It’s been a tough week for the pipeline business. First, Duke Energy and Dominion Energy announced they are cancelling their plan to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline from West Virginia to Virginia and southward into North Carolina. A day later, a federal judge in Washington, DC ordered Energy Transfer, the operator of the Dakota Access pipeline, to cease operations and empty the pipeline of oil no later than August 5. He further ordered the pipeline closed until the Army Corps of Engineers comes up with an acceptable environmental impact study, which could take up to 13 months to prepare.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline
In a recent article, we said “Earth justice = social justice = racial justice.” The ACP violated all three principles. Proponents touted a number of economic advantages, including the number of jobs it would create for those building it, but ignored the impact on the local communities that would be affected by it. As is typical in America today, the route of the proposed pipeline was carefully chosen to avoid any white enclaves while traversing communities of color.
All those workers would descend on the area, build the pipeline, then depart, leaving the poorest and least politically empowered neighborhoods to deal with the spills, the air pollution, and the further contamination of their neighborhoods. The ACP also threatened to disrupt the Appalachian Trail, which set off a fight between the National Park Service, which owns the Trail, and the US Forest Service, which owns the land underneath it.
Let’s be honest. If humans have any hope of living on our planet for generations to come, we have to stop burning stuff. It makes no difference whether that stuff is coal, natural gas, oil, or anything else. Burning stuff releases carbon dioxide, which accelerates global heating. To survive, we must stop adding more carbon dioxide to the noxious stew that is already there. All the corporate and political blather about jobs and national security detracts from the ultimate goal — lowering the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million or less.
Delay Wins The Day
In the end, opposition from poor communities and those who are against building a pipeline under the Appalachian Trail sealed the fate of the ACP. Dominion and Duke Energy have announced they are abandoning the project after pouring more than $3.5 billion into it. Much of that money has gone to fighting court challenges.
Lawyers say delay always works to someone’s advantage, and in this instance the delay in the courts accomplished what the plaintiffs didn’t have the power to do politically. Oddly enough, the companies just won in the US Supreme Court, which ruled last month the US Forest Service had the authority to grant permission for the pipeline to pass under the Appalachian Trail. (The US Park Service opposed the pipeline.)
While that suit was wending its way through the courts, the world continued to turn and challenges to fossil fuel interests increased everywhere in America. In May, a federal judge in Montana ruled the permitting process for portions of the infamous Keystone XL pipeline were fatally flawed, throwing into doubt as many as 70 ongoing pipeline projects. That ruling was the last straw for Dominion and Duke Energy.
“This announcement reflects the increasing legal uncertainty that overhangs large-scale energy and industrial infrastructure development in the United States,” Dominion chief executive Thomas F. Farrell II and Duke Energy chief executive Lynn J. Good said in a joint statement according to the Washington Post. “Until these issues are resolved, the ability to satisfy the country’s energy needs will be significantly challenged.”
Reaction Is Mixed
Predictably, there were mixed reactions to the announcement that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is now dead. “The courageous leadership of impacted community members who refused to bow in the face of overwhelming odds is an inspiration to all Americans,” Al Gore and Reverand William Barber said in a joint statement. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented several conservation groups the court challenges, issued a statement saying, “This is a victory for all the communities that were in the path of this risky and unnecessary project.”
But Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia, who is the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement, “The pipeline would have created good paying construction and manufacturing jobs for hard working West Virginians, reinvested in our energy markets increasing our domestic energy supply, and strengthened national security with reliable energy to key military installations.” In other words, the fate of the Earth should take second place to the needs for jobs and national security, as if the approaching climate catastrophe is not the greatest danger the United States will ever face.
Judge Orders Dakota Access Pipeline Shut Down
On July 6, judge James Boasberg of the US District Court for Washington, DC vacated an easement granted by the US Army Corps of Engineers that allowed the owners of the Dakota Access pipeline to build part of it beneath Lake Oahe in North Dakota and South Dakota. The latest court order requires Dakota Access be shutdown and emptied of any oil no later than August 5. The pipeline must remain closed until the Corps of Engineers produces an environmental impact statement that complies with the National Environmental Policy Act, a process the Corps says will take about 13 months, according to a report by CNN.
“Fearing severe environmental consequences, American Indian Tribes on nearby reservations have sought for several years to invalidate federal permits allowing the Dakota Access Pipeline to carry oil under the lake,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “Today they finally achieved that goal — at least for the time being.” It is certain the owners of the pipeline will appeal the ruling to the full DC Court of Appeals and from there to the US Supreme Court, so the plaintiffs have won a battle in an ongoing war between Earth justice and fossil fuel companies.
“Today is a historic day for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the many people who have supported us in the fight against the pipeline,” said Mike Faith, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, in a statement. “This pipeline should have never been built here. We told them that from the beginning.”
“It took four long years, but today justice has been served at Standing Rock,” said Jan Hasselman, an Earthjustice attorney representing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, in a statement. “If the events of 2020 have taught us anything, it’s that health and justice must be prioritized early on in any decision-making process if we want to avoid a crisis later on.”
There could be no bigger symbol of the power of governments and corporations to trample on the rights of the environment and Indigenous people than the Dakota Access pipeline. Transfer Energy and the state of North Carolina hired an army of private and public security people to bludgeon the Standing Rock protesters. They were arrested for praying and threatened with state and federal crimes that carried prison sentences of 40 years or more. America has not seen such a resort to violence on behalf of corporate interests since Andrew Carnegie hired the Pinkertons to murder strikers at the Homestead steel mill in 1892.
“Between the Atlantic Coast Pipeline cancellation and now the ruling to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline — we are deeply troubled by these setbacks for US energy leadership,” said Mike Sommers, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute. “Our nation’s outdated and convoluted permitting rules are opening the door for a barrage of baseless, activist-led litigation, undermining American energy progress and denying local communities the environmental, employment and economic benefits modern pipelines provide.”
Translation: “We should be left alone to rape and pillage the land. We’re making a sh*tload of money and we don’t want anything like some stupid law to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”
Predictably, the Trump maladministration has decried the court’s decision. Energy Secretary du jour Dan Brouillette issued a statement saying, “It is disappointing that, once again, an energy infrastructure project that provides thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in economic revenue has been shut down by the well-funded environmental lobby, using our Nation’s court system to further their agenda.” He conveniently failed to mention that investment in renewables creates far more employment opportunities than investments in fossil fuels.
Brouillette added the government will “continue fighting for the expansion of American energy infrastructure, well-paying jobs for the American people, and the strengthening of our energy security and reliability.” [All of which could be done better and for less money by investing in renewables.]
But Bob McNally, president of consulting firm Rapidan Energy Group, told CNN the ruling shows the court’s “frustration with what it regards as the Trump administration’s lackadaisical handling” of environmental reviews has “finally boiled over.” The government’s approach since it took office has been, “We don’t need no stinking environmental impact statements. We reward our friends and punish our enemies and no one can stop us.” Now someone has. Expect a tirade from the Tweeter in Chief any minute.
How will these two announcements affect the clean energy world? As Tina Casey wrote earlier today, the abandonment of the Atlantic Coast pipeline should invigorate clean energy alternatives to natural gas. We noted earlier this week that utilities are already going straight from coal to renewables, avoiding natural gas altogether.
Earth justice means eliminating fossil fuels entirely. The time is now and the urgency is great. Of course businesses who were relying on these pipelines to fatten their bottom lines are disappointed, but doing the right thing often means raining on someone’s parade. We have to decide whether short-term private interest overrides long-term social justice. That should be an easy decision to make.