Branstad: Deck wasn't stacked to approve pipeline

William Petroski

Gov. Terry Branstad said Tuesday he's no friend of oil interests in Texas and strongly disputed allegations by opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline that his business-friendly appointments virtually assured  approval of the $3.8 billion project.

"It is kind of laughable. There is probably no guy that Big Oil hates more than me," Branstad told reporters.

But former state legislator Ed Fallon of Des Moines, a leader  of the pipeline opposition group Bold Iowa, contends the governor's appointments of pro-business regulators to the Iowa Utilities Board left no doubt what would happen when the three-member panel considered the pipeline plans.

"He is not taking any responsibility for his role in greasing the skids with the Utilities Board," Fallon said.

Branstad, a Republican, acknowledged that he visited a Houston restaurant in December 2013 for an Iowa re-election campaign fundraiser with wealthy Texans. Campaign finance records show that $102,786 was contributed to Branstad's campaign from Texas donors that month. But Branstad insisted his strong stance in favor of renewable energy has put him at odds with the petroleum industry, which has been critical of the federal government's Renewable Fuel Standard.

Branstad said the 2013 fundraiser was prompted by an invitation from former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who also headlined a re-election fundraiser in Ames for Branstad in May 2014. At the time, Perry was considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination. Perry joined the corporate board of Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners in early 2015 and a company spokeswoman said he still serves on the board. The pipeline project was announced in June 2014 by Dakota Access LLC, a unit of Energy Transfer Partners.

Branstad strongly rejected any implication that he has been a tool of the petroleum industry.

"Oh, come on. I raised a lot more money from Iowa farmers and ethanol producers and people who are interested in wind energy and other things," Branstad said. "Yes, I did get some support from my friend Rick Perry, who was a great governor and did a wonderful job of attracting business and jobs to Texas. There are things we can learn from each other, and I appreciate the support that he gave me, but it had nothing to do with oil." 

The pipeline's construction has faced protest and backlash in several states, including Iowa. Thirty pipeline opponents were arrested last week in Boone after they tried to blockade an entrance to a pipeline construction staging site, and some held anti-Branstad signs.

Criticism of appointments

Adam Mason, state policy coordinator for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said Branstad virtually assured the Iowa Utilities Board's 3-0 approval of the Iowa section of the four-state pipeline project by appointing Geri Huser, a business-friendly Democrat, as chairwoman of the board in March 2015. Huser filled the post of attorney Sheila Tipton, who complained later she was not reappointed by Branstad in a move to appease MidAmerican Energy, which later said it did not lobby for personnel changes on the board.

At the same time, Branstad demoted Libby Jacobs, a Republican, who remains on the board but no longer serves as chairwoman. The third board seat is filled by Republican Nick Wagner. All three board members are former state legislators and are considered pro-business.

Mason who was arrested at the Boone protest, said there is a consensus among anti-pipeline activists that Branstad shares some blame for the state's approval of the pipeline project. Organizers said Tuesday more pipeline protests are planned in Iowa.

"We would have liked to have seen more leadership out of the governor in terms of protecting landowners from eminent domain abuse," Mason said. "I think that comes from a history of Branstad siding with big business. We have seen over and over again in his administration — whether it is a corporate property tax rollback, support for big ag and the continued pollution of our water — time and time again he sides with corporate interests over the people of Iowa."


Branstad, who spoke to reporters at his weekly news briefing Tuesday morning, took issue with his critics.

"There is nobody that is a stronger advocate, is more vehement, about the need for renewable energy. I have consistently gone after Big Oil and the misinformation, the lies, that they have told about ethanol," the governor said.

Branstad described the pipeline's approval as stemming from a "very thoughtful and very deliberative" process by the Iowa Utilities Board. He noted that informational hearings were conducted in each of the 18 counties along the pipeline route.

As governor, Branstad said his only role is to appoint citizens to the Iowa Utilities Board, and he added that he doesn't always agree with the board's decisions.

"But I respect the process and the decisions that they have made, and I believe it is important that we not interfere with the rights of workers who are building the pipeline," Branstad said.

Fallon said pipeline foes aren't quitting.

"The bottom line is that this is not over. There are lawsuits and there is increasing national interest in this pipeline. People are understanding that this is the replacement for the Keystone XL pipeline, and there is increasing pressure on President Obama to step forward and do something," he said.

An activist holds an anti-Branstad sign last week at a protest last week in Boone where 30 people were arrested for blocking entrances to a Dakota Access pipeline construction staging site.