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Protesters to march on White House as anger mounts over Appalachia pipeline

May 05, 2023May 05, 2023

Activists to gather in Washington to demand Joe Biden ‘reclaim his climate legacy’ by blocking 300-mile Mountain Valley pipeline

Protesters are set to descend upon the White House on Thursday under smoky skies amid growing anger among climate activists at Joe Biden for allowing a controversial gas pipeline in Appalachia to be fast-tracked.

Several hundred protesters are expected to gather in Washington to demand Biden "reclaim his climate legacy" by blocking the Mountain Valley pipeline, a 300-mile pipeline that will bring fracked gas from West Virginia to southern Virginia.

Organizers said they had ordered N95 masks to help protect protesters amid the air quality alerts linked to the Canadian wildfires. "They’ll be risking arrest under skies filled with smoke from wildfires fueled by the growing climate crisis," said organizer Jamie Henn of Fossil Free Media.

A reporter just asked me if we were going to cancel the big Mountain Valley Pipeline protest at the White House tomorrow because of wildfire smoke. Answer: no, this is *exactly* why we have to take these sorts of actions. Join us.

The Mountain Valley pipeline project has been enmeshed in legal challenges for years due to opposition from grassroots groups and landowners but the deal passed by Congress to raise the US's debt ceiling, signed by Biden over the weekend, singles out the pipeline as being "required in the national interest" and therefore should be allowed to proceed, shielded from any future judicial review.

The expediting of the pipeline provoked outrage from activists as well as some Democratic allies of Biden, with Tim Kaine, the senator from Virginia, complaining that he "strongly opposes" the decision to "green-light this pipeline without normal administrative and judicial review and ignore the voices of Virginians".

Protesters have already voiced their displeasure directly to Senator Joe Manchin, the conservative West Virginia Democrat and key swing Senate vote who was instrumental in the pipeline's inclusion in the debt deal. About two dozen protesters interrupted a speech by Manchin at an event on Tuesday by storming the stage and chanting, "Dirty deal, MVP, Manchin, you are killing me!"

Manchin, who has received more money from the gas pipeline industry than any other senator, has said that the project is vital to lower energy costs for Americans. "America is blessed with an ocean of energy under our feet, and our oil and natural gas can be produced cleaner than virtually anywhere else in the world," the senator said.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, has insisted that the pipeline would probably have gone ahead anyway, regardless of the debt deal.

However, organizers of the White House protest say they are dismayed at Biden's acquiescence to the pipeline, which follows previous decisions by the administration to allow the Willow oil drilling project in Alaska and a buildout of gas export facilities on the Gulf of Mexico coast. The International Energy Agency has made clear that there can be no new fossil fuel infrastructure built if the world is to avoid disastrous global heating.

"I’m just so disappointed. It feels like President Biden is selling out. He has pushed so many fossil fuel projects in the last six months that I just can't believe it," said Crystal Cavalier, co-founder of 7 Directions of Service, an Indigenous environmental justice group that has been campaigning against the pipeline for the past five years.

"They say this pipeline is for national security but it's just protecting the money and investments of the developers. I hope President Biden hears us, stops these archaic policies and starts listening to people.

"He said there would be no more fossil fuel permitting and he just keeps breaking his promises. They are making us into a sacrifice zone and they really have to stop."

Cavalier listed a litany of objections to the pipeline, such as its potential contamination of the hundreds of rivers, streams and wetlands it crosses, including well drinking water, along with the disturbance of Native American burial sites and increased air pollution suffered by low-income communities along the route of the project.

Fears of an environmental disaster emanating from the pipeline have been heightened by the project's patchy record, with hundreds of clean water violations recorded across West Virginia and Virginia since it was first conceived nearly a decade ago.

Last year, a gas storage well overseen by Equitrans Midstream Corporation, operators of the Mountain Valley pipeline, leaked more than 1bn cubic ft of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere for 13 days before being plugged. Many of the planned sections of the new pipeline, meanwhile, may have corroded during the long wait for its completion.

The project will lead to between 6m and 89m tons of extra planet-heating emissions should it go ahead, depending on conflicting estimates as to its impact.

The pipeline's operator has insisted it has followed best environmental practices and on Monday requested that a federal appeals court toss out a legal challenge to the project, arguing that the debt ceiling bill had rendered the case moot.

Thomas Karam, chief executive of Equitrans, said that the project "has gone through more environmental review and scrutiny than any natural gas pipeline project in US history" and should be allowed to go ahead.

Mountain Valley only has 20 miles of pipeline left to lay before the project is completed, and it appears that Manchin's long ambition to see it finished may be in sight. Opponents, though, insist the administration can still find a way to stymie it.

"Even if some of these permits are issued and initially shielded from judicial review, that's not necessarily the end of the line," said Jason Rylander, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, who said that the pipeline still has to cross some difficult terrain, including areas of national forest, that will require permits.

Barry Rabe, an expert in environmental policy at the University of Michigan, said that with no plan set forward by Congress to shift away from gas or build new networks of power lines to transport clean electricity, fights similar to the Mountain Valley pipeline are likely to continue.

"We are in a transition, but we are still producing and shipping and exporting gas," he said. "With the Inflation Reduction Act we’ve taken a huge step in terms of incentives but it will only go so far. We have no carbon price, no ban on oil or gas production, nothing like they have in the European Union. The US is really playing catch-up."