Tree Sitters Hindering Pipeline

A company that builds fracked-gas pipelines is demanding the arrest of 61-year-old Theresa “Red” Terry and her daughter for trespassing — on their own property in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Terry family is trying to block one of two pipelines proposed to transport fracked gas through Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina from cutting through their homestead. More than a half-dozen others have taken to trees along the pipeline routes.

Their cause has widespread support that transcends ideological divides. Legal challenges to the pipelines are pending, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Reps. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) and Don Beyer (D-Va.) have issued a bipartisan request for a rehearing from the federal oversight body, and a chorus of state legislators and local officials is sounding the alarm.

There has even been unusual solidarity between Northern and Southwest Virginia. Property-rights advocates are outraged at the abuse of eminent domain, while environmentalists decry the multi-billion-dollar boondoggles. Faith leaders protest Dominion Energy’s plan to locate its pipeline’s single Virginia compressor station in the rural African American community of Union Hill, turning a former plantation into a polluting industrial site. And Virginians from all walks of life point to the risk to groundwater and the threat to sustainable local jobs from ratepayer subsidized fracked gas competing with local solar electricity generation that has been growing steadily.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) could reduce the escalating public concern. He could clarify that Virginia has the authority to protect clean water and that his Department of Environmental Quality can halt pipeline construction if standards have not been met, based on a law he signed this year. One standard he promised as a candidate was a stream-by-stream review of water protections. Given concerns about the legitimacy of the process to date — concerns reinforced last week by Kaine — it seems appropriate that work related to the pipeline be paused at least until the public has transparent access to evidence that this “Northam standard” has been met.

Unfortunately, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has deferred to the Trump administration’s misuse of a “nationwide” Clean Water Act permit allowing the pipelines to alter more than 1,000 streams and rivers. During his election campaign, Northam wrote the DEQ requesting that it do its own analysis of water impacts, not rely on the federal permit. Now he is in charge and can make this happen with a phone call to his DEQ director.

This is an important time to act. Red Terry has been in her tree platform for four weeks, braving snowstorms, bitter cold, heavy winds and torrential rains. EQT, the company that seeks to use eminent domain to seize a 125-foot-wide easement from the family and has successfully petitioned for a “right to early entry” for tree felling, hopes the court will levy stiff fines or get federal marshals to bring her and her daughter, who is in a nearby tree, down. Now the judge has ordered the Terrys to appear in court Tuesday.

The Terrys’ stand is more than one family’s battle to save its homeplace. It is emblematic of the conflict between powerfully connected energy companies and the people Bruce McKay, an executive at the energy behemoth and pipeline developer Dominion Energy, derided in a Washington Post interview last fall as the “general citizenry,” bemoaning their increasing influence on energy issues.

Asking the government for help is nothing new for big energy companies; it has long been at the core of their business models. And whether or not federal marshals are called in to remove the Terrys, the pipeline developers already owe state and federal governments enormous debts of gratitude.

They have President Trump’s Washington to thank for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approvals that ostensibly grant the companies eminent domain to run roughshod over landowners who don’t voluntarily yield their property rights. Two of the three FERC commissioners at the time were appointed by Trump. They accepted claims from pipeline developers that the projects are necessary, based almost entirely on the companies’ contracts with their own affiliates to purchase capacity on the routes. Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur — the one member not appointed by Trump — dissented, citing insufficient evidence of need. Virginia’s leaders, from the governor on down, should join the bipartisan group of federal officials demanding a re-do of these flawed approvals.

Northam has embraced “the Virginia way” for his leadership style. At its best, the Virginia way is about different sides working together for common-sense solutions. At its worst, critics deride it as a pay-to-play system of backroom deals advancing the interests of the biggest companies with the most powerful lobbyists. Sometimes moral leadership is not about choosing between yes and no, but hitting pause until one has both the facts and the trust of affected citizens. How his administration handles this tense situation will say much about Northam’s vision of the way forward.

Note:  This article originally appeared in The Washington Post. 

Another Note:  The tree sitters are a developing story. By the time this issue of The Highlands Voice comes out things will probably be different.