After years of fighting new oil and gas pipelines in rural areas, activists have scored major victories that cloud the future or eliminate several big projects. Three people who helped lead anti-pipeline campaigns talk about their work and what lies ahead.

This article and video were produced in collaboration with Southerly and the Rural Assembly. The Rural Assembly is a project of the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes the Daily Yonder.

At the height of the summer as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to spread throughout the U.S. — particularly in rural areas — and as protests demanding racial justice continued in cities and towns, several oil and gas infrastructure projects were either cancelled or hit major stumbling blocks.

On July 5, Dominion Energy cancelled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile natural gas project the utility proposed to build from West Virginia to North Carolina. A day later, a court ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline to halt operations. On the same day, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a decision to suspend construction on parts of the Keystone XL pipeline. A permit for the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate extension was rejected by North Carolina regulators.

The decisions will have a significant impact on movements around public health, anti-racism, and environmental conservation. Oil and natural gas pipelines are typically proposed in rural areas, in communities that are low-wealth and have a history of extraction or other industrial and polluting facilities. They are often routed through communities where Black, Latino, and Indigenous people live. 

These projects have been in the works for years, with varying degrees of success: The Dakota Access Pipeline already had oil flowing through it; less than 10% of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was in the ground. The projects, touted as economic silver bullets for rural places by developers, have divided communities, churches, neighborhoods, and families. Those opposing them have spent years working to stop them, writing op-eds for newspapers, filing lawsuits, organizing protests and meetings and fundraisers. Some people camped out in trees for weeks on end. Others trained themselves on how to monitor construction to ensure any environmental damage was reported. 

Southerly and the Rural Assembly wanted to know about this work: the successes, concerns, and challenges, how these folks have organized against pipeline projects they say are dangerous and unnecessary. We wanted to learn about the mistakes they made, the lessons they’ve learned, and the small and large victories they have celebrated. 

Instead of helping create sustainable and just economic solutions for rural places, struggling fossil fuel and utility companies will continue to push these projects. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline won’t be the last fossil fuel industry project proposed in rural America — already, permits are slowly being reissued for the Mountain Valley Pipeline. 

In late summer, I spoke to Belinda Joyner, an activist in Northampton County, North Carolina, who fought the Atlantic Coast Pipeline; Becky Crabtree, a retired teacher and activist in West Virginia who protested the Mountain Valley Pipeline; and Greg Buppert, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which had multiple lawsuits against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. We talked about their efforts to oppose fossil-fuel pipelines and what they would tell other folks in rural communities where industrial projects are proposed. 

“Sometimes it’s discouraging, but then you still can’t give up,” Joyner told me. “They just didn’t believe that it could be stopped. .. Wow. We did it, we did it. Coming together, working together, staying together, crying together, fighting together. And now we have tears of joy. Tears of joy.”

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