Dakota Access Demonstrators Inspire New Pipeline Protests
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Months of protests over the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota have come to an end. Construction on the pipeline is going forward after President Trump intervened in January. Now, it's almost finished. Oil could start flowing in the coming weeks. But the Dakota Access pipeline battle at the Standing Rock Reservation has energized others. NPR's Jeff Brady is here to tell us more about pipeline protests around the country. Hi, Jeff.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Have pipelines in general become more controversial lately?
BRADY: They have. And it's because of a strategy that's really led by environmental groups. And their goal is to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Now, in the past, those groups, they encourage people to use less oil, drive smaller cars, walk more, that sort of thing. But that didn't work out very well. So they came up with this new strategy.
And I think the Keystone XL pipeline - you probably remember that from a couple of years ago - it's a really good example of it. This is a pipeline that would have transported crude oil from Canada's oil sands down to the Gulf Coast. Opponents succeeded in delaying construction of the Keystone XL. And ultimately, President Obama blocked the project.
President Trump says he wants the pipeline now. But the economics have completely changed. Oil prices are half of what they were just a few years ago. So recently, we see ExxonMobil and Shell decide that it's not profitable to open up new oil sands projects in Canada. Those fossil fuels, they're going to stay on the ground. And score one for those environmental groups.
SHAPIRO: So these environmentalists have adopted a new strategy of protesting pipelines. With so many different pipelines being built, how do the opponents decide which ones to target for protests?
BRADY: At first, they just looked at the ones where they were most likely to succeed, like the Keystone XL. But now, we're seeing campaigns pop up all over the place, even in Texas and Louisiana. And those are two big oil producing states. We thought we'd take a look at a couple of these places. First, we have a report from our colleague Marie Cusick from WITF in Harrisburg and StateImpact Pennsylvania. She recently visited a protest site in the central part of the state.
MARIE CUSICK, BYLINE: Amidst the rolling farm fields of Pennsylvania Amish country, protesters are settling in for the long haul. They've built two tall wooden structures that looked sort of like tree houses without the tree. Mark Clatterbuck is one of the activists leading the charge against the Atlantic Sunrise, a newly approved $3 billion pipeline. Once built, it will move natural gas southward through Pennsylvania.
MARK CLATTERBUCK: So right behind us is this old historic tobacco barn that we're using as kind of the base of operations. We're - that's where we're storing food donations, as well as supplies, camping supplies, tarps.
CUSICK: The landowners here refused to make a deal with the pipeline company. Now, part of their farm may be taken through eminent domain. That's why they've welcomed in dozens of protesters who've set up camp in a cornfield. The site has a food truck, a large military tent and portable toilets.
CLATTERBUCK: We're running electric. And we'll run cable here so we have the internet as well.
CUSICK: He and others here took part in the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota. They've taken lessons from that experience and are rehearsing nonviolent direct action scenarios. Molly Wallace says she's probably too much of a wuss to stay out in a tent overnight. But she wants to make her voice heard.
MOLLY WALLACE: Yeah. I'm willing to get arrested. It's a cause worth getting arrested for.
CUSICK: The cause encompasses a long list of concerns about the pipeline, including its implications for climate change, the seizure of private property and questions over whether there's really a public need for all of this gas, since some of it will be exported. Chris Stockton is a spokesman for Williams, the company behind the Atlantic Sunrise project.
CHRIS STOCKTON: We've actually made modifications to more than half of the route trying to accommodate folks the best we can. But certainly, there's always going to be opposition.
CUSICK: President Donald Trump is viewed as friendly to the oil and gas industry. But Williams CEO Alan Armstrong warned his colleagues at a conference this year that they shouldn't get too complacent because of the new administration.
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ALAN ARMSTRONG: That is not changing the opposition that we have at a local level. And we're going to continue to see that. And I would tell you, it may even enhance.
CUSICK: And it's true, activists are taking inspiration from each other in coordinating. Stephanie Graybill is at the Lancaster camp with her two daughters. She runs the kitchen. She also protested at Standing Rock and knows six people who are making their way out to Pennsylvania.
STEPHANIE GRAYBILL: I think Standing Rock's the playbook for camps like ours because we're tired of government pushing us around. They're supposed to be working for us, not working against us.
CUSICK: As the camp continues to grow, the pipeline company has failed to get permission from dozens of property owners. It's now taking them to court.
MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: In Georgia, there's a lot of political pushback against taking private land for these projects. I'm Molly Samuel from WABE in Atlanta. Right now, there's a moratorium on new petroleum pipelines while the state legislature debates the laws around pipelines and eminent domain.
ANDRES VILLEGAS: That threat of losing land with no recourse is something that can keep a land owner awake at night.
SAMUEL: Andres Villegas is the president of the Georgia Forestry Association. Tree farming is a big business here. It's even older than the state.
VILLEGAS: Forestry and landownership that comes with it has been woven into the fabric of Georgia since the time of the colonization of the state. It's been a central part of the economy. It's been a central part of the culture.
SAMUEL: There are people here whose families have been on the same land since the 1700s. So it wasn't just environmental activists who got up in arms when a company proposed building a pipeline along the coast in 2015. Opponents had powerful allies from the business world and in politics, from both sides of the aisle.
BILL HITCHENS: You know, I'm a Republican from a Republican area.
SAMUEL: State Representative Bill Hitchens proposed that moratorium on new petroleum pipelines.
HITCHENS: I may very well have had more Democratic votes because it affects everybody.
SAMUEL: The pipeline was shelved. South Carolina has a moratorium in place too over the same pipeline. Hitchens says he's pro-business. And he understands if you have to lose private property for something that serves the public like a road.
HITCHENS: But I think people look at it a little differently when you lose it so somebody else can make some money off of it.
SAMUEL: There's another pipeline though that Georgia lawmakers couldn't block. The federal government granted the Sabal Trail pipeline permission to use eminent domain along its route through Alabama, Georgia and Florida. It's being built now, though people are setting up Standing Rock-like camps in protest.
SHAPIRO: That's Molly Samuel in Georgia. And NPR's Jeff Brady is still on the line with us. Jeff, President Trump has signed several executive actions designed to speed up the approval process for new pipelines. Where do you expect this debate to head next?
BRADY: I think we should expect more confrontations around the country because on one side, you have an industry that now has an ally in the White House. They're very optimistic. And on the other side, you have pipeline opponents who've experienced some success. And they're not ready to give up just because there's a new administration in the White House.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Jeff Brady. Thanks a lot.
BRADY: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.