The beginning of the end of fossil fuels
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by Donna Chavis, senior fossil fuels campaigner and member of the Lumbee tribe
The climate crisis has been caused by an extractive economy that has pulled wealth from our Earth and communities and left them to face the consequences. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was the prime example of just how dangerous that extractive economy is.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would have destroyed wildlife and the environment, and disproportionately harmed Native American, Black, and low wealth communities — all to help special interests line their pockets.
The fight against this pipeline was built from the ground up by local communities. By banding together in their David versus Goliath struggle against Duke and Dominion Energy, communities took to the streets and came out victorious in stopping this fossil fuel pipeline.
The main takeaway? Grassroots pressure will lead us to the end of fossil fuels.
Background: An Energy Monopoly
Duke Energy has a chokehold on North Carolina. Duke generates 90% of the electricity in the state — and now North Carolinians are beholden to this energy monopoly. As one of the worst carbon polluters in the country, Duke has mismanaged coal ash waste, poisoned communities with polluted air and water, wreaked environmental destruction, and stood in the way of a transition to 100% renewable energy. The monopoly has expanded the state’s dependence on fossil fuels and has a long history of corrupting democracy through campaign contributions.
In an effort to push us further into an extractive economy, Duke teamed up with Virginia-based Dominion Energy to create the Atlantic Coast Pipeline: A fracked gas pipeline along a 600-mile route from West Virginia through Virginia, North Carolina and ultimately South Carolina. A project that would further Duke’s stranglehold on North Carolina.
Climate, Justice and Ethical Concerns
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was slated to carry 1.5 billion cubic feet of fracked natural gas across hundreds of miles. It would have generated 67 million metrics tons of climate pollution a year — equal to 20 coal plants. And natural gas pipelines leak methane, a greenhouse gas that is roughly 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This pipeline was built on the greed that our extractive economy relies upon, locking states into 30 years of fracked gas use.
On top of the climate-destroying emissions the pipeline would have spewed, construction of the pipeline would have required miles of mountaintop removal and blown out bedrock, potentially causing erosion that could plug up waterways. It would have wound through farmland, forests, wildlife and habitats — damaging everything in its path.
Instead of pushing us towards the end of fossil fuels that our planet needs, this pipeline would have spewed greenhouse gases, poisoned waterways and delayed a transition to clean renewable energy.
The number one concern of folks living along its path was water contamination — especially for the impacted communities of Indigenous, Black and other peoples of color. As a member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, water is life. This pipeline would have run through the Lumbee river — which is a constitution of our Native life. Without this river, we would not be here. We fish in the river, as we have for centuries, and any contaminant in the water could wind up in our bodies. As more than 30,000 Native peoples live along the proposed path of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, this project threatened every aspect of our historic and cultural ways of life. It represents yet another in a centuries-long succession of invasions.
Projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline target communities of color and low wealth. The pipeline model is one piece of a bigger pattern of mega-corporations building dumps, toxic animal agriculture farms, fossil fuel infrastructure and other polluting sites in marginalized communities. In many cases, they don’t even shy away from officially declaring our communities sacrifice zones.
This is the extractive economy at work — destroying our communities and lands and walking away while we suffer the toxic consequences. This is why we need an end of fossil fuels.
Duke and Dominion were only further emboldened thanks to their close relationships with government officials and regulatory bodies, giving them considerable leverage to push the project forward.
Duke Energy has a long history of buying legislation and legislators with campaign contributions — that history repeated itself with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Duke donated $43,750 to North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, who hired a former Dominion Energy oil lobbyist as his legislative director. Dominion Energy, in turn, contributed $110,000 to Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who was unsurprisingly very enthusiastic about the project. Dominion also contributed significant campaign donations to the Virginia Senate’s minority and majority leaders.
Duke and Dominion were just as giving with regulatory officials in the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The head of the department has long accepted gifts from Dominion while one of its division directors previously served as a Dominion attorney.
Aside from ensuring a cozy relationship with state officials, Duke and Dominion also had considerable federal muscle. Within the first week of being in office, Donald Trump signed an executive order to expedite 50 ‘high priority’ infrastructure projects, including (you guessed it) the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. As the only pipeline on the list, it was clear that Trump’s administration would be pushing hard to get this pipeline on the ground.
Duke and Dominion’s toxic influence also crept its way into Trump’s cabinet. Attorney General William Barr served on the board of Dominion Energy up until he was confirmed as AG. Despite a clear conflict of interest, and $2.3 million from Dominion in cash and stock awards, Barr reportedly did not recuse himself from activities relating to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline when the project was ruled on by the Supreme Court — despite doing so in other cases involving his past work.
Between its toll on the environment, an attempt to sacrifice Native American, Black and low wealth communities, and a recurring pattern of morally questionable ties between energy companies and government, Atlantic Coast Pipeline was the poster child of environmental injustice and dark money at work.
Resistance from Local Communities
This pipeline was defeated by on-the-ground communities.
To defeat the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, solidarity by Indigenous and Black communities was vital. From the Northern gate of the pipeline, a majority Black community, down to Robeson County, a majority Native American and Black community, and everywhere in between, we stood together. As we worked up and down the pipeline route, we crossed boundaries of race and class and brought communities together. We held each other up and kept going until we were on the phone in celebration once the pipeline was defeated.
We took to the streets and made it clear we have no tolerance for these fossil fuel projects that poison our bodies, land, air and water.
We spoke out to Congress, state officials and financial institutions, calling for the project to be cancelled. We marched throughout North Carolina. We took over the streets of the Supreme Court. We interrupted Governor Cooper to make sure he heard our voices. We fought this pipeline for years and years — and we never backed down. And, even now that the pipeline is cancelled, we still will not back down from holding Duke and Dominion accountable.
This fossil fuel project was defeated thanks to our communities speaking out and demanding that our voices be heard. Let it be a lesson: grassroots activism can and will bring down the fossil fuel industry.
We cheered and celebrated the end of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. After years of pressure, David won his battle against Goliath. But the fight is not over.
Though the pipeline will never be finished, we still must dismantle the existing infrastructure. There are pipes placed on the ground painted with toxic materials that have now been over-exposed. Officials recommend sun exposure of these materials for no more than six months. The Atlantic Coast pipes have been exposed for four years — and now toxins are seeping into our water tables.
There is also the question of what abandonment of the pipeline means for the hundreds of landowners along its route. Landowners are bearing the burden of Duke and Dominion taking over their backyards. Now that the pipeline threat is gone, citizens will now have to take to the courts to figure out what this means for them. Yet again, there is an outrageous abuse of power as communities scramble to sort out clean up for mega-corporations’ messes.
Duke and Dominion’s cancellation of this pipeline does not clean their hands of decades of environmental destruction and pollution — despite what they want you to think. These companies externally claim they are now all about renewable energy, yet they have stood in the way of a clean energy transition for decades. And, behind the scenes, they are still pulling the strings to create new fossil fuel projects.
A subsidiary of Duke Energy continues to push through a liquefied natural gas facility in North Carolina — which would, of course, be constructed in an area that is 87.9% Indigenous, predominantly Lumbee, and African American. We cannot let these companies secretly worsen the climate crisis while outwardly claiming they care about saving our planet. We need oversight of Duke and Dominion to hold them accountable.
This victory shows that the fossil fuel industry is in its last gasps, clinging to anything to remain viable. Fossil fuel companies spend 10 times more on lobbying than environmental groups, yet they continue to lose. This is a testament to our movement’s ability to find strength from people, not limitless piles of campaign donations.
This industry is in terminal decline. While government officials try to throw lifeline after lifeline to bring it back, we know it’s useless. The voices of on-the-ground activists are far more powerful. This is the beginning of the end of fossil fuels.