The Color of Climate

Battles Over Oil and Gas Pipelines Are Heating Up Across the U.S.

All over the country, there are direct actions, lawsuits, and calls for the Biden administration to shut down more pipelines

This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from Future Human exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.

Indigenous communities and environmental groups are fighting a battle against a planned tar sands pipeline they say could do irreparable damage to ecosystems in Northern Minnesota. Known as Line 3, the project was ordered by President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice in 2014, which aimed to replace a pipeline built in 1968 that has a long history of oil spills — including the largest inland oil spill in United States history. That spill, which released 1.7 million gallons of crude oil into the Prairie River, happened 30 years ago this month.

Opponents of the Obama-era project say the new pipeline route crosses over 200 bodies of water, areas protected by Indigenous land use treaties, and wild rice beds. Another spill, they say, could threaten the drinking water of millions, as well as the livelihood of multiple Indigenous groups.

“Line 3 would cross more than 200 bodies of water in Northern Minnesota, including the Mississippi River,” Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth, one of the groups opposing the project, tells Future Human. “If the pipeline spills, tar sands oil is extremely difficult to remove from water bodies and could harm them irreparably.”

The Line 3 protests attracted national press attention and drew the likes of actress and environmental activist Jane Fonda to Minnesota this week. But there are other serious battles taking place over other pipelines across the U.S. — including in Memphis, Tennessee, in Pennsylvania, and over the infamous Keystone XL pipeline.

President Joe Biden has been pulled into these fights through lawsuits filed by fossil fuel companies and calls from environmental groups and communities of color to halt the pipelines. How those shake out could end up defining his record on climate and the environment. On his first day in office, Biden signed a sweeping executive order calling for action to mitigate climate change, protect the environment, and transition fossil fuel jobs into renewable energy jobs. Part of that executive order revoked TransCanada’s permit to construct the Keystone XL pipeline, and a coalition of 21 Republican attorneys general from across the U.S. sued the Biden administration on Wednesday to overturn the revocation.

“If the pipeline spills, tar sands oil is extremely difficult to remove from water bodies and could harm them irreparably.”

The coalition of attorneys general, led by those in Montana and Texas (where the pipeline would have originated and terminated, respectively) argue in the lawsuit that Biden’s revocation of TransCanada’s permit is unconstitutional. They say the revocation is a “regulation of interstate and international commerce” and that the powers to regulate interstate commerce lie not with the president, but with Congress.

Biden’s move to halt construction of the Keystone XL pipeline came as a result of years of public pressure from environmental and Indigenous groups, which has led coalitions fighting other pipelines — including Line3 — to call on the White House for help. (President Obama responded to similar pressure by canceling the pipeline’s permit, only to see the Trump administration reinstate it.)

In Tennessee, a Black-led group called Memphis Community Against the Pipeline successfully pressured the Memphis City Council to oppose the Byhalia Pipeline, a project proposed by Plains All American Pipeline and the Valero Energy Corporation. On Monday, the city council passed a resolution opposing the pipeline, and is looking at an ordinance that would allow the council to “regulate and/or approve” the project, which would run through Southwest Memphis, where the residents are predominantly Black.

In addition to pressure from community groups, Rep. Steve Cohen, the congressman that represents the part of Memphis where the pipeline would be built, asked President Biden to rescind Plains All American Pipeline and Valero’s permit to construct the pipeline. Other high-profile names, like Fonda, actor Danny Glover, and former Vice President Al Gore, have called on Biden to intervene in favor of those opposing the pipeline.

This could all end up being decided by courts, though. A state-level judge has set a hearing for April 23 to determine whether or not Plains All American and Valero have the legal authority to use eminent domain — a key plank of the oil companies’ plan — to seize property from landowners in Memphis who don’t want to sell.

The Biden administration hasn’t commented on the Byhalia Pipeline, but it has backed another pipeline project in the past week. Last month, the Supreme Court decided to hear an appeal from the PennEast Pipeline Company, which is trying to build a 120-mile natural gas pipeline that would transport natural gas from the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania to New Jersey.

A federal appeals court ruled in 2019 that PennEast Pipeline could not use eminent domain to seize land owned by New Jersey that the state was refusing to sell. PennEast wants that ruling overturned. Last week, the Biden DOJ filed a brief with the Supreme Court urging the court to overturn the 2019 ruling, arguing that the National Gas Act enables PennEast to use eminent domain to seize the land. The court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case in April.

The outcome of all of these battles could help determine the future of the U.S. energy portfolio and how quickly we can reach carbon emission reduction targets. On one side, we have environmental activists and communities of color wanting to halt the extraction of fossil fuels in order to protect their immediate environment and the global climate — which is the case with Indigenous groups fighting against Line 3, which they say will produce emissions equivalent to 50 coal-fired power plants. And on the other, we have oil and gas companies with ambitious plans to continue fossil fuel extractions for decades to come. The Biden administration, with all of its promises for climate action and environmental justice, already has a murky record on pipelines — one that could threaten ecosystems all over the U.S. and the lives of millions.

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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