Campaigning in New Hampshire, Jeb Bush is trying to avoid taking a position on a hot local issue -- a proposal, from a company run by top supporters of his presidential bid, to site a natural gas pipeline through the southern part of the state. Bush’s tactic: He insists that a president would not have power over pipeline approvals, even though the president is one of the most powerful officials in such decisions.
The New Hampshire pipeline in question would be built by Kinder Morgan -- a company that has run up $3.1 million in fines from environmental regulators since 2010. Opponents of the pipeline say it could endanger residents of the towns it will run through. As local protests have erupted over the pipeline plan, Bush has faced questions about his ties to the company.
The company's founder, Richard Kinder, is a fundraiser for Bush’s presidential campaign, and Kinder and his wife have donated $2 million to the super PAC backing the former Florida governor. The super PAC has also received $500,000 from Fayez Sarofim, who sits on Kinder Morgan’s board of directors. Kinder previously raised money for Bush when he was governor of Florida, and was a top Enron executive.
Bush has dodged the question of whether the pipeline should be built. "I think this should be locally driven,” Bush said of the Kinder Morgan project in July.
In August, Bush was pressed by environmental activists who pointed to the donations from the Kinder family to his super PAC and asked whether he would stop the pipeline as president. "It won't be my decision as president to make that decision,” Bush said, before touting the low cost of natural gas and arguing that New Hampshire residents should be able decide if “they want to have high utility prices."
Bush is not the only 2016 presidential candidate to resist declaring a position on the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline. “Well, as you know, this is a local matter,” Hillary Clinton said this summer. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, one of Bush’s GOP rivals, has called it a “local issue.”
In fact, a president has enormous influence in such decisions, because it is the president who appoints the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission -- the chief authority that approves and coordinates final pipeline siting decisions. (The Kinder Morgan route crosses state lines from New Hampshire to Massachusetts and New York.) And Republicans in Congress are currently championing legislation that critics say would further empower FERC to circumvent objections from state agencies and communities and allow pipelines to proceed without local input at all.
In September, the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved a bill that would let FERC impose deadlines on state and local officials working to review the environmental impact of proposed pipelines. Environmental groups say the deadlines would effectively prevent state and local governments from slowing the development of pipelines in their communities. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., offered the legislation to expedite pipeline development one day after employees at a large natural gas pipeline company donated more than $80,000 to his joint fundraising vehicle.
Other presidential candidates are also raising money from energy companies that want government approval for their projects. A super PAC supporting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s Republican bid has raised $25,000 from Liberty Natural Gas, a company seeking to build a liquefied natural gas terminal off the coast of New Jersey. The terminal must be approved by Christie’s administration as well as the governor of New York.
South Jersey Gas, which has pushed for approval of a controversial pipeline crossing the fragile ecosystem of New Jersey's Pinelands, has pledged to donate $450,000 to Choose New Jersey, a nonprofit group that has funded Christie’s foreign travel. Christie’s appointees on the Board of Public Utilities gave initial approval for the proposed South Jersey Gas pipeline in July.