How Activists Brought Down a Massive Gas Pipeline

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S1: Lindsay Gilpin was hanging around her house this weekend when she got news that shocked her.

S2: I think I was outside or something and I got back to my phone and there were like fifteen text messages and a bunch of tweets. And I opened it up and my jaw dropped for sure.

S3: This news was not a story Lindsay has been reporting on for years for her own Web site, Southerly and others. It’s a story about an underground highway of natural gas being built across 600 miles of the American south. It’s called the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

S4: Lindsay has been watching as activists pressed to limit the pipeline’s scope. She’d seen them at city council meetings, kept track of lawsuits they filed. Do you know offhand how many?

S2: I guess if you include the eminent domain losses, there have been dozens.

S4: The activists were worried about the environmental impact of the pipeline. Their strategy was to block every attempt to get the thing built. They argued to keep the energy companies from laying pipe underneath the Appalachian Trail.

S2: They argued construction put endangered species at risk, most specifically this tiny little bumblebee called the rusty patch bumblebee.

S4: And all these lawsuits, all this work. It slowed the pipeline down. But what no one was expecting was what happened this weekend, which is that after six years of legal fights, the companies behind this pipeline, Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, announced the whole thing was canceled.

S2: I think everyone was surprised that it was canceled like it was a holiday weekend. I don’t think anyone had been expecting that.

S3: I wanted to talk to Lindsay because her reporting has been focused on the people in the path of the pipeline, the people who helped take the energy companies to court, and the people who simply felt ambivalent about the pipeline’s progress.

S2: And a few of them, you know, we’re very much like I don’t disapprove of this pipeline. I want this pipeline to happen. I just don’t want it to happen in my yard or near my son’s house.

S5: It took all these people to get these energy companies to change course. So today on the show, Lindsey is going to tell the backstory of how the Atlantic Coast pipeline went bust for activists. The question now is not just how did this victory happen, but how can it be replicated? Our Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: So you’ve written about how right now the U.S. is in this boom time for pipelines.

S2: Can you explain why the industry has shifted from a reliance on coal to natural gas? And, you know, 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 though the big major utilities in the south are saying we want to reduce our carbon footprint, and that has allowed natural gas to increase throughout the U.S..

S1: What does that boom look like? Like how many miles of pipeline are we talking about?

S2: Oh, God. I mean, tens and tens of thousands of pipelines. I mean, there’s this is not new in any sense, especially in the in the South. Like, if you look at a map of Louisiana, for instance, there are just I mean, you can’t even see the outline of the state because there are so many pipelines criss crossing and you need pipelines to transport gas. You know, a lot of them are very small. I think the difference in this one is there’s only a few out there that are this large in width. Right. Forty two inches and very few that that extend the length of the Atlantic Coast pipeline. And the other thing is that that this one is traversing a landscape that no other pipelines have traversed. Yeah.

S1: I mean, the Atlantic Coast pipeline, it was supposed to be 600 miles long. And tell me about the original vision. Like, why was it necessary?

S2: So Dominion and Duke, two energy companies were building the pipeline, said that they needed to increase the amount of natural gas they were getting to their customers in Virginia and North Carolina. So 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.

S1: 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.

S2: Right. And so the way they got this through a lot of county commissions and and city councils and things like that was because they said, hey, 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 it’ll just really be an economic boon for the area. That’s sort of why it’s so easily passed through.

S3: 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 has already left an ugly scar on the land where pollution in the air or the water, people were more skeptical of any promises from Duke Dominion about the economic upside of a massive natural gas pipeline.

S2: I think from the beginning, this project has been opposed by more people than would typically, I think in the past, have opposed such a project because they’ve seen how the coal industry has really decimated these communities. You know, like made a ton of wealth off of Appalachian communities and then left them high and dry and left, you know, high unemployment rates. They left people sick and dying from pollution and black lung disease. And so while it was an easy sell, the jobs part really was very short term. I mean, Dominion told me that all in all, it would create a couple dozen jobs, permanent jobs, a couple dozen a couple dozen permit jobs, inspectors, technicians.

S1: And this is what the energy company is telling you. So they would be incentivized to give you the rosiest picture, right?

S2: Right. And, you know, in that the way they frame it has always been it’s going to provide thousands of construction jobs, which is true. I mean, the construction jobs are not insignificant. But the other part of that is that a lot of the construction jobs are very specialized. So many people in places I traveled through were saying these aren’t local jobs. Like they’re bringing in people from companies outside of the region that know how to build pipelines, welders, you know, things like that that are a higher level of education or a higher level of training. And so people in the IT, like living in these places, weren’t actually getting those jobs that they were promised.

S1: You talked about local opposition as opposed to maybe political acceptance of the pipeline in the beginning. And you actually traveled the entire length of the proposed pipeline to try to understand how local communities were reacting to the project. And I’m wondering if you can take us to a couple of the places you’ve visited.

S2: So one of the places I went to in Virginia was Bath County, which is this little place called Little Valley and. And really know how I got wound up there. But it was this tiny little narrow hauler with this creek running through it and it just beautiful, like Blue Mountains around it that you could see, you know, off into the distance. Mostly farmland around there. I met this couple who had this land had been in this woman’s family for hundreds of years. And this pipeline was just built to cut right across their property. You know, we went on a hike up to this old growth forest where there was a ribbon tied around this 500 year old tree maple tree, a ribbon meaning that the pipeline was going to grow there. Yeah. So it was going to be cut down, you know, in the middle of this old growth forest. So I saw, you know, pieces of of that throughout the whole route, like these various small and significant attachments to the landscapes that people had because they, you know, their families had grown up there. This is a place they called home. It might just seem like somebodies backyard to a pipeline company, but to them, it was you know, it was it was everything.

S1: You mentioned that in some of these communities you went to, you found people really fighting over the pipeline, disagreeing, siblings disagreeing with each other and neighbors having different opinions about whether the pipeline should go in or not. Can you take me inside one of those disagreements?

S2: Yeah, I. Well, I met one couple who lived on a little piece of land in North Carolina. The pipeline was just across right by their property, right next to their house. Was this other little White House? You know, not very far. You could easily cross the field and get to it in a few minutes. And the husband of the couple said, that’s my brother’s house and we don’t talk anymore. And I was like, what? And he said, he’s angry at me for fighting this pipeline. You know, his brother had apparently just been very for the pipeline because he said it was an economic development opportunity and thought he was causing too much of a stir and that sort of thing. And I ran into that like I ran into that a lot. There were church congregations that were very divided over this issue. Again, sort of framing the. 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. Right. Like, it doesn’t have to be a pipeline or nothing. It doesn’t have to be coal or nothing. But that’s that’s the easy explanation that people are given. And so, you know, when you have that combined with the fact that there’s very few jobs and that there’s a lot of problems, you know, with health care, there’s a lack of hospitals, there’s a lack of resources in general that, you know, there’s not clean water. And a lot of these places like that just makes a project like this have a lot more weight, I think, than you would imagine.

S1: Two of the activists that you spent a bit of time with or Gary Grant and Belinda Joyner, and they’d 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?

S2: Two of the best people I met were Cary 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. Gary, he’s always sort of been at the forefront of this fight in in this particular region of eastern North Carolina that is predominantly black. And we should say both Gary and Belinda are black. Yes. Yes. This region, North Carlina, is is mostly black. And really where Gary is from in Halifax County is it’s mostly agricultural. But it was it was part of a New Deal settlement where black people were given land to farm and to start to to make some money. But they were quickly like flooded out and bought out by white settlers. And Appalachia is dominated by the coal industry. Will this this part of North Carolina is really dominated by the industrial farming, mostly hogs. And now poultry to these farms cause a lot of issues with smell and waste and. Public health concerns and so Gary had been fighting this for a really long time and, you know, has been on TV and quoted in newspapers and has just literally never stopped.

S6: You’re always sending us something that’s going to poison our land and ports of our waters. We want to know when are we going to get something that is worthwhile pipeline out.

S2: And it will convince Belinda’s as her to join in the fight for other issues in their community. Belinda has really she started the concerned citizens of Northampton County, and she basically took on like every industrial project that has come through this area in the last several years. And it’s especially significant in this area in North Carolina, because this is where they enviromental county over in Warren County was where the environmental justice movement started.

S1: I just want to sort of put these threads together, because to me, it’s so interesting where you have a black farmer who historically land was given to black people in this New Deal arrangement to sort of increase the number of black farmers and give them land. But now, you know, generations later, these communities are spending a lot of their time fighting to keep pollution out of them. And as you said, it became sort of the birthplace of the environmental justice movement. And so you can sort of see how this effort to help black communities. Then there’s there’s just more work to be done. You know, as the years go on. So how did Gary and Belinda become interested in the pipeline and start sort of organizing people around that?

S2: They I mean, they just have their ears to the ground on everything. I mean, they go to every community meeting. They have their own like in WCP chapter meetings. And they Belinda, just make sure people get out to city council meetings and things like that. They heard about this pipeline because there’s three compressor stations that were supposed to be built along the route and that helps transport the gas. Gary and Belinda had researched about the noise, that it omits the possible explosions and they immediately started organizing against the pipeline. Once they started doing that, they were connected with other people in north and eastern North Carolina. They’re also fighting the ACP and that really gave them a lot more momentum, I think, just in general, because a lot of the communities in North Carolina that were impacted that would have been impacted by the pipeline are predominately black and Native American.

S1: Their work seemed really it seemed really self-motivated and really hard. Like there was one moment I noticed in your reporting where I think it was Kerry, he was going to this house that was right across the street, I think, from a compressor station. And he’d been going there for months trying to find the owner to get them involved in this activism and sort of see where they were when it came to the pipeline. And it took a long time to just even track this person down.

S2: Yeah. Yes. That was that was a wild moment. This woman owned a house that her father had owned. She owned it with her siblings, but she wasn’t always there. And we saw her out front. And Gary just like hops out of the car and goes up to her and says, you know, we’ve been trying to track you down. We went, we know that you’re right across from this compressor station. And so he was just saying, like, we need you. We need you to come to these meetings. We need you to do everything. And she gave him her phone number and it’s just constant one on one, conversations like that. He’s just constantly trying to get people involved. You know, there’s no local media that’s really consistently covering this. There’s no way for them to to know what exactly is happening, especially with a project like this. That was, you know, facing so many challenges and changing all of the time.

S1: I think that’s a really important thread. One whole piece of your reporting was focused on the fact that it wasn’t just that the pipeline was going through these rural areas, these traditionally disenfranchised areas. It was that it was being built in news deserts, places where there was no local newspaper. Maybe the local newspaper was only coming out once a week or once a month and might not have the staff to really dig in to the issue of the pipeline and the impact it might have on the community.

S2: It took me a long time to sort of piece that together. You know, you have national media that covered it initially and then they left and came back. When there is big news, you know, 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. So if you just sort of read the overview reporting of it by state newspapers, by national newspapers, it just seems like. Oh, this project’s still moving forward. You know, just like every other project where, you know, people are against it. People are for it. And it’s a very simplistic narrative. And I think that contributed to the fact that a lot of people felt defeated throughout all of this. That there’s nothing I can do. This is a done deal. There’s 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. We need this. This is only solution far for our community can take hold and spread really quickly. And and that’s how you get such, you know, big divides. I think in a lot of these places.

S1: Yeah. I mean, your reporting, you really 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 after listening to you a little bit is that there are real problems that 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 if these local groups, how how they’re thinking about addressing those other needs that maybe their neighbor across the street sees and is scared that if these energy jobs go away, there won’t be anything left.

S2: Yeah, it’s it’s one of the most fascinating conversations, I think, happening in the region right now is how to really move forward. Right. How to how to transition in a way that’s equitable and affordable for everybody. And also how to really incorporate environmental justice into all these decisions. It’s kind of a shift in understanding of like what Appalachia and other rural areas can look like and how to make that fair.

S1: Yeah, I mean, one of the advocates who’d been suing over the Atlantic Coast pipeline, I noticed in a statement they put out after this big win because the pipeline was canceled, they said, you know, now’s the time for these energy companies to pivot to solar and wind. Is there any sign that these companies are planning to do that?

S2: I think that’s the really big question. What’s really going to push them is what’s happening at the state level. So 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. And North Carolina sort of on that path, too. So I think that, you know, you see local communities kind of moving towards this faster, but it’s going to take it’s really gonna take state level work for utilities to change because they have the monopolies in these areas. And that’s why anything that they do is really hard for people to to fight because they they don’t have another choice for energy production. You know, they can’t buy their power from somebody else in most cases.

S1: What happened here with this pipeline being canceled so suddenly? I wonder if you look at it and you see the 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?

S2: Yeah. It shows you how long it takes for something like this to happen. I mean, you know, when you report it out. I can. Right. That it took six years. But when you think about six years of your life, volunteering to get a project like this stopped is just such a huge commitment. And I can see very clearly why why people feel defeated, why they feel like it’s not worth it. It just doesn’t happen very often. And, you know, you don’t see an industry just saying, never mind, we won’t do this huge, massive project that we’ve been planning for years.

S1: Something that stands out to me, listening to tell the whole story here is how important it seems to be that the activists got involved early, because part of what the energy companies said when they said work we’re canceling this pipeline is, you know, it’s just going to cost more money. It’s going to cost more money. But they only had a small percentage of the pipes in the ground, so they didn’t have a lot of skin in the game. Seems like it’s easier for them to pull out at this moment versus if they had a pipeline ready to go. I wonder if if that stood out to you, too.

S2: Yeah, it did. And I think that because everyone was paying attention from the beginning and because, you know, if it crosses 600 miles, it’s a lot of people even in rural areas. And so that sort of helped their effort to it was that they had a lot of people with a lot of different issues along the route.

S5: Lindsay Galban, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Lindsay Gilpin is the founder and editor in chief of Southern Li, a media organization covering ecology, justice and culture in the American South. And that’s the show. What Next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Mary Wilson and Jason de Leone. Each and every day we get a helping hand from Alicia McMurry and Alison Benedict. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.