By Mark Ohe, STP Steering Committee member.
The growing number of states under threat from FERC sponsored fossil fuel pipeline and infrastructure projects became apparent to communities in north-central Pennsylvania and south-central New York in the spring of 2012 with an announcement for plans to construct a 124-mile frack-gas pipeline through large areas of both states. The gas driller Cabot, together with the giant pipeline corporation Williams and two partnering corporations, bestowed this project with the ironic and Orwellian name “Constitution” Pipeline.
Four years later, in 2016, it sometimes seems like a new fossil fuel pipeline project is announced every month, but in early 2012 an infrastructure project on this scale was still a rare occurrence, and the announcement took most of the residents of these rural NY and PA communities by surprise. As time progressed more dirty and extreme energy projects were announced and few states were willing or able to stand up to the onslaught. To make matters worse, too often communities across the US were being subjected to the confusing and demoralizing claim that the particular infrastructure project they opposed was a federal issue, which local communities and states had no power to control. In certain cases, this was, unfortunately, true, but states do have powerful rights, enforceable by law, which can be used to protect the health and safety of residents. The organizers from the grassroots public interest group STP (Stop The Pipeline) knew this and knew it was their task to convince NY State to wield that power, particularly the power granted under the Clean Water Act.
STP organizers also understood that their goal of getting one governor (NY’s Andrew Cuomo) to stand up to FERC and deny a crucial state permit to construct an infrastructure project would be a tremendous benefit to citizens in all other states facing similar threats.
After three years and 10 months of intense organizing and activism, on Earth Day 2016, during a full moon, and as people were preparing to celebrate Passover, the stars aligned and the New York State DEC announced that they had denied the “Constitution” pipeline company a required Water Quality Permit, effectively killing the frack-gas pipeline project.
This is the result of what can be achieved when communities work together and stand up for each other. It’s also an example of what can be achieved when people reach out to their state agencies by participating in the regulatory process. Supporting embattled state agencies being abused by giant fossil fuel corporations and their handmaidens at FERC can go a long way and lead to an outcome that benefits people over the profits of toxic industries.
The organizers at STP feel it’s especially important to view Governor Cuomo and his DEC’s decision to deny the pipeline in the larger context of the invasion of fossil fuel infrastructure taking place across the country, and especially here in the Northeast. The bar for what people across the U.S. should now expect from their own state governors has been raised significantly. We hope people in other impacted communities from Maine to California will use the experiences acquired in New York as an example of what’s possible when governors, state agencies, and elected officials are held to a higher standard. There is no reason the precedent set in this decision should not reverberate for decades.
For much of the nearly four-year battle, those with concerns about the “Constitution” pipeline had suffered from hearing the often repeated claim that opposition was futile because “It’s a federal issue local communities and states have no power over.” This mantra had been demoralizing, but in the end commitment and perseverance had proven that mantra to be a lie. Although FERC is a very powerful and abusive federal agency, the fact is that states have a number of significant rights, which are equal to, and in some cases, supersede those of the federal government. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts are two such examples. By encouraging and convincing the NYS DEC to use the powers granted to states by the Clean Water Act, the small grassroots group STP was able to stop a pipeline project which had been permitted and certified by the federal government. The fossil fuel industry and FERC have not only been put on notice… in this instance, FERC has been defeated by a decision that will shake, and most likely crumble significant foundations of corporate and federal regulatory power.
Of course, FERC is not the only fossil fuel champion and prime mover in this story. A number of federal agencies including the Department of the Interior, the EPA, and the State Department, all controlled by Democrats for the past eight years, have pursued and enacted policies that deepen our nation’s investment and dependence on fossil fuel extraction and consumption. These policies put people on the ground in harm’s way and contribute to global climate change. This is why it’s important for people from across the US to use the momentum of the win against “Constitution” pipeline to hold delegates and candidates at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 24th to a higher standard. At this moment in history, too much is at stake to allow the status quo to continue. Let the “Constitution” victory be an inspiration to the possibilities of what can be achieved at the convention.
Those at the Democratic National Convention need to hear the message that it’s time to keep the gas underground and the oil below the soil. It’s high time the Democratic Party came to terms with the fact that fossil fuel corporations are having an increasingly difficult time competing with less expensive, more desirable, renewable energy alternatives. Continuing to prop up these corporations through massive government subsidies, often in the form of tax breaks, which shift a significant portion of the cost of doing business from the corporation to taxpayers, must end. Propping up this dying industry is not only foolish but also creates dangers in setting up roadblocks and leaves less state and federal funds available for research and investments in the clean and sustainable energy solutions our nation needs in order to transition to a brighter future.
The American people understand that clean renewable energy is the solution needed to protect their health and safety, combat climate change, and create millions of well-paid jobs that will strengthen our economy and communities. It’s time for the Democratic Party to act on that understanding.
All eyes will be on Philadelphia on July 24th. There couldn’t be a better opportunity for communities threatened and impacted by fossil fuel infrastructure to come together to demand that a Clean Energy Revolution takes place now.