (TAG) program was created by Congress in 2009 to allow the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), part of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), to provide funding to non-profits and local governments that would act to “improve damage prevention, develop new technologies, or otherwise improve pipeline safety” of natural gas or hazardous liquid pipelines.
TAG grants totaling more than $6.4 million have been presented to 110 groups for work over the past five years. Many of these fit well within the scope of the program as outlined by Congress. But an InsideSources analysis has uncovered that substantial funding has also gone to organizations advocating against pipeline infrastructure.
The law is clear on how the grants may be used. The regulations that authorize the program state that funds “may not be used for lobbying, for direct advocacy for or against a pipeline construction or expansion project, or in direct support of litigation.” Grant applications are fully vetted by the agency to make sure they meet eligibility criteria, and pipeline safety experts representing local, state, and federal governments assist with evaluating project proposals. Midterm and final progress reports from the grant recipient provide a demonstration of the completion of the work as outlined in the grant agreement.
But in at least one case uncovered by InsideSources, money appears to have gone to fund a study managed by an organization seeking to block a pipeline project in Pennsylvania.
In a separate case, funding was given to a study calling for Congressional action on pipeline regulations.
Not all the funding of anti-pipeline advocacy is direct. Critics of the program contend that TAG money has undermined business development while providing activists with a taxpayer-funded salary. Because such money is often fully fungible, funds provided to an organization for a grant can free up the budget for expanded lobbying and litigation efforts. And as is often the case in Washington lobbying, scientific research projects can be designed to accomplish specific advocacy goals.
Advocacy via Research
The Tides Center provides funding to a wide range of progressive organizations with an endowment worth over $116 million. The fund, as a non-profit, offers anonymity to donors wishing to contribute to left-leaning causes. Among the groups funded by Tides are anti-pipeline advocates, such as Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Despite its advocacy efforts, the organization received $50,000 from TAG in 2009 to complete a study on aging pipeline infrastructure. The report, written by an expert who has previously testified on behalf of environmental groups, directly calls for Congress to reconsider certain pipeline classifications. This was a priority for advocacy organizations funded by Tides. At the time the report was completed, Congress was considering a pipeline safety bill. The TAG-funded study called for new regulations on gathering lines. Reclassification of these lines did not make it into the legislation, a fact lamented by NRDC.
The report’s advocacy for Congressional action appears to be beyond the scope of an allowable use for grant money.
Government-Funded Pipeline Opposition
The non-profit Pipeline Safety Coalition is run by coalition leader Lynda Farrell. The Pennsylvania-based group has received at least $200,000 in direct PHMSA grants from 2011 to 2015, and it has been involved in more than a dozen TAG projects where the Coalition was not the direct grantee. According to its 2014 tax filing, it took in nearly $79,000 in revenues, with about $74,000 coming from government grants.
Among the indirect projects, for example, Ms. Farrell’s consulting firm appears to have received at least $30,000 in PHMSA money from Chester County, Pennsylvania. Additionally, in September 2014, East Brandywine Township was awarded a $50,000 grant to conduct a review of Sunoco Logistics’ Mariner East Pipeline. The township, however, was not the point of contact for the grant. That was instead Ms. Farrell of the Pipeline Safety Coalition.
The East Brandywine grant specifically raises a range of questions because Ms. Farrell and the Pipeline Safety Coalition were, according the Philadelphia Inquirer, already active in regulatory filings seeking to block development of the Mariner East Pipeline.
In an email to InsideSources, Ms. Farrell notes that the intervenor status in the regulatory filing is often used “in order to be privy to current data and as much information as possible in order to be educated and able to educate others.” The article, which is posted on the Coalition’s website, is incorrect, she explains. The filing itself states that the Coalition seeks intervenor status for educational purposes.
Furthermore, she makes the case that any TAG funding is separate from advocacy work that her organization pursues. “Reports to PHMSA document the use of funds to accomplish statements of work under each TAG. What [Pipeline Safety Coalition] does or does not do outside TAGs is exactly that, outside of TAGs.”
“I believe the fact that PHMSA has found us to be a reliable, productive recipient of funding since 2009, in concert with 20 productive TAGs, speaks for our reputation with the funding agency,” explains Farrell. “We work hard on TAGs, provide transparent reports for each project we are associated with and have never been questioned by PHMSA as our work tends to produce results beyond funding capabilities.”
Detailed reporting for grant recipients does help to ensure that no TAG money is used explicitly for lobbying or activism. But there are clear questions over conflicts when an organization involved in regulatory filings against a pipeline is simultaneously being provided taxpayer money to conduct research on that same pipeline. Industry critics wonder why independent engineers can’t be hired instead of activists.
Other uses of taxpayer money via the TAG program often provide indirect support for advocacy efforts.
The Pipeline Safety Trust, for example, is a “not-for-profit advocacy group” that has successfully worked to support enhanced pipeline safety, but it also often works with organizations like the Sierra Club and the NRDC to oppose pipeline development.
The organization has been awarded $224,853.13 since the TAG program was formed in 2009 to aid in community education and outreach. To be sure, this is a small piece of their full budget, but critics argue that taxpayer funds awarded to an organization simultaneously involved in advocacy efforts allow it to divert more of its budget to advocacy.
The Trust was involved in anti-pipeline activity at the time it received TAG funding. Social media posts state opposition to specific projects. The Trust also released a study, “Tar Sands Pipelines Safety Risks,” in February 2011 with the NRDC, advocating for the reduction of “U.S. demand for oil, especially for tar sands oil.” Such advocacy would be difficult to characterize as only a pipeline safety issue, as it extends to a broader environmental effort.
The Pipeline Safety Trust isn’t the only group to fit this category of simultaneously opposing pipeline projects and receiving taxpayer funds for separate activities. The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania has received close to $150,000 in TAG funding between 2011 and 2013. The League, however, encouraged its members to call Congress in opposition to the Keystone pipeline, and it opposed smaller pipeline projects.
The Clean Air Council, based in Philadelphia, received $50,000 to educate the public on pipeline technologies. But the group’s website features a range of anti-pipeline activities, including protest marches and asking members to phone their governor in opposition to pipelines.
Last year’s omnibus spending bill did not appropriate TAG funding for 2016, but PHMSA reauthorization is being considered by Congress. The spending and activities by some of the groups that have received these PHMSA grants does suggest that the program deserves another look, according to former White House Energy adviser Jack Rafuse.
“With PHMSA reauthorization under consideration, Congressional oversight is essential to ensure the federal government isn’t sponsoring one-sided efforts to stop needed state projects that provide jobs and economic opportunity,” said Rafuse. “Programs like the TAG grant program should be revisited to ensure they are in the best interest of the community and the best use of funding.”