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The People Killed the Pipelines

The Dakota Access and Atlantic Coast pipelines fell because community members fought for their right to a safe, pollutant-free home.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Indigenous protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016

On Sunday, Duke Energy and Dominion announced the cancellation of their natural gas pipeline project, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Citing constant legal challenges and rising construction costs—the pipeline had already nearly doubled its projected cost—the energy companies shuttered the project while Dominion separately announced its plans to sell off its other natural gas pipelines and storage assets to Berkshire Hathaway Energy.

Alone, the death of ACP would have been enough to stand out as a monumental achievement. But then, on Monday morning, the U.S. District Court released another shocker: Because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “violated the National Environmental Policy Act” when it issued a permit that allowed the Dakota Access Pipeline to run underneath Lake Oahe, the court ruled that the pipeline must halt all operations by August 5 until a new environmental review can be completed.

It was remarkable, almost unbelievable, to watch the two widely detested pipelines fall in the span of just 24 hours. And there’s a vital message in the spectacle: These extractive projects which endangered the people in their path were in the end blocked specifically by the people who would be directly affected by them.

Through a multitude of means—direct action, political organizing, and, of course, court challenges—Native, Black, Hispanic, and white communities across the southeast organized first among themselves when Duke and Dominion came knocking, asking for community support or formal approval for their project. The same happened among the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe when Transfer Energy Partners began developing DAPL. These communities all held conversations about whether the money was worth the potential of long-term poisoning of their communities. Many of them, like the Lumbee Tribe and Haliwa-Saponi Tribe in North Carolina, rejected the pipeline pay-offs. When the corporations teamed up with their own regulators and local and national politicians to circumvent this opposition, the people did what they could.

In Standing Rock, the affected tribal citizens and community members constructed a camp that became a community of its own. They stared down the hyper-militarized, multi-state police force and the violent enforcement of a colonizing power’s will. They set aside national media outlets, because those outlets had never accurately represented them. They used social media to break through to a nation long dismissive of Indigenous rights. And when the United States plowed forward anyways, the tribal nations beat them in their own court. Hundreds of miles away, in places like Robeson County, North Carolina and Union Hill, Virginia, marginalized communities organized and talked openly about what a raw deal the trade-off would be in time. They refused to sign on the dotted line. They protested and marched; when Duke and Dominion ignored them, they marched into those same courts and they won, not just against massive energy corporations and grifting conservative politicians but against Democratic governors as well. One of the biggest victories against the ACP, up until this weekend, came in January, when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with groups representing Buckingham County, Virginia, ruling that a permit for an ACP compressor station in the historic black community of Union Hill had failed to reckon with the projects’s possible disproportionate and adverse effects on a minority community. As some marginalized communities along planned pipeline routes realized early on, the courts were the only battlefield not slanted against them, and so it was the courts where they leveraged their power.

There are naturally brief addendums to this declaration of victory. For instance, the U.S. will have the opportunity to appeal the DAPL ruling, which Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, has already said his group plans to explore. Even if that doesn’t pan out, they can also address the permitting issue that the court ruled on, though that is estimated to require roughly 13 months to complete. (The loophole-ridden federal permitting process that initially allowed DAPL’s construction is still in place, but it’s not clear how long Energy Transfer Partners will be willing to shoulder the costs of the pipeline without a profit in sight.)

Financial instability from the current pandemic also played a role in Duke and Dominion’s decision to walk away from ACP, and would likely be an attributable factor should DAPL close up shop. Although, even without the coronavirus, neither DAPL or ACP were particularly economically responsible or necessary; rather, they were a last-minute attempt to cash in on the extractive industry’s dying breath. As my colleague Kate Aronoff put it, “Natural gas simply isn’t very good business anymore.” (Not that Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette would admit it, given he tried to offset the pipeline defeats with the approval of the Jordan Cove natural gas export facility in Coos Bay, Oregon on Monday, another project that is opposed by numerous tribal nations.)

Still, it feels clarifying to have veritable proof that the pathway to environmental justice is not wholly dependent on Mark Ruffalo speeches and the whims of high-minded national environmentalist groups. Though those people and groups got involved as well, these victories should be credited to the grassroots Black and Indigenous and working class organizers, who used the legal options at their disposal to form a multi-part counter-response crafted specifically by and for the people, towns, and tribal communities the pipelines were designed to run through and under. Going forward, national groups tackling everything from Amazon rainforest preservation to tackling emissions-heavy, community-endangering meat farming would be wise to heed this lesson about the power of local communities. As Dr. Ryan Emanuel, a Lumbee tribal member and associate professor at North Carolina State University, told me last fall when ruminating on the porous permit process, “If you ignore our existence in the preparation of these environmental documents, then you don’t acknowledge that we have any right to decide what happens on lands that are historically our territory, or places where our communities live today.”

This week, the people proved that ignoring them has a real cost.