By Elizabeth E. Payne
Deep beneath the soils of West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York — in what is known as the Appalachian Basin — the Marcellus and Utica shale formations are home to much of the natural gas reshaping the United States’ energy sector.
In order to get to market, the gas is wrenched from the earth using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which a brew of pressurized chemicals, water and sand is shot into the earth, cracking the bedrock so the gas can be loosened for extraction.
Where fracking goes, earthquakes, poisoned wells and releases of the potent greenhouse gas methane have followed.
Once collected and processed, the natural gas is then pumped through a circulatory system of pipelines, beginning with capillary-like gathering lines that flow from the wellheads to collection sites and ending with a network of large arteries that channel the gas hundreds, even thousands, of miles to power plants and export facilities.
Where pipelines go, disrupted landscapes, explosions, spills and erosion have followed.
For nearly a decade, gas extraction in the Appalachian Basin has been booming. The proposed Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipelines in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina would become two new arteries in an already crowded, and growing, field. But up and down the Eastern Seaboard, community members have joined together to fight against this expanding fossil fuel industry.
West Virginia lies at the heart of the natural gas expansion, and its residents bear a heavy burden in the rush to build pipelines.
“We’re facing a lot more than just the ACP and the MVP here in West Virginia,” says Autumn Leah Crowe, program director at West Virginia Rivers Coalition, an environmental nonprofit. “We also have the Leach, the Rover, the Mountaineer XPress, the WB XPress, and a new one, the Eastern Panhandle Connector.”
Crowe’s list includes seven proposed projects by four groups of energy partners. These projects would require at least $17 billion to build nearly 2,000 miles of pipe radiating out from the Appalachian Basin. And her list only includes those pipelines West Virginia Rivers Coalition is focused on. There are more.
Across the state, residents are standing up to resist the expansion of the pipelines. April Pierson-Keating is co-founder of Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance, an environmental advocacy group that promotes clean water through clean energy and a just, sustainable economy. She is also a native West Virginian who voices her opposition to the pipelines loudly.
Like Crowe, one of her primary concerns is water, and she’s frustrated that so little is being done to protect this resource.
“West Virginia is a water-producing state. We have the headwaters of 46 rivers. And 14 states get their water from us,” says Pierson-Keating. “So, we have a duty to protect the water for everyone downstream. And we don’t even take it seriously to protect the water for ourselves.”
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is also slated to run right by the high school in Pierson-Keating’s town. She’s written about it — including a letter to President Obama — and spoken with her local officials and the media, but still the school lies near the path of the proposed pipeline. (See map in center spread.)
Some in the state say they have felt negative pressure from their communities for speaking out about their concerns and now fight against the pipelines less publicly.
Because of such pressure, one farmer from Doddridge County, W.Va., asked to remain anonymous for this article. The Mountain Valley Pipeline is routed through neighboring property on one side of his house and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would run nearby on the other. And a third, the Stonewall Gas Gathering Pipeline, has already caused damage to his property.
“When [the pipeline companies] first came here a few years ago, they promised us they were going to build all new roads, all new bridges,” he says. “And they didn’t do a thing. All they did was just tear up everything we got. Just tore the roads to pieces and then just went off and left them.”
Same with the promises about jobs. “They tell you all the jobs they’re gonna produce. But it never happens, cause they bring men with them from out of state,” he says. “But the politicians will tell you that it’s gonna make 30,000 jobs. But they don’t tell you that those jobs are just gonna last one year till the pipeline is ran.”
This farmer has seen a son move out of state and has lost a daughter to cancer, which he believes was caused by the chemicals used in a fracked well near her house. Despite this, he’s felt pushback from his community for his opposition to the pipelines. But he’s not staying silent, and his words carry the weight of wisdom hard won.
Because of the compressor station near his house, “when it snows, it snows black,” he says. “It used to be a very pretty state.”
In rural South Central Pennsylvania, resistance efforts are focused on the $3 billion Atlantic Sunrise project. It would allow the nearly 1,800 mile Transcontinental Pipeline, which currently runs from south Texas north to New York City, to run in the other direction as well. The pipeline, also known as Transco, would transport the natural gas pumped from the Appalachian Basin to the Gulf, presumably for export.
According to Tim Spiese, a member of the community action group Lancaster Against Pipelines, the project will also build what Transco describes as a nearly 200-mile “shortcut” between existing pipelines that “crosses every tributary that feeds the Susquehanna River.”
On Feb. 3, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the new pipeline, now many residents of Lancaster County are preparing to take a stand.
“Our hope is that when they do start building the pipeline there will be such a huge groundswell of opposition to this that it’s going to create the energy we need to have industries pull away,” Spiese says. “That’s our hope.”
The group has established an encampment, called The Stand, on a piece of farmland in the path of the pipeline. About 10 people are currently living there, and dozens more come out for events and training.
“‘Non-violent mass action’ is what we’re calling it, and we are likening it to what happened in the Civil Rights era and even women’s suffrage,” says Malinda Clatterbuck, also a member of Lancaster Against Pipelines. “We really believe that the only way we will stop this is through the power of people coming out in mass numbers to help bring about an awareness and a change in how people are thinking about what’s happening here.”
“We’re doing this work to stop a pipeline,” says Clatterbuck, who has faced intimidation for her outspoken opposition to the project. “But I feel like the bigger picture here, what we’re really fighting against, is this unjust system that has allowed corporations to become personhoods and have more power over the destruction of communities than those communities have the power to protect themselves against it and protect their health and safety. And that’s what’s gotta change.”
Further south, there is still more resistance to pipelines carrying natural gas from the Appalachian Basin into Georgia and Florida.
The Sabal Trail is a 515-mile pipeline stretching from the Transco line in Alabama, across Georgia and down to central Florida. The $3.2 billion project by Spectra Energy Partners, NextEra Energy, Inc., and Duke Energy is 78 percent complete, according to the Associated Press.
John Quarterman, the Suwannee Riverkeeper and president of the WWALS Watershed Coalition, has been pushing back against the Sabal Trail Pipeline in southern Georgia and northern Florida since 2013.
He has found that opposition to eminent domain — the taking of private property for public use — and the desire to protect streams and rivers cross party lines.
“You’d be surprised how many reclusive, right-wing, rural landowners really do not like this pipeline,” he says. “As one of them said to me, ‘You know, if caring about the wildlife and fishing and hunting and the waters means I’m an environmentalist, then I’m an environmentalist.’”
Quarterman is pushing for legislation to better protect water resources and is pursuing penalties against pipeline companies when violations are discovered. He also advocates for divesting from the companies that fund the pipeline and for expanding investments in solar energy and other renewables.
“Solar power doesn’t use any testing water, doesn’t use any cooling water and also doesn’t require any eminent domain,” he says.
Along the banks of the Dan River in Rockingham County, N.C., an unproven power company wants to build a natural gas power plant.
According to the company’s website, NTE Energy is developing three projects in Ohio, Texas and in Cleveland County, N.C., and is in earlier stages with two other projects — one in Connecticut and this one in Rockingham County. None of the projects are complete.
Buck Purgason, a local resident and member of the advocacy group Good Stewards of Rockingham, is worried about this plant, particularly its impact on the beleaguered Dan River, which experienced a coal ash spill in 2014 and is now slated to provide the water needed to cool the proposed gas plant.
According to Purgason, cooling the plant will likely require between 1.7 and 5 million gallons of water from the river each day.
“This is water for a gas-fired plant that we don’t need,” he says. “That’s the main issue for me. And we’re trying to get more solar, renewable, and get off fossil fuels and [leave] them in the ground. And they’re building all these plants, and it’s gonna be fracked gas that they’re burning.”
As the plans to build the plant move forward, Purgason continues to participate in the public comment periods, speak with the press and organize community opposition. “It’s an uphill battle, but there’s a lot of people’s lives gonna be impacted for a little bit of peak power.”
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is also the focus of growing resistance to gas infrastructure in North Carolina.
Thousands of North Carolinians have submitted comments against the ACP and communities are reaching out to other states and one another to fight against the pipelines.
For two weeks in March this year, community members walked along the proposed 205-mile route across the Coastal Plain of the state traveling from the Virginia border south through the low income, minority and agricultural communities that would be impacted by the pipeline.
The “Walk To Protect Our People And The Places Where We Live” culminated in a spring equinox ceremony lead by members of the Lumbee tribe at the North Carolina Indian Cultural Center. (For more on the walk, see center spread.)
The pipeline would end in Robeson County, whose population is nearly 40 percent Native American, primarily members of the Lumbee tribe, according to N.C. Policy Watch, a news outlet of the N.C. Justice Center.
Citizen resistance to a natural gas project in Kentucky led to a victory against the industry.
Since 2004, Suzanne Tallichet has been a member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, a community-based organization fighting for social justice, and has held several leadership positions with the group.
Three years ago, she heard about a dangerous project headed to her home of Rowan County. Energy giants MarkWest and Kinder Morgan planned to reverse the flow of nearly 1,000 miles along the Tennessee Gas Pipeline. This 70-year-old pipeline was designed to carry natural gas from the Gulf region to New York City and Boston, but under the new proposal it would transport natural gas liquids from the shale fields in Ohio towards the Gulf.
Natural gas liquids, such as ethane, propane and butane, are marketable byproducts produced when processing natural gas. They are used for making plastics and as heating and transportation fuels. They are also extremely flammable.
Tallichet contacted the local newspaper, The Morehead News, which ran a series of articles and editorials about the project. She also organized with other community members to participate in local government and go door-to-door in impacted neighborhoods to educate residents about the potential risks.
“I don’t know of a single person who has said, ‘I don’t know what you people are worried about. There’s nothing wrong. Hey, it might create jobs,’” Tallichet says. “As a matter of fact, that’s a huge problem, it doesn’t. If it created jobs, there might be a little contention. But there’s no contention because it creates no jobs for us.”
“And yet we take all the risks,” she adds. “No benefits, all the risks. And when people heard that, that did it.”
Rowan is one of six counties along the route that has passed a resolution against the pipeline. As of press time, the project was stalled, and many residents are breathing easier.
“I certainly hope that this pipeline stays dormant,” says Tallichet. “I mean, people talk about environmentalists being radical. That clean water and clean air is a radical notion … What’s radical is to take an old pipeline, reverse the flow of the material and then throw in the volatility [of natural gas liquids].”
As pipeline after pipeline moves closer to construction and completion, community members across the country continue to push back against them.
“Local people can make a difference, that’s energizing,” says Tallichet.
Malinda Clatterbuck, who is fighting the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline in Pennsylvania, agrees.
“We want to do what we can, with mass numbers of people, to say ‘we in the community say this isn’t right,’” she says. “The laws are against us. And the industry has so much power. And regulatory agencies are against us because they’ve been influenced by industry. But we the people, who are bearing the brunt of this damage, are saying it’s not okay.’”
For the latest updates, follow these groups on facebook or visit their websites at:
Good Stewards of Rockingham: goodstewardsofrockingham.org
Kentuckians For The Commonwealth: ktfc.org
Lancaster Against Pipelines: wearelancastercounty.org
Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance: mountainlakespreservation.org
Suwannee Riverkeeper and WWALS Watershed Coalition: wwals.net
West Virginia Rivers Coalition: wvrivers.org