Last week, local advocates gathered across the street from a petrochemical tank farm in the fifth ward of Louisiana’s St. James Parish to speak out about high rates of cancer and health problems in a neighborhood first settled by free people of color during the days of slavery. For years, St. James residents have battled air pollution from rows of petrochemical facilities dotting the Mississippi River, and they had just learned that state officials lured a $9.4 billion plastics plant to their area with lucrative tax breaks.
While local leaders celebrate the promise of new jobs for the region, fifth ward residents worry about placing yet another industrial facility in an area that suffered 37 chemical accidents over the last year. They also worry about ongoing construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, an oil pipeline that would stretch 162 miles across southern Louisiana between Texas and St. James Parish to feed refineries and export terminals.
Like the new plastics plant in St. James, Bayou Bridge has plenty of support from politicians, but a coalition of activists is still trying to stop it. Activists regularly deploy from L’eau Est La Vie (Water is Life), a protest camp about two hours west of St. James Parish, to visit construction sites along the pipeline route. They have found increasingly colorful ways to stop work for a few hours a time, including with a musical shout-out to the crawfishers who say their livelihood is threatened by Bayou Bridge.
L’eau Est La Vie draws inspiration from the resistance camp at Standing Rock that protested Bayou Bridge’s northern brother, the Dakota Access Pipeline, but has not received the same level of support or media attention. Along with those living in the shadow of refineries, it could be easy to write off the Bayou Bridge protesters as a ragtag coalition fighting an uphill battle in a red state where the oil and gas industry is deeply entrenched. In reality, however, that industry has reason to worry about opposition to what it considers a critical piece of infrastructure.
Aging oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico that have long fed refineries in Louisiana are drying up. As one industry insider points out in an op-ed criticizing the anti-pipeline efforts, Bayou Bridge would clear supply chain bottlenecks in Texas and keep oil flowing out of the nation’s vast fracking fields at rates that have poised the US to become the world’s top oil producer over the coming decades. The Trump administration has promised to unleash domestic oil and gas production, and new infrastructure like Bayou Bridge is needed to do it.
This explains why state intelligence officers have monitored activists at L’eau Est La Vie, and Energy Transfer Partners attempted to deploy the same private security firm notorious for using military-style tactics to surveil activists at Standing Rock. It also explains why pro-industry state lawmakers are advancing legislation that would criminalize civil disobedience against fossil fuel infrastructure, one of several bills nationwide aimed at neutralizing anti-pipeline activists.
The campaign to stop the Bayou Bridge Pipeline is just one of several high-profile pipeline fights across North America that are collectively challenging the oil industry’s dominance over economies and landscapes. Activists in this movement argue pipelines must be stopped to thwart climate change and protect sensitive ecosystems in their path. For oil and gas producers, such ideas are an existential threat.
On the border of Virginia and West Virginia, tree-sits have blocked tree-clearing for the Mountain Valley Pipeline near the Appalachian Trail, leading police to prohibit supporters from delivering food and supplies to a mother and daughter who occupied trees on their own land for months. In Pennsylvania, longstanding public opposition to the Mariner East 2 Pipeline boiled over earlier this year after state officials temporarily halted construction and fined Sunoco and Energy Transfer Partners a substantial $12.6 million for a long list of spills and accidents.
Along with opposition from provincial leaders, anti-pipeline protests and blockades in British Columbia have been so effective at starving out Kinder Morgan’s multibillion-dollar budget for expanding the Trans Mountain Pipeline west from Alberta tar sands that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged legislation and public funds to ensure the pipeline is built. The pipeline is now pitting the Canadian leader against a determined coalition of Indigenous activists and environmentalists.
The list goes on. Each pipeline fight has its own local nuances, from debates over safety and eminent domain to odd alliances between direct action activists and residents who had little to do with the environmental movement until a pipeline was routed through their property. Native activists are central to many campaigns, and Trans Mountain is now at the center of a decades-old fight for Indigenous sovereignty for the Canadian First Nations. Last year’s uprising led by the Standing Rock Sioux against the Dakota Access Pipeline brought worldwide attention to the legacy of genocide in the US.
One theme holds all of these fights together: These pipelines carry the fossil fuels altering the climate and pushing our planet to the edge. If the course is be reversed, we must start building clean energy infrastructure instead of plants and pipelines that will keep oil flowing for years to come. As pipelines grow, so does the movement behind this idea.
Sam Bernhardt, the Pennsylvania director of Food & Water Watch, said the Mariner East 2 Pipeline initially faced widespread opposition from a number of communities because it would carry dangerous natural gas liquids through residential areas, but the campaign successfully incorporated climate concerns and mounted a wider challenge to the fracking industry. Instead of being an intangible problem happening on at a global scale, climate disruption was reframed as an issue facing specific places and real people.
“We have seen people in southeast Pennsylvania and across [the state] become mobilized by this issue because they see themselves in it, and in doing so, we’ve made this the biggest anti-fracking and anti-fossil fuels movement that Pennsylvania has seen,” Bernhardt told Truthout in an interview.
Bernhardt said Mariner East 2 is now scrambling to complete construction despite bipartisan opposition among politicians and state orders to shut down constructiondue to accidents. Things are different in Louisiana, where state lawmakers from both parties are lining up to support a bill that would criminalize the protesters disrupting Bayou Bridge construction in crawfish costumes.
Full disclosure: I know some of these activists. We attend the same parties and Mardi Gras parades. Like other social-justice-minded people in New Orleans, I have wondered whether Bayou Bridge is worth the fight. Oil is a major source of employment and state revenue in Louisiana, and the pipeline has all the political support it needs. Would time and energy be better spent elsewhere?
Then I think about the people in St. James Parish who wonder everyday about the air they breathe. I think about aging oil platforms on the Gulf of Mexico, and vast fracking fields across the West. It’s all part of a bigger, global system that is changing the Earth in ways we’ve never seen before. In Louisiana, the seas of climate change are literally rising around us and some coastal residents are already being forced to relocate. Storms and their floodwaters grow heavier every year.
Still, the oil industry gets what it wants, but there are a bold few who are determined to get in its way. If more of us were to join them, then maybe a brighter, cleaner future would not seem like a pipe dream.