Pipelines might be going the way of toilets, death, and sex — that is, best talked about discreetly. Just as ordinary folks might use a euphemism like “the birds and the bees,” a natural gas company is now awkwardly calling its proposed pipeline “an infrastructure.” No, really.
The proposed 12-mile pipeline, officially called the “Greenville County Reliability Project,” is meant to bring more natural gas to the growing population near Greenville County, South Carolina. Local environmentalists argue that the pipeline, proposed by a subsidiary of Duke Energy called Piedmont Natural Gas, is unnecessary. Duke Energy responded with a news release touting the community’s role in determining the pipeline’s route — but without any mention of the actual word “pipeline.”
Instead, there is plenty of discussion of a “new infrastructure project” and various “routes.” Pursuing the project’s site, you have to scroll down to the FAQ to find the p-word, as Politico pointed out. A page about construction includes some creative but not necessarily grammatically correct turns of phrase, perhaps to avoid the word “pipeline”:
Heavy equipment – such as excavators, cranes, rough terrain forklifts, track hoes, dump trucks, side booms and welding equipment – is often necessary to construct a large natural gas infrastructure. While construction of an infrastructure can take months, this equipment and associated construction on individual properties is much shorter in duration. [emphasis added]
Pipeline projects have become the subject of many fervent protests and ensuing legal battles over the last decade, from the Dakota Access pipeline to the Keystone XL expansion. Opponents often cite damage to ecosystems, potential water contamination, and the climate costs of pursuing further fossil fuel infrastructure instead of developing a cleaner grid. These efforts have managed to sink some projects, including Duke and Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline intended to carry natural gas across Appalachia, which was canceled last summer because of delays and ballooning legal costs. Considering this contentious history, it’s conceivable that companies may want to avoid the word “pipeline” to try to fly under the radar of environmental activists.
A spokesperson for Piedmont Natural Gas, however, cites a different reason for the news release’s linguistic gymnastics. “The word infrastructure is simply a way to indicate that a project includes MORE than pipe,” Jennifer Sharpe said in an email to Grist. “It also includes regulator facilities, control systems, system markers, corrosion coating, AC mitigation, etc. Calling it just a pipeline doesn’t provide an accurate description of the utility infrastructure we build.” Sharpe noted that “infrastructure” is a common term used by utilities.
Oil and gas companies have a long history of using spin to improve their reputation. The oil company BP, for example, rebranded from British Petroleum to the sustainable-sounding “Beyond Petroleum” in the early 2000s. Other messaging tweaks have been more subtle. At the same time that delegates gathered to meet in Glasgow, Scotland, for the United Nations’ international climate negotiations, BP and ExxonMobil began painting themselves as part of the solution on social media. Despite tweeting about a “lower carbon future” and touting renewable and electric vehicle investments, these companies’ spending on low-carbon projects is dwarfed by their spending on oil and gas.
There’s some evidence that public opinion may be souring on fossil fuels. Last year, the CEO of BP admitted that oil was becoming “socially challenged” and that the company was in danger of losing staff and finding it harder to recruit new hires. A recent analysis from the Oxford English Dictionary found that the phrase “fossil fuels” was being used alongside negative words like “divestment” and “phasing out” more frequently than in the past. Natural gas has the best reputation among the fossil fuels: 76 percent of Americans view it favorably, much more than support oil (51 percent) or coal (39 percent).
To be fair, it’s not only fossil fuels that are getting new names to avoid a rough reputation. In some Republican circles, the phrase “climate change” has become so politicized that communication experts recommend avoiding it in favor of more GOP-friendly terms like “resilience,” “future-proofing,” and “extreme weather.”