The Environmental Injustice of Pipelines
Oil and gas pipelines disrupt and endanger the communities they pass through. Let’s take a closer look at who is affected most.
In the United States, environmental burdens of all kinds have never been equally distributed.
The modern environmental justice movement began in response to this very problem when residents of Warren County, North Carolina - a predominantly Black community - organized protests in 1982 to oppose the dumping of toxic material that would leak into their water supply.
Decades of research since have shown that unequal distribution of environmental burdens is widespread in the US. A breakthrough 1987 study found that race was the most significant factor in siting hazardous waste facilities. We now know that Black people breathe air with 38% more pollution than white people (despite contributing on average less to pollution) and are 75% more likely to live near industrial facilities.
Oil and gas pipelines - and the infrastructure associated with them - are environmental burdens. They can present all sorts of threats to communities — whether that’s from the disruption of land and natural resources during construction, the air and noise pollution necessary to keep them running, or the spills, leaks and explosions that they can bring.
And like other environmental burdens, the threats caused by oil and gas pipelines are unevenly distributed. Let’s look at two recent pipeline battles to see how Big Oil continues to perpetrate environmental injustices:
The Dakota Access Pipeline
The Dakota Access Pipeline is an active, nearly 1,200-mile pipeline that carries crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota through South Dakota and onto Iowa and Illinois.
Since 2016, when the US Army Corps of Engineers approved the Dakota Access Pipeline plan, Indigenous leaders and their allies have rallied to stop its construction. In particular, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe opposed how the pipeline would cross Lake Oahe: a water reservoir on the Missouri River.
Throughout 2016 and 2017, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Cheyenne River Tribe each took to the courts several times to halt the pipeline’s construction. They argued that the Army Corps of Engineers had failed to adequately consult tribe members before approving the pipeline crossing, and that the crossing would threaten the Tribes’ water source, sacred sites, and the Tribes’ ability to exercise their religious beliefs. They pointed to The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), The Clean Water Act (CWA), and the Rivers and Harbors Act (RHA) in their filings.
Though the lawsuits did see some victories – the Army Corps of Engineers were found to have violated the NEPA and were ordered to perform a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement – they ultimately did not succeed in stopping construction or stopping the flow of oil during further review.
Despite these legal actions, years of public demonstrations, and a huge outpouring of opposition, oil pours through the Dakota Access Pipeline today Big Oil continues to profit from an energy system that threatens Indigenous land and history.
Indigenous sovereignty is a critical part of any environmental justice framework.
North Brooklyn Pipeline
The North Brooklyn Pipeline is a fracked gas transmission pipeline that currently passes through the Brownsville, Bushwick, and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods of Brooklyn, New York. In recent years, National Grid planned and began to execute an expansion that would see the pipeline extended further north into Brooklyn with the addition of two vaporizer facilities in Greenpoint.
Since discovering the company’s plans, North Brooklyn residents have banded together in a coalition to stop the final phase of the pipeline and vaporizer construction, shut off the gas already running through the pipeline, and reverse the rate hike that consumers have paid to fund the project.
Community members feel that the pipeline threatens the neighborhood by reducing air quality and putting residents at risk of a leak or explosion.
According to data from the Frac Tracker Alliance, the pipeline evacuation zone – where people would be at risk of injury in the case of a natural gas covers the homes of 153,000 people as well as 81 daycare facilities and 55 public schools. Through protesting the construction and striking against hiked gas bills, the coalition has demonstrated widespread community opposition to National Grid’s pipeline.
In summer 2021, residents filed a complaint against National Grid and the State of New York for violating Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Title VI prohibits federally funded entities from discriminating on the basis of race (among other protected identities), but residents saw National Grid’s pipeline project do just that. The pipeline snakes through designated environmental justice areas, like Brownsville, Ocean Hill, Bushwick, and East Williamsburg, that have been historically redlined and overburdened with toxic hazards.
In March, the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) determined that National Grid’s proposed vaporizers are not needed at least for the next five years. The decision – a huge victory for activists and community members against the pipeline – means that the company cannot raise the rates of customers to pay for the vaporizers.
Despite these findings, an independent review that found that the project would negatively burden communities already suffering from a high pollution burden, and widespread community opposition, construction may continue. Community members anxiously await a decision from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation on whether National Grid can still build these vaporizers without using public funds.
We cannot continue to burden Black and Latino communities with environmental threats in the name of expanded natural gas infrastructure.
What Can We Do?
- Look to Our Victories
While the history of pipelines in the United States does spotlight the devastation caused by Big Oil and Big Gas, it also shows us the power of grassroots activism. Take, for example, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – a 600-mile-long proposed gas pipeline that was canceled after six years of opposition and protest.
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