In school, we’re taught that the U.S. is a nation of laws, and no one is above the law. But for communities nationwide fighting natural gas pipelines, they quickly find that the law is stacked against them.
Imagine receiving notice one day that a pipeline is going to cut through your property — maybe just yards away from your home, mowing down old growth trees, and cutting through pristine springs. The pipeline will endanger your family, damage your business, threaten your drinking water, and lower the value of your home. It could leak or even explode.
But when you go through the process of objecting to the permitting of the pipeline, or file a case in court when that doesn’t work, you discover that the pipeline company is allowed to tear down trees on your property and begin work before your case is ever decided.
That’s why communities let down by officials, regulators, and courts are turning to direct action to fight pipelines.
Last year, a group of Pennsylvania nuns from the Adorers of the Blood of Christ Order built an open-air chapel in a corn field. Their chapel sat right in the path of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline in a bid to raise awareness of complaint they filed against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to keep the pipeline off their land.
This year, in Virginia and West Virginia, other protesters — mostly women — have been sitting in trees for as long as 57 days straight, to protest the fact that state and federal regulators have repeatedly sided with the builders of the Mountain Valley Pipeline over the local communities in the pipelines’ path.
Most of the blame for the rubber stamping of pipelines across the country lies with FERC. The little-known agency wields immense power when it comes to natural gas infrastructure. All new interstate natural gas pipelines come before FERC for review. And over the past three decades, FERC has approved almost every pipeline that’s come before it.
These approvals are handed down even when communities show compelling evidence that the pipeline isn’t needed, that it’s a danger to their community, and that it will exacerbate climate change by increasing fracked natural gas. FERC consistently ignores the voices of the communities impacted by its decisions.
That’s not just the opinion of community activists — it’s also the findings of a report issued by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General. The report found that FERC makes it difficult for the public to weigh in on pipelines and isn’t listening to the concerns of communities, particularly poor communities.
Ironically, the report was issued at a moment when FERC itself is calling for feedback on its pipeline process (which has been extended to July 25). Tens of thousands of people will be weighing in to tell FERC all the ways in which its current processes are broken — and how the agency could reform the pipeline review process to value people, communities, consumers, and the environment, rather than always siding with industry.
Recently, after receiving an outpouring of concern from the public, all five of FERC’s commissioners opposed the Trump administration’s call to preference coal and nuclear power on the electric grid — a move that would harm American consumers. If FERC hears from enough Americans that the agency’s rubber-stamping of natural gas pipelines is also not in the national interest, maybe it’ll start to reform its review practices.
If not, FERC will see increasing protests nationwide as communities do everything they can to protect their health and well-being from pipelines and fracking.
OtherWords commentaries are free to re-publish in print and online — all it takes is a simple attribution to OtherWords.org. To get a roundup of our work each Wednesday, sign up for our free weekly newsletter here.