Will Mayor Ness Have More to Say? Excerpts from this Week’s Pipeline Press Conference

By JT Haines, March 21, 2014

Some familiar themes so far in the public discourse surrounding Enbridge Inc’s proposed pipeline expansion and terminal at the Twin Ports. On Wednesday, Mayor Don Ness of Duluth and Mayor Bruce Hagen of Superior held a joint press conference on the matter. Also speaking were Dan Olson on behalf of the Laborers’ Int’l Union of North America (LIUNA), and Lee Monthei of Enbridge, Inc.

A video of the full conference is here, which I recommend: Mayor Press Conference Enbridge Pipeline Proposal (It will ring familiar for those following the PolyMet proposal as well, which I wrote about here.) Here are some excerpts:

1:00: Mayor Ness: “When you look at the debate here at a local level in supporting Enbridge, which is a great local employer, and you look at the options that we have to move domestic oil…we’re either going to move that by rail, by truck, or by pipeline. The debate on whether or not that crude should be coming out of the ground, that’s not, in my mind, a debate that we’re weighing in on. That is a decision that is made at a much higher level than the local level.”

4:15: Somewhat ironically, Mayor Hagen then followed by invoking the quote “all politics is local.” “Politics is local but the results are encompassing nationally and oftentimes internationally.” The Mayor then shared his nostalgia for the pipeline company dating back to the ’50’s. “As I grew, so did the company, into Enbridge, and we employ…or they employ, 750-800 people in the direct Twin Ports area.”

7:30: Dan Olson (LIUNA): “We have for over 60 years had a partnership with Enbridge…We know you have the architects, we know you have the engineers, we want to provide the labor so when we’re doing this work we have the safest most experienced construction craft people on those jobs.”

10:41: Lee Monthei, Enbridge: “Thank you and we really do appreciate the really kind words of Mayor Ness and Mayor Hagen, it’s quite humbling, quite frankly…We have roots in this community that go back decades. It’s very important that we have the support of our community leaders as we go forward and invest literally billions of dollars in bringing crude supplies into the US to help us balance and bring an energy independent North America, so this is really critical… We will work hard not to disappoint the mayors.”

14:00: Question from Allen Richardson, Duluth, “I consider it a failure of political courage to say that you’re not going to take an opinion over the controversy about CO2 emissions from tar sands oil simply because those decisions are made at a higher level of political office than what you hold. Are you saying that you have no opinion on climate change vis a vis tar sands or the devastation to clean water supplies resulting rom fracked oil? I feel like I demand better from my elected officials.”

14:50: Response from Mayor Ness: “I guess my point here, and what we’re talking about is seeing the reality that there is oil being pumped out…And the question is how to transport that oil. From my perspective…the pipeline is the best option. You know, there’s all sorts of many many layers of issues that we could get into and debate, you know, to no end, but what we’re talking about today is…is to talk about what are the options for transportation, and I support the pipeline as I believe the best option.”

15:52: Following the Mayor’s response, Olson (LIUNA) added that the press conference was meant to be a “celebration” of the partnership with Enbridge. “I’d like to remind the folks that the reason we had this press conference to day was to share the exciting news…Any of the political questions…should probably be directed at a different time. This is a celebration.” Olson then appeared to attempt to close down questions (for a conference that he didn’t call).

16:00: Audience members nevertheless made a few more comments, including this response to Olson’s insistence that “political questions” be directed elsewhere: “This is an opportunity to speak with our mayor…To celebrate right now seems inappropriate because we’re actually really concerned.” Given that the mayors called the conference to make a political announcement, this response is pretty reasonable.

My take: With due respect, I think the mayors’ views of their roles here, at least as expressed at this press conference, are too narrow. If they are going to take a public position on behalf of their constituents as to one part of the tar sands oil process, of course it is important to also consider and speak to the implications of the larger process as well — a process, incidentally, of which they now propose their cities become a larger part. I agree with Mr. Richardson that Mayor Ness’s constituents – who are not only residents of Duluth, but also of the world — are entitled to more from him on this. If not the Mayor of Duluth, then who? (There is a reason the pipeline company wants his support, let’s not forget. For better or worse, and despite an understandable desire to consider the project in only the narrowest terms, Duluth is relevant beyond its borders.)

Coda; More thoughts from Ness?: In this highly recommendable piece on where we go from here, Nafeed Ahmed speaks of an “old industrial paradigm of endless growth premised on practically endless oil, that is increasingly breaching its own biophysical limits.” The debate so far on Enbridge, including in this press conference, is firmly in the old paradigm. It is a dead narrative, and the real question now is what is next. What I’m looking to see moving forward is, which of the people at the front of the room will develop the courage to say so? Who will speak not only to the how (to transport the fuel), but also to the whether and the how much?

To be perfectly frank, Mr. Olson’s patronizing performance and overconfidence in his own experience suggests that it will not be him. I am very sorry to say that my view of (certain elements) of organized labor has taken a major hit of late as I observe what I consider to be a narrow, and often self-satisfied, outlook on some really complicated larger issues that affect us all. (See, also, the public discourse surrounding the PolyMet NorthMet mine proposal which I discuss here.) For organized labor to succeed — and I genuinely hope that it does — it’s time to ditch the old narrative and start work on a complete reinvention that once again considers society, not just “jobs.” Not easy, but necessary.

For today, though, the most hopeful character in this room to me is pretty clearly Mayor Ness. Interestingly, as Olson makes his suggestions about whether “political questions” belong at the mayors’ press conference, and the Enbridge rep delivers his talking points, Ness appears to become less comfortable. Notice at around 17:40, he changes position in the room, moving closer to the exit, leans on a desk and starts tapping his foot, looking like he is ready for the conference to end.

Don Ness ready for it to stop.

Who knows, maybe it was nothing. (After all, I don’t blame him, I’d want to leave too.) Or, perhaps we’ve seen a small hint that Mayor Ness has additional thoughts on this issue that we haven’t heard yet, and is picking his moments. Perhaps, unlike Mr. Olson, he agrees that responding to Enbridge statements about the “unlikely event of a spill” at a conference like this with facts about spills is indeed an inappropriate thing to do. Perhaps he wants to say — and soon will say — that he feels obligated to support this today because of larger forces, but that he also disagrees with these forces. Better yet, perhaps Mayor Ness has thoughts about a new economic narrative, one that departs from the tired and dead narrative we’re suffering through project after project.

Wouldn’t that be something. For someone the mayor of Superior thinks should be the Governor of Minnesota, it might not be the worst idea.

UPDATE: Mayor Ness posted a public comment on facebook the day after the press conference. The comment is published in its entirely for your further information below (in the comments section).