Governors of at least 37 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have issued strict orders for residents providing “non-life-sustaining” services to remain inside. All but five states have at least some form of shelter-in-place policies underway, such that millions of workers deemed “non-essential,” like teachers, therapists and community organizers, are clocking hours on Instagram and Zoom from living rooms across the continent. Over half of all small businesses in the U.S. are closed or could close within the coming weeks.
And yet, although you cannot eat, drink or be ventilated by the fossil fuel industry’s products, oil and gas companies are carrying on with plans to dig and lay down pipelines in multiple Canadian provinces, and states including Minnesota, Montana, Pennsylvania and Virginia. At a time when crude oil prices stand to go negative and natural gas prices are at record lows, the decision to barrel ahead with infrastructure projects that do not already actively produce or deliver capacity for electricity or transportation is “morally damning of the entire sector,” says Thea Riofrancos, a political science professor at Providence College and co-author of A Planet to Win, in an interview with Truthout.
“The fossil fuel industry is currently in free fall. Demand is plummeting, prices are plummeting, assets are stranding themselves,” she says. As Riofrancos sees it, the decision to carry on with billion-dollar projects amid intersecting public health, economic and energy crises is “either a desperate attempt to signal to shareholders, investors, consumers and governments that this sector will continue despite other signals,” or it’s an even deeper, irrational psychological response.
With shelter-in-place orders having checkerboarded their way across North America over the past few weeks, regular protests against these projects have been forced to move online for safety. A protest movement that had taken aim at stopping the Coastal GasLink Pipeline from being built through Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia by blocking railroads is resorting to petitions and Twitter storms. Other, more neighborhood-based efforts, like a campaign to stop a high pressure natural gas pipeline through the Pimmit Hills neighborhood in Fairfax County, Virginia, have shifted from rallying and door knocking to online fundraising for an anticipated legal battle.
Some local elected officials, like Pennsylvania State Sen. Andy Dinniman, have voiced support for calls to shut fossil fuel projects down during the pandemic. But lawmakers in Kentucky, South Dakota and West Virginia passed “critical infrastructure” bills in March, joining a growing list of states with legislation that criminalizes protest against oil and gas projects.
Plowing Through Unceded Territory
For First Nations whose lands lie along pipeline paths, that means a continued and heightened risk of contracting COVID-19. In accordance with the public health emergency declared across Canada on March 17, and a provincial state of emergency in British Columbia March 18, Wet’suwet’en home sites and the community’s healing center have gone on lockdown, according to the Unist’ot’en Camp’s Facebook page.
Tensions between Wet’suwet’en land protectors and the Canadian government reached new heights in March, after Canada’s federal police service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) broke a barricade, arrested and forcibly removed three Unist’ot’en matriarchs and four other land defenders. Reconciliatory talks scheduled between hereditary chiefs and Canadian officials earlier in March were inconclusive. “Meanwhile, we face a steady stream of transient workers and RCMP who put our people and communities — and especially our elders — at risk,” the Facebook post explained.
When asked over email about whether the provincial government considered infrastructure that does not currently produce or transport natural gas an “essential resource” and why work camps continue to be allowed in such close proximity to vulnerable communities like those bordering Wet’suwet’en territory, a representative of British Columbia’s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources told Truthout that its health officer had issued guidelines for industrial work camps. The guidelines include suggestions to stagger on-site meal times, provide workers who present symptoms with tissues or face masks, encourage self-isolation and implement spaced seating at on-site medical clinics. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Union, which includes members who work in oil and gas, maintains that governments everywhere should be ensuring all essential personnel are provided protective equipment, hazard pay and paid time off. “Non-essential personnel should not be placed into situations that could harm them or others during this pandemic,” IWW press officer Brendan Muckian-Bates told Truthout over email.
Materials like steel pipeline segments have continued to pile up on the Yintah, the sacred spruce-covered land of the five clans that make up the Wet’suwet’en Nation. According to a March 16 report on the Coastal GasLink Pipeline by TC Energy, approximately 1,130 workers continued to work on the $6.6 billion natural gas pipeline.
The company does appear to be downsizing the number of workers they’re sending in. By March 27, that number was down to 400. But pipeline workers are still driving in from out-of-town, staying at local inns and eating at local restaurants. “These are essentially land-locked cruise ships and need to be dealt with as we have done with far less risky aggregations of people and workers across the province and across the world,” Dr. David Bowering, former Chief Medical Health Officer for the region, wrote in an open letter to British Columbia Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. “The camps are and will be COVID-19 incubators placing the workers, the host communities, and the home communities of the workers at unacceptable risk.”
On March 31, TC Energy announced it would proceed with plans to build another of its pipelines: the 1,210-mile Keystone XL Pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska, having received $1.1 billion in funding from the Alberta government. “When TC Energy brings those men in,” Faith Spotted Eagle, a grandmother with Indigenous women-led organization Brave Heart Society told Earther, “it’s like bringing smallpox blankets in.”
Indigenous communities are already at increased risk from this pandemic, due to a lack of adequate health care and housing infrastructure, one clan explained on their Facebook page. The U.S. Indian Health Service (IHS) reports a mere 81 ventilators across the IHS system nationwide, according to Politico.
The Digging Goes On, and So Do the Lawsuits
At the same time, smaller, lower-profile pipeline projects continue across the United States, essentially fast-tracked as they proceed with streets and calendars cleared of public meetings and protests. In Pennsylvania, a series of pipelines designed to transport natural gas liquids, referred to as the Mariner East system, remain under construction following Gov. Tom Wolf’s decision to grant a waiver to Energy Transfer Partners allowing the company to continue construction at 17 different sites.
Many smaller projects appear to swing more in limbo. In New York, plans for construction on a National Grid pipeline project through Brooklyn carried on until March 27, at which time regional hospitals were already inundated with COVID-19 patients. As DeSmogBlog reports, the project was only put on hold after a local construction worker tested positive with COVID-19 and photos circulated of workers unable to social distance while on the job.
In Virginia, residents in a suburb of Washington, D.C., have yet to get a straight answer from Washington Gas about when they’ll begin construction on a natural gas pipeline originally scheduled for April 2020, for which the Virginia Department of Transportation has already issued a permit. Similarly, residents of Memphis, Tennessee, and the two northernmost counties in Mississippi say Plains All American Pipeline has stopped returning calls about plans for a 45-mile oil pipeline proposed to run through their backyards, designed to connect the Diamond to the Capline systems to pump oil from Oklahoma down to the Gulf Coast for export. As of February 2020, the Texas-based company had said it intended to have the pipeline in service by 2021. Meanwhile, The Houston Chronicle reports that six leading pipeline companies have cut a combined $1.9 billion from 2020 budgets.
The intersecting crises could present a turning point in our energy system, says Riofrancos. Amid the landscape of stalled protest movements and legal challenges on hold, those pushing back against fossil fuel infrastructure have seen one major victory amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In late March, a federal judge struck down permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline, ordering the Army Corps of Engineers to prepare an environmental impact statement. This brought a moment of joy to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in its legal battle with the government agency, the tribe’s attorney Jan Hasselman tells Truthout. Nonetheless, the battle over a just energy transition is in completely uncharted territory, Hasselman says.
In the next two months, the Standing Rock Sioux will make their case as to why the Dakota Access Pipeline should be shut down in the interim period while the Army Corps of Engineers prepares its response, over online meetings with a judge in Washington, D.C.
“The mere fact we will have a conversation about shutting down a $4 billion piece of infrastructure would have been inconceivable just a few years ago,” says Hasselman.
UPDATE: This article has been updated on April 5 to reflect that the Brooklyn pipeline is now on hold.