Why It Took So Long to Defeat the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Six years of organizing, infighting, and lawsuits led to a rare, massive win for rural communities.

Protesters walk in front of the Supreme Court holding a banner with a picture of a pipeline on it saying "The Pipeline Stops."
Climate activist groups protest in front of the Supreme Court on Feb. 24. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was a planned underground highway of natural gas, meant to cover 600 miles across the South. Activists were hugely worried about the environmental impact of the pipeline, so their strategy was to block every attempt to get it built. They tried to keep pipelines away from the Appalachian Trail. They argued that construction of the pipeline put endangered species at risk. They filed lawsuits. All this work slowed the pipeline down, but what no one was expecting was what happened this weekend: After six years of legal fights, Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, the companies behind this pipeline, announced that the whole thing was canceled. How did this victory happen? And can it be replicated?

On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Lyndsey Gilpin, the founder and editor in chief of Southerly, a media organization covering ecology, justice, and culture in the South, about the people who dedicated years to successfully busting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: You’ve written about how right now the U.S. is in this boom time for pipelines. Can you explain why that’s so?

Lyndsey Gilpin: The energy industry has shifted from a reliance on coal to natural gas, and a major part of that is because the global market for coal has declined as natural gas and renewables have gotten cheaper. The other part of that is even the major utilities in the South are saying they want to reduce their carbon footprint.

What does this boom look like? How many miles of pipeline are we talking about?

Oh, God. I mean, tens and tens of thousands of pipelines. This is not new in any sense, especially in the South. If you look at a map of Louisiana, for instance, you can’t even see the outline of the state because there are so many pipelines criss-crossing. And you need pipelines to try to transport gas. A lot of them are very small. I think the difference here is there’s only a few out there that are 42 inches in width and that extend the length of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The other thing is that this one is traversing a landscape no other pipeline has traversed.

Tell me about the original vision for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Why was it necessary?

So Dominion and Duke said they needed to increase the amount of natural gas they were getting to their customers in Virginia and North Carolina. The idea was that, If we build this large pipeline because we’re the developers and also we’re buying the pipeline, we can more cheaply supply natural gas to our customers.

So it’s a win-win. It’s like, We’re doing this for us, but then we’ll also be able to give you a break on the energy.

Right. So the way they got this through a lot of county commissioners and city councils was that they said, While we’re building this huge project that’ll make your energy cheaper, we’ll provide thousands of jobs and in construction, and in general, it’ll be an economic boon for the area. That’s sort of why it so easily passed through. It was an easy sell to leaders.

As the pipeline project grew more complicated, with construction delays and legal challenges, its costs ballooned. So the promise of cheap gas seemed like less and less of a sure thing. And in places where the energy industry had left an ugly scar on the land, or pollution in the air or water, people were more skeptical of any promises from Duke and Dominion about the economic upside of a massive natural gas pipeline. 

From the beginning, this project was opposed by more people than would typically have opposed such a project in the past, because they’ve seen how the coal industry has decimated these communities, how it’s made a ton of wealth off Appalachian communities and then left them high and dry, with high unemployment rates. They left people sick and dying from pollution and black lung disease. So while it was an easy sell, the jobs part was very short term. I mean, Dominion told me that all in all, it would create a couple dozen permanent jobs. And the frame has always been, It’s going to provide thousands of construction jobs. Which is true. The construction jobs are not insignificant. But the other part of that is a lot of the construction jobs are very specialized. So many people in places I traveled through were saying these aren’t local jobs. They’re bringing in people from companies outside the region who know how to build pipelines, welders or people of a higher level of education or training. So locals weren’t actually getting those jobs that they were promised.

You talked about local opposition as opposed to political acceptance of the pipeline. And you traveled the entire length of the proposed pipeline to try to understand how local communities were reacting to the project. I’m wondering if you can take us to a couple of the places you visited.

One of the spots I went to in Virginia was Bath County, which has this place called Little Valley, which is this tiny narrow hollow with this creek running through it. I met this couple who had this land that had been in this woman’s family for hundreds of years. This pipeline was going to cut right across their property. I saw pieces of that throughout the whole route, these very small and significant attachments to the landscapes that people had because their families had grown up there. This is a place they called home. It might just seem like somebody’s backyard to a pipeline company. But to the people, it was everything.

In some of these communities you went to, you found people really fighting over the pipeline, having different opinions about whether the pipeline should go in. Can you take me inside one of those disagreements?

I met one couple with some farmland in North Carolina. The pipeline was right by their property. Right next to their house was this other little white house. The husband of the couple said, That’s my brother’s house and we don’t talk anymore. He’s angry at me for fighting this pipeline. His brother had apparently been very for the pipeline because he said it was an economic development opportunity. I ran into that a lot. There were church congregations that were very divided over this issue, with that sort of framing, You’re an environmentalist and you’re not for economic development, which is a very simplistic narrative that they’re fed by local officials and the companies.

It creates these divides that aren’t necessarily accurate. It doesn’t have to be a pipeline or nothing. It doesn’t have to be coal or nothing. But that’s the easy explanation people are given. When you have that combined with the fact that there are very few jobs and a lot of problems with a lack of hospitals, a lack of resources in general, no clean water—a lot of places like that make a project like this have more weight than you would imagine.

The activists you spent a bit of time with had worked in neighboring counties trying to get their communities involved and talking about the pipeline. Can you talk a little bit about what motivated them and why this was so important to them?

Two of the best people I met were Gary Grant and Belinda Joyner. They have for decades been fighting proposed industrial projects that could cause public health risks or environmental harm in their communities, in this particular region of eastern North Carolina that is predominantly Black. Where Grant is from, in Halifax County, the area is mostly agricultural. It was part of a New Deal settlement where Black people were given land to farm and to start making some money. But they were quickly flooded out and bought out by white settlers. And Appalachia is dominated by the coal industry. This part of North Carolina is really dominated by industrial farming, mostly hogs and now poultry. These farms cause a lot of issues with smell and waste and public health concerns.

Gary had been fighting all this for a really long time and has been on TV and quoted in newspapers and has literally never stopped. He convinced Joyner to join in the fight for other issues in their community. Joyner created this local group and took on, like, every industrial project that has come through this area in the past several years. It’s especially significant in this area of North Carolina because the environmental justice movement started a country over.

How did Grant and Joyner become interested in the pipeline and start organizing people around that? 
They have their ears to the ground on everything. They heard about this pipeline because there were three compressor stations that were supposed to be built along the route that would help transport the gas. They immediately started organizing against the pipeline. One they started, they were connected with other people in north and eastern North Carolina who were also fighting the ACP. That gave Grant and Joyner a lot more momentum because a lot of the communities in North Carolina that would have been affected by the pipeline are predominantly Black and Native American.

One piece of your reporting was focused on the fact that it wasn’t just that the pipeline was going through these rural and traditionally disenfranchised areas. It was also that it was being built in news deserts, places where there were no local newspapers. Or maybe the local paper was only coming out once a week or once a month, and it might not have the staff to really dig into the issue of the pipeline and the impact it might have on the community.

It took me a long time to piece that together. You have national media that covered it initially and then they left and came back when there was big news—maybe when some permit was canceled or it went to the Supreme Court. But those stories don’t really give context to what’s happening on the ground. If you just read the reporting of it by state and national newspapers, it just seems like, oh, this project’s still moving forward, and some people are against it while others are for it, a very simplistic narrative. And I think that that contributed to the fact that a lot of people felt defeated throughout all of this, like there was nothing they could do.

So many of the papers along the route are weeklies, and a lot of them are very clearly pro-business, pro-industry. Without local news, you realize how easily the narrative of economic versus environmental can manifest. That’s how you get such big divides in a lot of these places.

In your reporting, you push back on the idea that there’s this economic versus environmental dichotomy. You say it’s a false choice. But that said, the thing that stood out to me that there are real problems both sides are trying to articulate and address here, whether it’s the world needing more energy or the local communities needing more jobs and tax revenue. I wonder how these local groups are thinking about addressing those other needs that maybe their neighbor across the street sees and is scared about: that if these energy jobs go away, there won’t be anything left.

One of the most fascinating conversations happening in the region right now is how to transition in a way that’s equitable and affordable for everybody. And also how to incorporate environmental justice into all these decisions. It’s a shift in understanding what Appalachia and other rural areas can look like. And how to make that fair.

One of the advocates who’d been suing over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline said in a statement they put out after this big win that now is the time for these energy companies to pivot to solar and wind. Is there any sign these companies are planning to do that?

I think that’s a really big question. What’s really going to push them is what’s happening at the state level. Virginia passed a really historic piece of legislation called the Clean Economy Act a couple of months ago that will force Dominion to move forward with clean energy. North Carolina is sort of on that path too. So you see local communities moving toward this faster, but it’s going to take state-level work for utilities to change because they have the monopolies in these areas. That’s why anything they do is really hard for people to to fight, because they don’t have another choice for energy production. They can’t buy their power from somebody else in most cases.

I wonder if you look at this pipeline and see lessons for environmental justice activists in other places who might be thinking, How do I make myself heard? How do I repeat the work that’s been done here?

It shows you how long it takes for something like this to happen. It took six years. Six years of your life volunteering to get a project like this stopped is such a huge commitment. I can see very clearly why people feel defeated, why they feel like it’s not worth it. It just doesn’t happen very often like this.

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