Hallelujah. What’s next?: The defeat of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is only the beginning

The dissolution of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project defines a sharp contrast between communities. Central Virginia activists worked hard to fight the ACP, whereas people in southwestern Pennsylvania (right) have mostly welcomed the fracking industry, seeing it as a finanical lifeline. The dissolution of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project defines a sharp contrast between communities. Central Virginia activists worked hard to fight the ACP, whereas people in southwestern Pennsylvania (right) have mostly welcomed the fracking industry, seeing it as a finanical lifeline.

On July 5, my family and I were in the car together when we had a media experience that feels old- fashioned and rare these days. All of us, at the same time, heard the headline on the radio: The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has been canceled.

There followed a few seconds of disbelief, then many minutes of celebration. After so much awful, awful news this year—after seasons in which the news has felt like a constant morass of overlapping grief and confusion, experienced mostly in private, while hunched over a tiny screen—this was a shout of clarity, unity, joy: a mini-version of the nation’s communal viewing of the moon landing. Soon enough, the exclamatory texts from friends and neighbors started arriving, and we celebrated electronically, too. But we kept saying it out loud to each other, delightedly, in person: “No pipeline!”

Those two words had suddenly, magically become a statement of fact rather than a pleading slogan on thousands of blue-and-white yard signs and banners dotting Nelson County, where we’ve lived for years, with NO PIPELINE as a constant refrain in our landscape.

Like virtually all of Nelson’s residents, we wholeheartedly agreed that a land-grabbing, water-polluting pipeline slashing across our county was a heartbreaking prospect. My kids made handwritten versions of the signs and posted them in their room. Adult activists (many working through the group Friends of Nelson) made art, wrote songs, cataloged native plants in the pipeline’s path, symbolically walked the route, drew maps, blogged, gathered signatures, campaigned for anti-pipeline supervisors, held meetings and demonstrations, and relentlessly spread the word.

I supported all of it but, frankly, I wasn’t betting on their success. When two wide swaths of trees were clear-cut in 2018 near the entrance to Wintergreen Resort, despite the fact that many legal challenges were still pending, it seemed inevitable that the behemoth energy company, not the private citizens, would win out.

Part of the reason I felt a sense of hopelessness was that I’ve seen the crushing power of the energy industry in my home county, in southwestern Pennsylvania. That region, underlain by the vast natural gas formation called the Marcellus Shale, hosts the other side of fracking: the wells that supply the gas which would have flowed through the ACP. Over the last decade or so, the infrastructure of fracking has marched over my native landscape like an unstoppable dystopian monster.

It’s a hilly, scrappy place; I grew up seeing sheep farms and cornfields, junkyards and railroads. Coal and steel had left their own deep scars, but the first frack wells I noticed were still jarring: hills brutally decapitated in order to create flat wellpads, acres of heavy gravel, wide new roads cut into the soft slopes so that large trucks could roar into the fields, bringing water that would be mixed with proprietary chemicals and injected underground.

The economics of the situation in rural, post-industrial Pennsylvania are such that many people there are glad for the gas boom. It brought jobs, even wealth in some cases. That the jobs probably won’t last forever, or that the wealth comes in exchange for risking one’s drinking water, are facts that are often brushed aside. When you’ve been ground down for generations by the boom-and-bust cycles of extractive industry, it’s hard to say no to high-paying jobs or lucrative gas leases.

After some years during which I saw more and more frack wells on every visit home (Washington County now contains 1,146, more than any other in the state) I started to notice pipelines, too. More clear-cut hillsides, more country roads torn up so that pipelines could pass underneath, more silt fences holding back erosion. It defined the lie that natural gas is “clean” energy.

All this has been on my mind as I’ve followed the saga of the ACP. Make no mistake: I’m one hundred percent glad that Dominion and Duke pulled the plug on this; it would have meant nothing but degradation for central Virginia and the environment we all share. But I can’t help seeing the contrast between the way people in central Virginia furiously fought the ACP and the way people in southwestern Pennsylvania have mostly welcomed fracking.

Separated by only a few hundred miles, the two regions are very different. The wealth, the value placed on scenic beauty and tourism, the generally high education level—all these things mark greater Charlottesville as distinct from my Rust Belt home. I’ve come to realize that it’s a privilege to be able to oppose fossil fuel development, to be able to see beyond purported short-term benefits for locals. Even for those anti-ACP activists who are members of marginalized groups—like the residents of Union Hill in Buckingham County, a historic African American community that would have suffered terrible air-quality impacts from the presence of an ACP compressor station—there is power in being connected to a larger movement of people with the means and the time to mount a sustained, sophisticated resistance.

Buckingham even got a visit from Al Gore in 2019; he denounced the proposed compressor station. Meanwhile, New York-based writer Eliza Griswold published Amity and Prosperity, a searing embedded account of water pollution and poverty set in the very village in which I grew up. Her book won the Pulitzer in 2019, but fracking in Washington County continues. Whereas Charlottesville has a certain ongoing national cachet—indelibly stamped on every nickel—there is something chronically invisible about greater Pittsburgh, and the Rust Belt, in American discourse. Like Appalachia, they get mentioned occasionally, almost anthropologically, and then dropped again.

Now that victory has come on the local scale, the questions have to expand in scope. Why was the pipeline proposed in the first place? What are the priorities for financial investment and political muscle among different energy paradigms (including conservation, a latent “resource” that is far from fully tapped)? What can local activists—who have now proven their efficacy—do to influence the broader conversation about where we get our power?

The answers will have bearing on our local environment, of course, but even more directly on places that, compared to this wealthy, exceptional region, are downtrodden, ignored, polluted, impoverished, and miseducated. Hallelujah: NO PIPELINE has become a reality. NO FRACKING (and while we’re at it, NO MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL, NO NEW COAL PLANTS, YES SOLAR and YES WIND) should be next.

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