TransCanada Dodges Questions on Its Controversial Land Agent/Preacher [UPDATED]
On Monday, I wrote about a TransCanada land agent named Myron Stafford who moved to Nebraska five years ago, got added to the board of deacons at the local First Baptist Church, and started filling in for the regular Sunday minister and performing weddings and funerals. His position at the church quickly gave him standing in the community -- and it sure didn't hurt his day job, obtaining easements for TransCanada to build the controversial Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline across Nebraska. But as I detail in my story, his approach of offering to pray with landowners during negotiating sessions, quoting Bible verses, and ticking off the religious ceremonies where he has officiated didn’t sit well with some landowners along the KXL route.
“My faith is an incredibly important thing to me,” one property owner told me, “and if I’m going to talk to you about that, then let’s go talk about that. But if I’m going to buy hay, I typically don’t.”
My report for OnEarth (“TransCanada's Not Paying This Preacher to Save Souls”) created a bit of a stir at today's company press briefing in advance of what's expected to be an eight-hour State Department hearing on the pipeline project. The story was based in part on tape recordings made in cooperation with Nebraska land owner Terry Van Housen [pictured above at the hearing], who was among those concerned about Stafford using his position with the Baptist church as a way to help make land deals. I asked both Stafford and TransCanada officials to comment for my story before it was published; Stafford referred me to corporate spokespeople who didn’t return my calls. So today, at the news conference in the beef pit of the Nebraska State Fairgrounds, where the public hearing is being held, I asked TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard about the story. The following is a transcript of our public exchange [UPDATE: and a later private conversation after the briefing].
TG: Can you respond to landowners’ allegations that they’ve been anywhere from deceived to intimidated in order to get their cooperation?
SH: I’m certainly aware of your story, Ted. And our land agents . . . the expectation is extremely clear about what they’re there to talk about. They’re there to talk about our pipeline. They’re there to talk about the easement. They’re there to provide landowners with as much information as they require. And that expectation from the company is clear. I think Tom [a landowner that TransCanada brought to the press conference] can talk to what we’ve been like to deal with, in terms of his dealings with us. We recognize that not every landowner will support a project going through, and some of those discussions aren’t as difficult. There’s a process we’re required to follow -- not just as a company but also as state law -- and we follow those.
TG: Just to follow up ... if you’re aware of the story, can you comment on your opinion of Myron Stafford’s practices as a land agent?
SH: I’ve told you what our expectations for our land agents are.
TG: Is he meeting your expectations?
SH: I’ve given you the comment that I’m going to provide on that story. Ambushing somebody with a camera when they’re there to meet a landowner ... you know, that speaks for itself. Next question.
TG: So your land agents say different things behind closed doors than they say in public?
SH: I’ve given the statement that we’re going to offer on that.
TG: I just --
SH: That’s the final question from you. You’re not going to get me to change the answer here.
TG: All I wanted to hear was whether or not you approve of his practices.
SH: Our expectations of our land agents are extremely clear.
TG: And is he meeting the expectations? That’s a simple question ... If you approve of it, why not say so? If you don’t, just say that.
SH: Getting pieces of a tape recording don’t tell me what the story is.
TG: We can provide the full tape if you’d like to hear it.
SH: I’d be happy to talk you after about this, but the reality is: the expectations for our land agents are clear.
TG: We’ve been calling and e-mailing and no one ever responds, so we come to press conferences when you have them.
SH: I just told you we’ll deal with you later.
TG: I look forward to that, but I’m hoping just to hear whether or not you approve of the practices that Myron Stafford has been using to get easements.
SH: The practices for our land agents are extremely clear. And that’s what our statement is going to be.
UPDATE: From a private conversation after the press conference:
TG: So tell me about Myron Stafford. You said you knew the story, you’d seen it.
TG: Were you aware of what he was up to in Polk and York counties?
SH: Well, I’ll take exception to: “what he was up to.” He’s there meeting with landowners. Based on what I saw in your story, he was responding to questions. There was a conversation going on. It would be like you walking up to me somewhere -- “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” I mean, I didn’t see anything based on what you recorded, that he was preaching or doing other things. This is a land agent who has worked for us for a number of years, and he lives in that community. In small communities, people know each other. If I was somebody’s kid’s soccer coach or if I was out there with the Rotary Club or whatever, they know those kinds of community activities. Are they there to answer questions from landowners about our pipeline? Absolutely. I mean, that’s there job. If someone asks them about activities that they’re involved in, trying to make a connection, it seems to me that responding to that and being open about that is part of what these conversations often become. But they’re there to do a job, and that job is, “Here’s the information about the pipeline.” If that particular person had a concern about some of the conversations, in the packages that people are given, there’s all kinds of contact information for people who someone like Myron would report to. And they will step in to find out what’s going on. And if there’s something that shouldn’t have been communicated or if somebody was having an issue with the information that was being provided, we step in and deal with that. But all of that information, it is provided, and our senior land management, their contact numbers are in there for a reason. It’s so people can bring issues forward if there are any, so that we’re sure that they’re doing what they’re supposed to.
TG: And so you do think he’s been doing what he’s supposed to?
SH: I’m not in that kitchen. I’m not in that person’s living room. All I can go on is what you put in your story, and based on what was in there, he was responding to questions. And it seemed like, from the way you had written it, that it was a don’t-I-know-you kind of conversation. He’s answering questions. If he’s doing something different, I don’t know based on that piece that you wrote. They know going in, “Here’s the information that you’re to talk about about our project.” But if you and I are having a conversation and you might know me from somewhere and you’re trying to draw a connection or you think I look familiar, and all of sudden you identify, okay, we go to the same community church. I mean, this guy is part of that community. He has been for years. People will know that.
TG: And the landowners who say that he asked that they pray together on the decision?
SH: Well, okay, I don’t know that. I don’t know that. If that’s what was going, that’s not part of what we do. They’re there to talk about a pipeline. But I don’t know the conversations that are going on, and it’s difficult for me to say, “Well, he should have done this, he shouldn’t have done that,” because I don’t know what else was being said as part of that conversation.
TG: Is TransCanada looking into it?
SH: We have talks with our land agents all the time. And when issues come forward, our senior land management looks into them. And they’ll obviously look at what’s been said here. And if something wasn’t done according to what our expectations are, they will make sure that he’s reminded that there’s a certain way that we do business. But the other part of this is … we hire people who are part of these communities. They’re reflective of those communities.
TG: Myron Stafford’s not from that community.
SH: He has been for years.
TG: He was moved there as part of this project from Tennessee.
SH: He moved here. But regardless --
TG: I’m just saying he’s not part of the community. He’s a transplant to the community.
SH: He came to work in that community. He has become a part of that community. He’s been here longer than a lot of the opponents of the pipeline have.
TG: Well, I can tell you that Terry Van Housen, who made the recording, his family has been on the land for generations.
SH: I’m aware of that. But I’m just saying, [Stafford] made an effort to become a part of the community. So that’s kind of what’s expected of those kinds of jobs. And it could be anything from me coaching my son’s baseball team, where I want to give back and be involved in that community. Those become your friends and your neighbors. It’s not all about the pipeline.
Image: Ted Genoways