Pipeline politics in the US – the latest developments

  • Published on March 9th, 2020

Pipelines crisscross America, carrying oil to refineries as well as gasoline and natural gas to consumers. It’s not a stretch to say they are the arteries that provide the energy that keeps the American economy humming. Eliminate  them and we would be back to walking and hitching old Dobbin up to the buckboard for a trip into town. Pipelines are also symbols. Some people look at them as they weave their way across the landscape and see progress. Others see them as ugly scars that do violence to nature’s beauty. And like all things that carry liquids or gas under pressure, they have a tendency to leak their contents into the countryside, causing massive environmental damage.

pipeline construction


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Proposed pipelines often face strenuous opposition, especially from Indigenous people and low income communities. The routes chosen are heavily influenced by political considerations, which means those who enjoy political power get to keep them out of their neighborhoods, so they end up going where people have less political power. Communities of color and tribal lands tend to be enclaves of powerlessness, so when the decisions are made about where to put pipelines, their concerns are easiest to ignore.

Pipelines also create conflicts between state and federal regulators. The US Constitution gives federal law priority over state law, but states are not without tools of their own to control events that affect the land and waterways within their borders. That drives the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue crazy, and so he has directed his minions to impose new restrictions on state powers so more pipelines can get built. In essence, it is the position of the federal government that it can cram any pipeline project down the throat of recalcitrant states under the guise that energy is a vital component of national security.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline Heads To Supreme Court

Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Image credit: Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Exhibit One in this scenario is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a conduit intended to carry natural gas from West Virginia to North Carolina. Virginia and North Carolina have said repeatedly they don’t want it, but the developers, led by Dominion Energy, are desperate to see it built.

As background, it is useful to know that Dominion is one of the biggest opponents to renewable energy. It makes pretty speeches in public about how it is backing wind and solar, but has steadfastly refused to make renewable energy available to the tech companies building data centers in Virginia. It wants the natural gas the ACP would bring to power new gas generating stations to its service area instead of renewable energy resources.

But it is not objections from the states that are holding things up. It is the fact that the pipeline must cross the George Washington National Forest and the Appalachian Trail that may put the kibosh on things. Numerous federal courts have ruled against the pipeline, saying the permitting process has been fatally flawed in that it failed to follow the dictates of federal law. What a delicious irony. The fossil fuel industry can ramrod its agenda down the throats of the states, but is stymied by federal laws. It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.

But the fossil fuel crazies won’t give up the fight. They know the game ain’t over till the fat lady sings and in this case the fat lady is the US Supreme Court. The court has now agreed to hear an appeal from a decision of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals — hardly a hotbed of judicial activism — that the US Forest Service, which has authority over federal parks, was wrong when it issued a permit for the pipeline.

The appeals court ruled that the permit did not comply with mandatory standards for protecting soil, water, and wildlife. It also said the Forest Service did not properly consider landslide and erosion risks and rejected alternate routes without fully analyzing them, according to a report by The Washington Post.

But those aren’t issues the Supreme Court will be dealing with. The question it has agreed to consider is whether the 2,200-mile-long Appalachian Trail is a barrier to all development. Advocates for the pipeline point out that there are 34 other pipelines that cross the Trail. Opponents point out that all of them occurred prior to the Trail being added to the federal park service.

In the end, the decision may come down to which federal agency has jurisdiction over the land — the Park Service that oversees the Appalachian Trail or the Forest Service that owns the land under the Trail. As is usual in legal matters, the subject under review gets enmeshed in minutiae that have little to do with the larger issue, which is whether the nation should continue to pump clouds of noxious fumes into the atmosphere when zero emissions alternatives are available. No wonder Charles Dickens once penned the line, “The law is a ass.”

Activists Win A Round In New York

Constitution Pipeline

Image credit: Constitution Pipeline LLC

While all this is transpiring in the Mid-Atlantic, the developers of another project known as the Constitution Pipeline — which would traverse upstate New York — have thrown in the towel after years of opposition. The protests have simply rendered the project economically unsound, causing the promoter — the Williams Companies of Oklahoma — to abandon the project. In a statement, it said,  “Williams — with support from its partners, Duke, Cabot and AltaGas — has halted investment in the proposed Constitution project.” As a result, it will write off its $345 million investment in the project.

According to a report by the Oneanta Daily Star, the company blames interference by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for the decision to abandon the project, citing an “ambiguous and vulnerable regulatory framework.” Tom Shepstone, who runs a pro-fracking blog called Natural Gas Now, had this to say. “This reflects the total disregard the Cuomo administration has for upstate New York. This dream of powering everything with renewables is ludicrous.”

The 8-year-long opposition campaign against the pipeline was spearheaded by Earthjustice with help from Catskill Mountainkeeper, Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club. Moneen Nasmith, an Earthjustice lawyer, said, “At this critical moment for our climate, we cannot afford unnecessary fossil fuel projects that will lead to more fracking and exacerbate our climate crisis.”

At a time when fossil fuel companies are pressuring state legislatures to criminalize any and all anti-pipeline protests, being an environmental activist is becoming increasingly fraught with danger. George Carlin told us the US government is little more than an oil company with an army. People oppose pipelines at their peril.

Attorneys have an expression that says time always works to someone’s advantage. In the cause of climate advocacy, any delay to building new fossil fuel infrastructure hastens the day when renewables will be so cheap that investing in any other form of energy will be financial suicide. For the Earth, that day cannot come soon enough.
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(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica.)

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writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island. You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.
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