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Herb Rothschild Jr.: PR and the LNG pipeline

I wouldn’t have liked to earn my living in public relations. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with the occupation. Still, I think I would have foundered on moral dilemmas. For example, I wouldn’t have wanted to work on the PR campaign that Pembina, the Canadian corporation that wants to build the Jordan Cove pipeline and LNG plant, just launched to win local support.

The latest mailer I received features a father and son fly fishing in the Rogue River, plus a hunting dog overlooking a wooded landscape. Below the dog are the words “Safe. Clean. Respectful.” Pembina’s mailer was crafted to blunt the primary argument of its opponents environmental threat.

If I were in public relations, though, and I were devising the PR strategy for the opposition, I would place much less emphasis on environmental concerns and much more on Pembina’s intention to use eminent domain to wrest right-of-way from unwilling property owners. It would be hard to come up with pretty images to disguise that assault.

In Kelo v. City of New London (2005), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Fifth Amendment didn’t forbid a governmental entity from taking one person’s property (a homeowner) and giving it to another (a developer) if that taking might benefit the community economically. Relevant to my strategy is that the majority was formed by the four liberals on the court plus Justice Kennedy, whereas the O’Connor, Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas formed the minority. They wrote in their dissent, “Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.” And Thomas wrote separately that the majority had ruled, “against all common sense, that a costly urban-renewal project whose stated purpose is a vague promise of new jobs and increased tax revenue ... is a ‘public use.’ ”

The Kelo decision ignited a firestorm. Surveys found that between 65 percent and 97 percent of us opposed it, depending on how the question was framed. Politicians on the left and the right condemned it. By July 2009, 42 states had enacted laws to prevent takings allowed by Kelo.

On Nov. 7, 2006, Oregon voters passed Measure 39, a constitutional change referred to the ballot by the Legislature. The relevant portion of its ballot summary read, “Measure prohibits public bodies from condemning private residence, business establishment, farm or forest operation if government intends to convey all or part of the property to another private party.” Exceptions were for transportation or utility services. I don’t think Jordan Cove would fall under either; all Pembina is promising Oregon is some jobs, which is what the New London developer promised. But I’m not making a legal case here; I’m making a PR case. Measure 39 passed 67 percent to 33 percent.

If a jury in Portland, of all places, found the Bundy brothers and their five co-defendants not guilty of their armed defiance of “the government” when they occupied public property, what will Oregonians feel about people defending their own properties against the state’s taking them to enrich a Canadian corporation? Were I not committed to nonviolence, I would suggest that property owners warn Kate Brown that they will defend their property if the State Land Board green-lights such takings. Instead, I will obstruct the bulldozers unarmed, and go to jail peaceably.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.

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