After months of employing military-style counterinsurgency tactics to subvert opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, and South Dakota, the private security firm TigerSwan is monitoring resistance to another project — the controversial Mariner East 2 pipeline.
Like DAPL, Mariner East 2 is owned by Energy Transfer Partners. The pipeline is slated to run for 350 miles, transporting ethane, butane, and propane through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia to a hub near Philadelphia for shipment to both domestic and international markets. Internal TigerSwan documents reviewed by The Intercept suggest the company has had a presence in Pennsylvania since at least April.
On April 1, the Mariner East 1 pipeline, which runs parallel to the proposed path of ME2, spilled 20 barrels of ethane and propane near Morgantown, Pennsylvania. On the day of the incident, an email provided to The Intercept by a TigerSwan contractor shows the firm was watching social media for signs the spill would become a rallying point for pipeline opponents.
“At this time the incident has NOT gained any public interest,” a TigerSwan operative wrote in the email.
TigerSwan founder James Reese replied, “We nees [sic] to monitor social media for blow baxk [sic] on the leak.”
The company had been monitoring Dakota Access opponents’ social media for months and analyzing press coverage related to that pipeline fight, according to more than 100 internal situation reports leaked to The Intercept. The documents routinely referenced counterinformation efforts to produce and distribute propaganda favorable to the pipeline.
TigerSwan apparently carried at least some of these practices to Pennsylvania. It would be weeks before the public learned of the leak of highly explosive natural gas liquids. According to a source with direct knowledge of TigerSwan’s operation, making sure nobody found out about the incident was part of TigerSwan’s mission on the project. Nearby residents were kept in the dark until April 20, when Sunoco, which recently completed a merger with Energy Transfer Partners, confirmed to a local media outlet that the leak had occurred.
As Dakota Access opponents moved to new pipeline fights across the country, other repressive tactics deployed against the NoDAPL movement migrated too. TigerSwan’s entry into the ME2 struggle comes as industry-supported lawmakers in Pennsylvania, a center of the nation’s fracking boom, are advancing legislative efforts to increase fines and charges associated with anti-pipeline direct action protests.
The TigerSwan situation reports show that as early as February, as state officials prepared to evacuate the first pipeline resistance camp in North Dakota, the security firm was monitoring the potential for DAPL opposition to spill over into grassroots struggles against other pipeline projects, including ME2 and Energy Transfer Partners’ Rover pipeline in Ohio. “Recently, Illinois activists have begun to shift their focus in earnest from anti-DAPL to anti-pipeline,” a situation report dated February 21 reads. “They have started sharing information on multiple pipeline projects across the country. There has not yet been any mention of Mariner East or Rover, but there is an active effort to continue their momentum in fighting pipeline construction and operation.”
Public records also show an increased interest by the company in areas through which other Energy Transfer Partners projects would pass.
Last November, TigerSwan obtained business licenses in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, the three states in the path of ME2. On June 1, TigerSwan also obtained a business license to operate in Louisiana, where Energy Transfer Partners is building the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, which would connect to the Dakota Access Pipeline system and carry Bakken shale oil to Gulf Coast export terminals.
At a February hearing held by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, TigerSwan advisory board chair James “Spider” Marks, a retired U.S. Army major general, spoke in favor of building the pipeline — without revealing his association with TigerSwan. He also published an op-ed in the Lafayette Daily Advertiser newspaper decrying the “anti-energy agitators” who oppose the project.
“No Louisianan wants to live under the conditions that those unsuspecting North Dakota residents were subject to — with protesters trespassing, interrupting the local flow of traffic, and generally injecting elements of fear and the unknown into their daily lives,” Marks wrote. “A timely approval process of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, however, would prevent the possibility of such conditions arising in this state.”
In May, Marks wrote another opinion piece that failed to disclose his TigerSwan affiliation, this time for the Pennsylvania news site PennLive, warning readers there to “be wary of professional pipeline protesters” who turned Standing Rock into a scene of “hapless violence and bloodshed.”
“Many of the same professional agitators who fomented chaos in North Dakota are turning their efforts to the Mariner East II Pipeline in Pennsylvania,” Marks wrote. “These orchestrators make no qualms about their intent to turn Camp White Pine — a small but growing protest area in Huntingdon County — into the next national showdown.”
Energy Transfer Partners declined to comment, writing in an email to The Intercept that it does not “discuss details of our security initiatives, which are designed to ensure the safety of our employees and the communities in which we live and work.” In an email sent to The Intercept from a TigerSwan account, an unnamed representative of the firm declined to answer questions about TigerSwan’s work on ME2, but commented on its social media monitoring efforts. “Of course we monitor social media during any type of situation,” the person wrote. “With the advent of so many bots on twitter and those organizations who perpetuate defamatory and outrageous slander against not only American companies but local, state and national law enforcement on the internet, we wouldn’t be doing our job unless we did.” Marks did not respond to a request for comment. Last week, TigerSwan retweeted a comment characterizing his PennLive piece as a “TigerSwan op-ed.”
Opponents of the ME2 project say they’ve noticed an increased security presence around the pipeline’s path in recent months. “They’ve been making us feel that we’re under constant threat and observation,” Elise Gerhart told The Intercept.
Elise and her parents, Ellen and Stephen Gerhart, have campaigned against ME2 for more than two years and currently host Camp White Pine on their 27-acre property along the pipeline’s right of way in Pennsylvania’s Huntingdon County, where they stage tree-sits to protest the clearing of land for construction. As the pipeline’s construction moves closer, Elise said unmarked pickup trucks have parked across the road from their driveway at night, shining their high beams toward the camp. Helicopters have regularly hovered low over their land, a tactic familiar to Standing Rock protesters.
According to StateImpact Pennsylvania, a spokesperson for Sunoco and Energy Transfer Partners denied that the newly merged company or its partners had flown helicopters over the Gerhart property.
In southeastern Pennsylvania’s Delaware County, Eric Friedman, president of a local homeowner’s association, said that as resistance to the project has grown more vocal, so has residents’ sense that they are being watched. Friedman’s group is concerned that the pipeline will move pressurized natural gas liquids through a densely populated suburban area, in close proximity to schools and a senior living facility. Last month, one of the schools started practicing emergency drills to prepare for a possible pipeline explosion, and a study commissioned by a local coalition for community safety warned of the worst-case consequences of potential leaks, including the ignition of “a fireball with a blast radius up to 1,100 feet.”
In recent months, administrators of area Facebook groups opposed to the pipeline reported getting requests from individuals they “have questions about,” Friedman noted. “I suspect that they’re here and using the same kinds of tactics,” he told The Intercept, referring to private security agents. “My sense is that they escalate their response in accordance to the resistance that they’re being met with.”
While the unmarked trucks and strange Facebook requests couldn’t be definitively traced to a private security contractor, TigerSwan’s documented efforts on behalf of Energy Transfer Partners to repress the anti-DAPL movement have raised concerns for ME2 opponents.
“A year ago, people didn’t realize that the company that was using these kinds of tactics in North Dakota was the same company that’s proposing to build this project here. There wasn’t a lot of awareness,” Friedman said. “Now that’s very much in everybody’s mind.”
In Pennsylvania, as in North Dakota, public officials have also played a role increasing pressure on pipeline opponents.
On May 4, state Sen. Scott Martin hosted a closed-door forum between first responders in Lancaster County and officials from North Dakota who were involved in policing the NoDAPL movement. The next day, citing costs associated with the North Dakota protests, Martin distributed a memorandum seeking a co-sponsor for a bill he was drafting that would hold individuals “civilly liable for response costs related to a demonstration if the person is convicted for rioting,” “is a public nuisance,” or “is involved in hosting the demonstration.”
Martin represents much of Lancaster County, which is home to the Lancaster Stand, an action camp located on private property whose organizers have promised to use the grounds as a base for direct actions against the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline once construction begins.
This isn’t the first anti-protester legislation to be pushed in the state. State Sen. Mike Regan recently introduced a measure defining a new type of felon: the “critical infrastructure facility trespasser.” The label could be applied for as little as “attempt[ing] to enter a critical infrastructure facility, knowing that the person is not licensed or privileged to do so.” An individual who succeeded in entering the property with “intent” to damage or destroy equipment or even simply to impede facility operations would face up to two years in prison and a minimum $10,000 fine, as would anyone “conspiring” with others to trespass. Critical infrastructure is defined in the bill as including numerous types of oil and gas infrastructure. The bill was scheduled for a judiciary committee vote last month, which was canceled at the last minute.
As Pennsylvania’s Raging Chicken Press reported, language in the bill mirrors that of a recently approved Oklahoma law penalizing oil and gas industry protesters. And indeed, it’s part of a trend of anti-protester legislation introduced in more than a dozen states across the U.S., including bills aimed at oil infrastructure protesters in Colorado, South Dakota, and North Dakota.
But even without the new legislation, ME2 opponents have faced stiff penalties for hindering construction.
In March 2016, as contractors for Sunoco began cutting down trees, Huntingdon County sheriff’s deputies arrested Ellen Gerhart on her own property when she attempted to warn construction crews that her daughter, Elise, was in a tree dangerously close to where they were clearing. Two other pipeline opponents were also arrested. One of them, Alex Lotorto, was detained for three days on a $200,000 bail. Gerhart, a retired special education teacher, was later arrested a second time on her property, and according to a public comment she submitted to the state Department of Environmental Protection, was held in isolation for three days without access to a lawyer.
Charges against her were eventually dropped, but Sunoco later requested that a Pennsylvania judge allow law enforcement to arrest trespassers on the pipeline easement — even if they happened to own the easement land. On April 28, in a rare decision, Huntingdon County Judge George Zanic complied with the request, ordering what’s known as a “writ of possession” enabling authorities to arrest the Gerharts for trespassing on their own property.
Meanwhile, in Delaware County, disputes between property owners and the pipeline company have also ramped up. In May, after some stakes that a pipeline survey crew had placed along the project site were removed overnight, a project manager representing Sunoco emailed an attorney for the local homeowners association. “Because of this, the survey will have to be done again and further monitoring of the property will be requested from the local authorities,” the agent warned in an email reviewed by The Intercept. The Sunoco agent added that “the professional survey crew staked within the limits of the project and did not trespass on anyone’s property.”
But Eric Friedman disputes that and says the stakes were placed by the pipeline company on the private property of the Andover Homeowners’ Association and private lots within the subdivision. “The very idea that Sunoco’s agents would call upon law enforcement to protect their trespass strikes me as completely backwards,” Friedman told The Intercept.
“I took that as a threat to use law enforcement against us,” he added. “It indicated to me that he was at some level in contact with the Pennsylvania State Police and threatening to activate them against us.”
Lt. James Hennigan of the Pennsylvania State Police, which is in charge of the area where the incident took place, wrote in a statement to The Intercept that the agency “responds to all calls for service. Our members take appropriate action if any crime has been committed.”
In North Dakota and Iowa, TigerSwan regularly shared information with law enforcement. The Huntingdon County Sheriff’s Office, in the Gerharts’ county, and the police department in Caernarvon Township, where the Mariner East 1 leak took place, did not respond to requests for comments about collaboration with private security.
Friedman said he hopes local law enforcement will work with residents rather than pipeline representatives. “We live here, we are your neighbors, we are the same as you,” he said. “These people are not, they are outsiders, and you should be working for us. We are your constituents.”