Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, I was living far from home, working as a special assistant at a nonprofit organization in Boston after graduating college. Like many 25-year-olds at the time, I decided to move home to be closer to my family in southwest Memphis. That’s when I found out that two major oil companies were planning to build a crude oil pipeline through the city, and it would carry dirty oil to the Gulf of Mexico for export.
The Byhalia Pipeline planned to run through my childhood neighborhood—a predominantly Black community. We are already suffering from 17 toxic facilities and have a cancer risk rate four times the national average. Both of my grandmothers, who lived in southwest Memphis, have died of cancer.
The pipeline company’s spokesperson went on record saying that they chose my home for a pipeline because it was “the point of least resistance.” Or, in other words, they believed my community—because it was predominantly Black—would not have the power to fight.
I had never fought a multibillion-dollar crude oil pipeline company, let alone two. I had never even called myself an activist before. But I had to do something. And so I galvanized, organized, and mobilized resistance, along with my family, leaders of the southwest Memphis Black neighborhood associations, and two landowners who refused to sell their property to the pipeline company: Clyde Robinson and Scottie Fitzgerald.
We launched our movement to breathe clean air and end the reign of corporate power and pollution amid the Movement for Black Lives chanting “we can’t breathe” and a pandemic disproportionately killing Black people and lower-income people. After months of multiracial and multi-socioeconomic coalition building across the country, fierce pipeline opposition from Memphians, negative national press coverage about the pipeline and environmental racism, legislation being proposed at the county and city level, and court cases challenging eminent domain, the companies canceled the project.
This cancellation sent shockwaves through the oil and gas industry. There was, in fact, strong resistance to pipelines and fossil fuels in Black and Brown communities.
This story is not just about me or my community. Yes, we care a whole lot, because it was our hometown at stake. But we aren’t the only ones who live on planet Earth. We did it because we care about everyone. The Byhalia Pipeline win is about a bigger pattern happening across the country: Everyday people, who had no plans to become activists, are securing wins to keep oil and gas pollution out of their communities and our climate.
Take for example, local and Indigenous groups, like 7 Directions of Service, POWHR, Appalachian Voices, and West Virginia Rivers, who have formed massive opposition to the proposed 304-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) that would cut through the heart of their homelands in Appalachia. If approved, the pipeline would carry annual emissions equivalent to 19 million new passenger vehicles. These protesters have been organizing for eight years, and the pipeline has had the backing of one of the most powerful men in Washington in 2022: Sen. Joe Manchin.
In late September, Sen. Manchin backed out of his proposed permitting reform bill, which would have allowed the MVP to go forward. The bill also would have gutted the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and made it easier for other oil and gas infrastructure to be built.
Sen. Manchin is not known for giving up easily. It took months to get him to reverse course and support the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest piece of climate legislation in the country’s history. And that was only agreed to on the condition that permitting reform would follow. So what caused him to abandon the permitting reform bill so quickly?
Within weeks of a leak of his proposed bill, local and Indigenous groups had mobilized their powerful multiracial and economically diverse regional and national coalitions fighting the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Leaders organized from the front lines, and we were joined by some of the biggest environmental, progressive, and climate justice groups in the country.
Bold leaders, like Sens. Sanders (a Democrat from Vermont), Merkley (a Democrat from Oregon), and Kaine (a Democrat from Virginia) and Reps. Grijalva (a Democrat from Arizona), McCollum (a Democrat from Minnesota), and Cohen (a Democrat from Tennessee), had our backs. MVP is now on a lifeline thanks to thousands of people participating in dozens of public rallies, direct actions, lobbying and advocacy, coordinated sign-ons, and media traction. Together, we forced Sens. Manchin and Schumer (a Democrat from New York) to remove their dirty side deal from the Senate floor for a vote, and renewed our fight to end the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Some commentators have argued that environmentalists made a mistake by forming opposition to the MVP, because the permitting reform could have also helped clean energy infrastructure. But the National Environmental Protection Act doesn’t impact the vast majority of renewable energy projects. Instead, activists just showed the world that Manchin’s bill was a false choice. We don’t have to build more pipeline infrastructure to expand clean energy infrastructure. We can secure responsible permitting reform that ensures communities of color and poor communities are not sacrifice zones. At the same time, we can rapidly build the clean energy infrastructure we need in America.
The Byhalia Pipeline win and successful setbacks to MVP’s development show that frontline groups are gaining against oil and gas companies. We all have power. When we work together, combining forces—the grassroots and big greens, East Coast and Deep South, Black and Indigenous—we all win. And that brings us closer to building a livable climate and an environmentally just future.
But make no mistake: Fossil fuel companies will ensure this permitting reform bill will rear its ugly head again. Some Democrats and Republicans are already planning to reintroduce it later in the year.
We will not be their path of least resistance. We will be ready.
Justin J. Pearson is the co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline and the founder of Memphis Community Against Pollution.