Entering into the public meeting on this early winter day in Iowa was reminiscent of visiting a new church eager for converts. Smiling faces greeted everyone at the door. Materials were placed into calloused hands as the staff kept everyone moving forward. Coffee and donuts were displayed on long tables — church-basement style. And the murmur of voices rose and fell in a comforting way as we were shunted to the auditorium. It all ran as smooth as oil.
Crude Oil Pipeline Project — Iowa Informational Meetings — Newton, Iowa.
Bunched at the back door of the auditorium were large men. Farmers. Beefy. Strong. Their feed caps were pushed up higher on their foreheads today. No sun beating down in here. Their bulk blocked the narrow entrance into the auditorium. Clogging the line. The people behind milled and gathered, perplexed as to what to do next. A person at the mike was encouraging the flow to continue. It didn’t.
Eventually, the people in charge of the meeting cleared the blockage. The farmers and union folks and Grannies-for-a-Liveable-Future and everybody else were placed into seats. Sound equipment was tested. The meeting began.
It’s a bit of a tough sell when you think about it. How do you tell Iowans that their land will be dug up, a pipeline planted in their corn field, 38-inches down, and crude oil will be pumped underneath the land they have stewarded against harm for generations? Really?
Well, the pipeline company spokesman, Chuck Frey, was the man for the job. A voice that was down home just enough, but not too much. Not young by any means. No tie or jacket on stage. Eyes that crinkled with humor on a worn face. Smart as a whip. A pen showing in his shirt pocket, as if to write down anything important you might say. And don’t forget the Mr. Rogers’ lilt, that comforting sing-song we all love, where the sentences end on just a fraction higher musical note. The perfect choice.
And Mr. Frey did his job. Safety, security, non-invasive construction, and 100% promise to pay for any damage to the land, any loss of crops, harm to livestock, and to clean up all “events.” “We will meet or exceed all safety requirements,” Mr. Frey assured us.
Oh, yes, and did I mention the money? Lots of money. Money for Iowa. Money for the 15 permanent jobs. Money for the construction. Money for the land owners. Money for taxes. Short-term money. Long-term money. Money money money.
And when people raised questions about the environment and the need for an environmental impact review, or were worried about the past-record of spills and clean-ups, or were concerned that the promised jobs were really Iowa jobs, or whether the estimate of economic impact was correct, or whether the pipeline was really a public purpose, or whether the ultimate use of the crude oil after it was refined was for outside the U.S., or whether the impact on train and truck transport would be reduced by moving oil through the pipeline, or whether it is wise to support an industry that is contrary to Iowa’s use of alternative energy sources such as ethanol and wind . . . . Mr. Frey looked concerned. Engagingly concerned. Helpfully concerned. We’ll-get-to-the-bottom-of-this concerned.
He didn’t know the number of “events” or “releases” in the past. Sorry. He stuck by his economic impact numbers (although Professor Dave Swenson, an economist from ISU who is not for or against the pipeline, finds them seriously exaggerated). And, as for the grumbling about the environment, Mr. Frey spoke of America. God love it. The need to be free of foreign oil. We as citizens demand the oil, the pipeline just satisfies our needs. End of story to a smattering of applause. An amazing performance. Bravo.
So, I had to talk to him.
“How does it feel for you to do these meetings where so many people are emotionally invested in hating you or loving you?”
Hesitation. Well, actually, he looks down at his feet like an uncomfortable young boy. Shucks.
“I don’t think I can really can’t talk about that. You’ll have to talk to the media representative to see if I can answer that question.”
Media representative: “Gosh, I never want to say no to the media, but I’m afraid it is . . . no.”
Mmmm . . . I get it. It’s simple. To ask about “feelings” is a personal question. It’s treating Mr. Frey as a person. This isn’t personal. Don’t try to make it personal.
This is a thirty-inch pipe traveling the length of Iowa wrapped in money. Lots of money for the pipe-line people. Some money for the people who own the land. Short-term money for the workers, whatever their number really is and whoever they really are. And money for the State. That’s all this is.
It’s just about money, folks. It isn’t personal.