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Climate advocates protest Mountain Valley Pipeline outside White House

Jun 06, 2023Jun 06, 2023

Danger Winslow held a microphone in his hand — the stand too tall for the 7-year-old to reach — and told hundreds of people why he returned to the nation's capital to protest.

He was afraid that the Mountain Valley Pipeline project would pollute crucial waterways and cause irreversible damage to fragile resources.

"I’m talking to you, Joe Biden," he said, tears welling in his eyes as he stood next to his mother. "Do better."

Danger, of Asheville, N.C., was among hundreds of protesters who gathered in front of the White House on Thursday and urged President Biden to oppose the Mountain Valley Pipeline — and any fossil fuel projects — and to declare a climate emergency.

They made their demands on a day when D.C.-area residents awoke for the second day to the worst air quality the region has had in years as smoke from hundreds of wildfires raging across Canada engulfed the eastern part of the United States. This has triggered Code Red air quality alerts as far south as the Carolinas, signifying unhealthy conditions for most people and especially for those with respiratory concerns.

But these protesters, many wearing masks to protect themselves from the pollution, said they couldn't risk not showing up. The stakes, they said, were too high.

Protesters pointed to smoke surrounding them as an example of how climate change's threat to humanity knows no borders. Extreme weather events, such as wildfires, and other disasters will only become more common if political leaders do not act with the urgency the crisis demands, they said.

This protest kicks off several days of actions by climate activists dubbed People vs. Fossil Fuels. The activists are demanding that Biden stop approving fossil-fuel projects. There will be demonstrations in 65 places across the country from Thursday to Sunday with the support of 64 climate, labor, environmental justice and Indigenous groups, according to a news release.

One protester on Thursday held a sign with an arrow pointing to the sky and the message: "This is what climate change looks like!" Other signs read "Burn the patriarchy, not the planet" and "Stop adding fuel to this fire!" Some protesters sat in rocking chairs, emphasizing the multigenerational fight to demand extreme actions to curb catastrophic warming.

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As part of the debt ceiling deal, Biden and House Republicans agreed to expedite permitting for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a project that would transport Appalachian shale gas about 300 miles from West Virginia to Virginia and that has been long delayed by dozens of environmental violations and a slew of court fights.

"President Biden is driving the most ambitious climate agenda in American history, and just protected the biggest climate protection bill ever from Congressional Republicans who were bent on repealing it," White House spokesman Abdullah Hasan said in a statement.

Protesters said political leaders cannot afford to make concessions on climate at a time when scientists warn that humans must drastically cut emissions to avoid the devastating consequences of the Earth's warming. A U.N. climate report in March warned that the world is on track to pass a dangerous temperature threshold within the next 10 years that would result in catastrophic warming, which could cause millions of people to die.

Climate advocates, including some in communities along the pipeline route, have fought the project since the beginning, stalling a plan they say would devastate their ancestral homelands, cut through rivers and rolling hills, and damage access to clean water.

Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for the Mountain Valley project, said in a statement that these concerns "mischaracterize" the project.

"The MVP project, which is roughly 94% complete, has undergone unprecedented scrutiny and review, and the agency experts have consistently concluded the MVP can be built and operated safely," she said in a statement. "MVP is being recognized as essential energy infrastructure that will ensure American families have reliable, affordable access to domestic energy, while also assuring national energy security and helping to achieve state and national goals for lowering carbon emissions."

Here are some signs from the protesters in front of the White House demanding Biden stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline.Many are out here in masks to protect themselves from harmful air pollution engulfing DC. They say the haze underscores the urgency of the climate crisis

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) was among the speakers Thursday who expressed their outrage that the Mountain Valley Pipeline project was part of the debt ceiling deal. It's time, she said, for Biden to declare a climate emergency.

"We have a right to breathe clean air," she told the cheering crowd. "How many more times you got to study this? I’m tired of getting studied, y’all. I’m tired of them coming back and saying ‘You’re right. Black and Brown communities on the front lines are literally dying, getting sick,’ while we don't even have universal health care."

The language in the debt ceiling deal directed the federal government to approve any outstanding permits for the pipeline and blocked courts from reviewing them or any other agency action in approval of the project.

This was part of a promise White House officials made to Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), last summer. To secure his vote for the Inflation Reduction Act, Democrats’ landmark climate law, party leaders, agreed to pass a follow-up bill that would include expediting the Mountain Valley project.

The project, first proposed in 2014 and mostly finished, has been a key priority for Manchin, a swing vote in the evenly divided Senate. Manchin and supporters have argued that this project, designed to carry 2 billion cubic feet of gas a day, would increase the nation's exports of liquefied natural gas.

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The Mountain Valley Pipeline is a joint venture between some of the largest gas companies in Appalachia and power company NextEra Energy. Its largest investor is Equitrans Midstream, which will operate the pipeline.

It's "surreal," said Emily Satterwhite, 51, that it took congressional action to force the completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Satterwhite, a professor and director of Appalachian studies at Virginia Tech, has protested the pipeline for years, including in 2018 when she locked herself to a piece of construction equipment.

"MVP can get anything they ask for now, no matter what it is or where it is, unchallenged. We have no resource other than to get in the way ourselves," she said.

Although she voted for Biden, she said she won't again.

"They’ve given us nothing to vote for," she said. "They keep relying on us to vote against something thinking we have nowhere to go. I’m tired of their hurtling us toward planetary collapse."

Bernadette Lark, who goes by BJ, said that she lives near the Mountain Valley Pipeline project in Roanoke and told the crowd that she felt betrayed by Biden's concession on the pipeline.

"There were promises made, which is why I voted," she said.

Lark said she is afraid of a pipe bursting and causing devastating damage. As she stood among the hundreds protesting, she said, she thought of her 2-year-old granddaughter.

"It's not freedom until our children can come outdoors and breathe clean air," Lark said. "We demand the poison to stop."

Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.