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How Pipelines Fuel Climate Injustice

Those protesting pipeline infrastructure understand that natural gas build-out will hurt their already vulnerable communities – in both the short term in the form of dangerous pollution and the long term as it contributes to rising global temperatures.


If the Trump Administration has a thesis statement when it comes to our climate and environment, it might well be this: industry profits matter more than the health and safety of the American people.

Some people, in particular.

This administration’s EPA has been working tirelessly to roll back numerous environmental protections, most recently clean water rules designed to protect water around the country from pollution.

Specifically, the agency is looking to weaken rules that allow states and Indigenous tribes to deny fossil fuel companies permits when their pipelines, wells, and other projects discharge dangerous chemicals into local water supplies.

What could go wrong?

Because the move sure looks like the Trump EPA issuing an open invitation for industry giants to dump all kinds of waste and chemicals into water – our water – threatening the health of families across the country.

But some families are impacted more than others. And it’s part of a larger pattern of injustice where communities of color and low-income families have been systematically targeted for decades by polluting infrastructure. As a result, they are forced to breathe and drink in all kinds of dangerous chemicals from fossil fuel facilities every day. All while many Americans never even know.

“In many instances, folks don’t see the coal fire power plants that frontline communities see when they wake up and when they go to sleep. Folks don’t see the petrochemical facilities on the Gulf Coast in Cancer Alley,” Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president for environmental justice, climate and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, told the audience during Climate Reality’s Leadership Corps training in Lost Angeles last year. “They don’t see the pipelines that Standing Rock members and others continue to focus on and to push away.

“You can’t talk about the impacts of climate change and not talk about the frontline communities who for decades have been asking folks to focus on these impacts.”

The bottom line: The effects of fossil fuel pollution and the climate crisis disproportionately impact the most vulnerable among us, particularly low-income families and communities of color.

Advocates for environmental justice know this all too well. And today, one fight against a planned natural gas pipeline in states along the US Atlantic coast shows just how willing this administration is to change the rules to help line the pockets of Big Polluters. No matter the cost to the health and wellbeing of the poor and minority communities standing in the project’s path.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a planned pipeline that would carry fracked natural gas about 600 miles from the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia through Virginia and North Carolina. A collaborative project of Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, and Southern Company Gas, the pipeline is projected to cost $8 billion, and investors hope it will be up and running by 2021.

However, the project is said to be two years behind schedule after federal courts have either thrown out or put on hold seven different permits related to its construction, which began in 2018. And many consider the pipeline to be entirely unnecessary because existing infrastructure can meet both current and future energy demands.

Several other issues plaguing its construction are also considered to be self-created. Dominion Energy and its partners chose a “risky, unreasonable route across steep mountains and protected lands” for the pipeline to travel. Included in that route are more than 1,500 streams and rivers in West Virginia and two national forests. They also want to see the pipeline cut straight across the famed Appalachian Trail. 

Also in its path: many low-income families and communities of color.

According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, “The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, determined that more than half of the census tracts within a mile of the [Atlantic Coast Pipeline] have disproportionately high populations of people either living below the poverty line or belonging to racial or ethnic minorities.”

Climate Injustice and Fossil Fuels

While climate change affects all of us, the impacts aren’t shared equally.

Low-income households and communities of color are more likely than more affluent and white communities to live in proximity to polluting industries like oil refineries and pipeline infrastructure, leading to disproportionate exposure to pollution from burning fossil fuels and chemicals leaching into the water table. And because of often discriminatory policies and poor city planning, these same communities are hit first and worst by climate-exacerbated events like extreme drought, major floods, wildfires, and urban heat islands.

In recent years, hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” – the process of drilling down into the earth and injecting a high-pressure water-chemical mixture into shale to release the gas inside – and pipeline infrastructure has spread this injustice to ever-more-rural areas.

Fracked gas is typically found pretty deep in the earth – much further down than the water table. But the boreholes carrying the gas back up to the surface travel straight through the water-bearing rocks, called aquifers, from which many of us get our water. The injected fracking fluid often contains dangerous chemicals that no one would want to drink, and those chemicals can escape into groundwater.

All of which is to say, fracking can easily contaminate water supplies if it’s not done properly. So any time regulations protecting clean water are rolled back, as the Trump EPA is attempting to do now, the risk of these pollutants making their way into our water increases dramatically.

The pipelines and compressor stations that carry fracked gas bring with them numerous health risks of their own. The pollutants emitted by compressor stations – which include chemicals like benzene, nitrogen dioxide, and toluene – have been linked to serious health problems like various cancers, respiratory and cardiovascular illness, and birth defects.

It’s unsurprising then that the communities nearest to this infrastructure are plagued by particularly high rates of asthma and heart disease.

Clean Water for North Carolina, a nonprofit organization working with NC communities for drinking water quality and environmental justice, puts it as plainly as we’ve seen: “If allowed to proceed, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will deliver adverse health impacts, limited choice on future energy investment, and heightened risk of accidents, and disproportionately to low income and people of color communities.”

The fossil fuel economy doesn’t just destabilize our climate for everyone; it too often also exposes often struggling communities to pollutants that put them in danger of everything from greater risk of cancer to respiratory issues. This is an unjust moral failure that should alarm every American.

Natural Gas and Our Climate

Beyond these insidious impacts on already vulnerable communities, the natural gas that would flow through the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is itself a danger to our planet – and everyone on it.

Natural gas is a growing energy source – one many are putting a lot of faith in. (Hence the development of a pipeline that, again, many do not believe is even needed.) But many of the arguments in support of natural gas are based on outdated or incorrect information – sometimes going so far as to border on wishful thinking.

Proponents like to portray the fuel as a cuddlier cousin to coal and oil when it comes to climate because it generates less carbon dioxide when burned. But its CO2 emissions are only one piece of a far more nuanced puzzle. 

Rather than dwell in the minutiae of the full life cycle of natural gas – the fact that 50 percent less CO2 also isn’t zero CO2; the fugitive emissions from its extraction, infrastructure construction, transport, and storage – let’s just get straight to its real climate Big Bad: methane.

Methane is a very, very powerful greenhouse gas. In the atmosphere, compared to carbon, it’s fairly short-lived: only about 20 percent of the methane emitted today will still be in the atmosphere after 20 years. However, when it first enters the atmosphere, it’s around 120 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat and 86 times stronger over a 20-year period.

(Carbon dioxide hangs around for much longer: As much as 15 percent of today’s carbon dioxide will still be in the atmosphere in 10,000 years.)

And a lot of the methane that ends up in the atmosphere comes from natural gas production, adding ever-more fuel to the climate fire at a time when we need to be working rapidly toward net-zero emissions if we hope to fend off the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

Help Us Fight Back

The simple truth is that those protesting pipeline infrastructure understand the reality that natural gas build-out does not make sense for the United States or the world. They know it will hurt their communities – in both the short term in the form of dangerous pollution and the long term as it contributes to rising global temperatures. They know we need to solve the climate crisis, not make it worse.

But the Trump Administration doesn’t see it that way. The administration’s EPA wants to rewrite the rules on the Clean Water Act that protects our right to safe water in an effort to fast-track fossil fuel energy projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Projects that accelerate the climate crisis and poison bodies of water in the communities around them. Communities already dealing with injustice. Communities feeling the impacts of this crisis first and worst.

We say no way.

Because all Americans deserve clean water. And all Americans deserve a healthy future.

Click here to join us in calling on EPA to leave the Clean Water Act alone.