Pipeline Protests: Many Tools, One United Goal

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Written by Natalie Jensen, Legal Intern, Clean and Safe Energy Campaign

After years of growth amidst opposition from concerned citizens, fossil fuel pipeline companies are finally losing some battles – but not without a fight. State and local governments have begun to stand with their citizens in blocking pipeline projects. While oil and gas corporations continue to deny that pipelines have adverse effects on the environment, these claims are simply not true – pipelines are dangerous. Pipelines leak toxic substances that kill vegetation, wildlife and pollute drinking water.  Corrosion and inadequate maintenance can cause leaks, deadly fires and explosions.

Public opinion greatly impacts government officials and agencies’ decisions at the federal, state, and local level to stop pipelines from advancing in a variety of ways. Those familiar with the approval process know all too well that, traditionally, the agency charged with permitting natural gas pipelines, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”), typically acts as a “rubber stamp” of approval than a regulatory agency. However, earlier this year, FERC ruled against a proposal for the Jordan Cove LNG and Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline in Oregon, stating the benefits didn’t outweigh the costs to landowners. FERC’s denial of the project took place after an extended public comment period, giving affected citizens time to voice their discontent with the project in partnership with coalitions and organizations, including Rogue Riverkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance.

Even when FERC takes its usual course of approving a pipeline, state governments are more often flexing their muscles and exerting their authority to block pipeline projects based on environmental concerns. The Constitution Pipeline was blocked at the state level in an unprecedented action when the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation denied the project a Water Quality Certification required under the Clean Water Act. FERC had already approved the project, but New York would not issue necessary environmental permits as the pipeline would cross state-protected streams and wetlands.  New York’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, has also petitioned for legal action to be taken against developers, alleging that they conspired to prematurely cut trees of landowners along the proposed pipeline route before necessary permits were obtained.  

Landowners along the pipeline routes have also rallied together to fight for their property rights and quality of life. Oil and gas companies have outraged many landowners by taking land through eminent domain. Ordinarily, governments can take possession of private property through eminent domain if it is for “public use,” such as a highway. However, in the case of pipelines, the primary benefits are to the companies in the form of corporate profits. Some states have recently stood up to companies that have attempted to use eminent domain; recently, Savannah Riverkeeper joined many landowners in celebrating a success as the Georgia legislature blocked Kinder Morgan’s Palmetto Pipeline by issuing a moratorium on all pipeline companies’ ability to condemn land through eminent domain.


Public opposition to pipeline projects has reached an all-time high, thanks to the Standing Rock Sioux #NoDAPL movement. Photo by John Wathen.

As public approval of these projects plummets, investors start pulling out of projects and agencies stall, giving communities more time to express their discontent. As demand for increased pipeline infrastructure is decreasing, many fossil fuel projects have been cancelled because of a lack of interested buyers or because of company bankruptcy. In April, the Delaware River Basin Commission, a federal interstate agency, delayed the approval process for the Penn East Pipeline by opting to hold separate hearings from FERC on the project’s proposal. This delay could potentially kill the project, as extensive public opposition could lead PennEast to cancel the project, as other oil and gas companies have done.  For example, Oregon LNG cancelled a terminal and pipeline project because of funding. Public opposition to the project, and resulting delays, likely played a significant role in the company’s decision.

Despite these positive developments, there are still many ongoing attempts to build new pipelines. For example, the Dakota Access Pipeline is planned to cross four states, including ancestral Native American lands and the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe is challenging permits for the pipeline, but despite the pending litigation and growing protests, the company has begun construction on the pipeline, desecrating sacred sites in the process.

Waterkeeper Alliance issued a statement of solidarity with the ongoing demonstrations against the pipeline. Two Waterkeepers, Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus and Hurricane Creekkeeper John Wathen, as well as Waterkeeper Alliance National Director, Pete Nichols visited the protest camps, in which the Standing Rock Sioux have been joined by hundreds of other Native American tribes. In response to increasing opposition to the pipeline, the Obama Administration temporarily blocked construction of the pipeline on land controlled by the U.S. Army Corps. How this struggle will end remains to be seen.  

Each of these fights acts as an important resource and inspiration for other groups engaged in grassroots struggles against pipelines. These successes and ongoing battles demonstrate that, while there is more than one way to keep a pipeline from taking over your backyard or crossing your waterway, the key to success is a persistent, determined public united in opposition to protect health, property, environment and quality of life.

About Waterkeeper

United as one powerful force, Waterkeeper Alliance fights for every community's right to drinkable, fishable, swimmable water. For more information please visit waterkeeper.org