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It’s been a truly awful few days for the fossil-fuel industry, which is another way of saying that it’s been an unexpectedly good few days for planet Earth: a trio of sweeping and unlikely victories have demonstrated the depth of great organizing and the increasing weakness of the industry’s hold on our political system.
First, on Sunday, Duke Energy and Dominion Energy—enormous Southeast utilities—announced that they were scrapping plans for the Atlantic Coast natural-gas pipeline, despite having invested $3.4 billion in the project. They’d actually won a big Supreme Court ruling just weeks earlier, giving them the right to lay the pipeline beneath the Appalachian Trail—but that, executives from the two companies said in a joint statement, wasn’t going to be enough. “This announcement reflects the increasing legal uncertainty that overhangs large-scale energy and industrial infrastructure development in the United States. Until these issues are resolved, the ability to satisfy the country’s energy needs will be significantly challenged.” Translation: they were evidently rattled by a court order earlier this spring in the granddaddy of all pipeline battles; a Montana federal court ruled in April that the Trump Administration couldn’t simply waive environmental laws to help the backers of the Keystone XL pipeline. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline may have had Supreme Court permission to traverse the Appalachian Trail, but the companies must have realized that they were going to face litigation at every stream crossing along the route.
On Monday came the news that a federal court had ruled in favor of the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes, who have been fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline. In this case, the pipeline has already been built, and is carrying oil. Stunningly, the court said that Energy Transfer, the company that developed the pipeline, has to shut it down and drain the crude within the next thirty days—an unprecedented blow. The ruling will be appealed, and, if the company is lucky enough to draw some Trump appointees in its panel at the D.C. Circuit Court, it could be overturned. But what a moment. D.A.P.L. had been the most iconic fight of recent years, with hundreds of tribes from across the continent descending on Standing Rock, at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers, to take a stand. No one who was there in 2016 will ever forget the scene: the smoke rising from a hundred campfires, the nonstop ceremonies of prayer and drumming, and the incredible courage of activists facing militarized police forces that did not hesitate to deploy the tools in their anti-protest arsenal. The images of dogs biting peaceful protesters were straight out of Birmingham, circa 1963, and a reason that the Obama Administration, in its waning days, put the kibosh on the project. Donald Trump revived it immediately upon taking office, but the judge ruled this week that the haste with which the Administration pushed through the pipeline violated environmental rules, in particular because there was no study into the environmental impact of possible leaks on reservation water supplies.
Then, on Monday night, the Supreme Court let that Montana ruling on Keystone XL stand, meaning that the project can’t be built until much of the litigation is settled. That process will take us well past the November election; because Joe Biden has pledged to oppose Keystone, Trump’s defeat would mean a battle that has been fought for more than a decade would be over.
If it seems as if all the action around these cases is in court, it’s not. The only reason that there were substantial legal challenges in the first place is because of the epic organizing that preceded the lawsuits. In the case of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, thousands of local and national groups have fought it at every turn—as Adam Siegel wrote for the Blue Virginia blog, “Bit by bit, as opposition delayed fossil foolish infrastructure and political momentum swung (especially in Virginia) against them, the [utilities’] analysis made clear that going with lower-carbon options would provide a higher and lower risk return (profit) for shareholders.” (Or, as an activist tweeted, “In case you thought that small actions don’t matter . . . this is a result of every tree sitter, each person who chained herself to a piece of equipment, sat at an air board mtg, blocked a site.”) That’s equally true in the Dakotas, where it has been made clear to anyone paying attention that indigenous communities are at the forefront of the fight for a livable planet. And Keystone was where Native Americans, climate scientists, farmers and ranchers, big environmental groups, and activists all found one another for the first time.
These three announcements, in the span of twenty-four hours, are the payoff of a decade of endless hearings and petitions and trips to jail—a triumph against what seemed overwhelming odds. They also show that, going forward, only the truly reckless will henceforth invest their money in giant fossil-fuel-infrastructure projects. The victory here is measured not just in pipelines defeated but in pipelines and other projects that will never even be proposed, simply because it has been demonstrated that opponents have the resources—in bodies, in determination, in legal talent, and in moral standing—to slow them down to the point where profitability becomes impossible. Should Trump be reëlected, he may be able to help some of these giant projects hang on. If he’s defeated, their lifeline will be gone, and with it a century’s worth of fossil-fuel expansion.
Passing the Mic
Pramila Jayapal is the first Indian-American woman elected to Congress—her district includes most of Seattle, including the area that was briefly an “autonomous zone” in the city’s center. She’s the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and I wanted to get her insights because, last month, a House Select Committee put forward the most comprehensive climate proposal yet introduced in Congress. This interview has been condensed for clarity.
Let’s assume a Biden Presidency and a Democratic-controlled Senate and House. Is there going to be sufficient gumption to move dramatic climate legislation through, or will the government be stuck in incrementalist mode?
Right now we’re seeing a crucial awakening to many of our country’s foundational demons. Trump’s Presidency, the COVID-19 crisis, and mass uprisings against white supremacy have laid bare systemic anti-Blackness, deadly public-health inequities, and economic greed. Incrementalism cannot be the solution. The structural inequities in our system are what allowed Trump to be elected in the first place; our task in the new Administration must be to fix those holes urgently and transformatively. Our movement will have to work harder than ever across silos to make the connections between climate, migration, health, and justice, so that we can push on all fronts simultaneously, powerfully, and leaving no one behind.
There’s been a lot of talk this summer about the overlap between climate justice and racial justice—the idea that vulnerable people can’t breathe for too many reasons. Do you sense that bridges between those issues and caucuses are being built in Congress, too?
The Congressional Progressive Caucus, which I co-chair, has long been the leader in advocating for intersectionality across multiple issues. Ahead of the release of the report from the House Select Committee on Climate, the C.P.C.’s climate committee developed a set of recommendations for how to urgently tackle the climate crisis with a focus on jobs, decarbonization, and justice. It is a testament to our inside and outside organizing work that many of our recommendations were included in the Select Committee’s report. So we have started to build the bridges we need, but there is much more to do to take on money in politics and the status quo, which prioritizes corporate profits over the health and safety of our communities.