Screen Shot 2020-07-23 at 9.51.26 AMJuly 20, 2020

By Brianna Cunliffe, P.E.N. chief investigative reporter 

This is a moment of reckoning for the energy future of America. As three devastating decisions render major US pipelines defunct and global oil assets plunge, it is becoming abundantly clear: The fossil fuel era is dying. What sort of world will rise in its place? 

The 8 billion dollar Atlantic Coast Pipeline was abruptly canceled after years of pressure from indigenous groups and organizers. Dominion, the principal corporation behind the exploitative fracked-gas pipeline,  jettisoned future projects like it, scrambling to distance itself from natural gas. The Dakota Access Pipeline, whose unjust population violated Native sovereignty, threatened public health, and was met with sweeping protest by Indigenous peoples, most famously the Standing Rock Sioux, was handed a devastating ruling requiring it to run dry of oil by next month. A bid to restart construction on the Keystone XL Pipeline was utterly shut down. 

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In light of these failures and the changing energy landscape, analysis by Bloomberg finds that “U.S. pipelines are becoming increasingly unbuildable.” Worldwide, the downward spiral of fossil fuels worsened, as giants Shell and BP wrote off $40 billion of their assets as unrecoverable, a far cry from a once-militant optimism envisioning endless growth.  

We are arriving at a tipping point. As Kelly Martin, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuel Campaign, has said, “A new era is upon us—one for clean energy, and one where the risks of fossil fuel infrastructure are increasingly exposed.” 

 Two thirds of Americans believe the government is not doing enough to combat the climate crisis or to protect our lands and waters. The concurrent crises of COVID, mass unemployment, and racial justice uprisings are forcing the nation to reckon with the status quo. Elected Officials To Protect America has made it clear that there is no ‘back to normal.’ Instead, we must build a better world. After all, the old one is already crumbling.  Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons put it plainest, “the facts have never been more clear: fracked gas has no role in our energy future.”

Screen Shot 2020-07-27 at 8.29.13 PMTwo of the Dakota’s Honor the Earth primary staff moved to Standing Rock in July and lived in the camps in tipis and wall tents and faced down armored vehicles like these. Courtesy photo

Powerful Indigenous and local organizers applied courageous and ceaseless pressure. Big Oil ultimately caved. Utility companies scrambled to distance themselves from volatile, exploitative extractive industries. This injustice is nothing new only now the world is paying attention.

In the global marketplace, prospects for the fossil fuel industries look only grimmer. Concern for the future of precarious projects extracting oil and gas at high cost are no longer the purview of niche environmentalists, but every major investor. Keep-it-in-the-ground and energy independence campaigns have gained traction. Elected officials face growing pressure to divest taxpayer dollars from the increasingly volatile industry endangering both Americans’ healths and their wallets. The asset devaluations that experts have long predicted are no longer vague threats or nightmares: for Shell and BP, they’re 40 billion dollar realities. [expand on leave-it-in-the -ground outcomes, etc.]

But an important victory has at last come to long-beleaguered Appalachia. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is dead. It is an outcome that seemed impossible a short time ago, and a testament to what can happen when the people corporations wrote off as expendable rise up against the greed threatening their home. 

The Supreme Court cleared the way for the planned 600-mile fracked-gas pipeline, a venture of Dominion and Duke Energy to run from West Virginia, through Virginia into North Carolina. But eight unattained permits still stood in the way of its progress for obvious reasons: it is unnecessary, dangerous, and exploitative.  

Like all pipelines, the ACP was an ecological nightmare. Clearcutting, drilling, and blasting away mountainsides would devastate soil and water, decrease air quality and resilience. FracTracker’s 2019 study revealed that fossil fuel pipelines in America have caused on average an explosion every 11 days and a fatality every 26 days. That’s an unacceptable risk only worsened by the ACP’s route through geologically fragile and flood-prone landscapes.

“They chose a pathway that goes through the most economically depressed towns  and vulnerable communities in Appalachia on purpose,” said Danielle I. A. Adams, EOPA National Board Member and North Carolina Soil and Water Supervisor. “Communities who are already marginalized, who are already economically depressed, who are already vulnerable to racial violence, the impacts of climate change. It’s very precise in who they’re denying their rights, and they’re doing it because they don’t have political clout.”  

But from the roots of environmental justice movements in the toxic landfill sites of Warren County to the modern day, the Indigenous, Black and low-income communities of Appalachia have proven that they are not to be ignored. The historically Black community of Union Hill rose up against the insidiously unjust placement of a compressor statement in their culturally-rich town. 25 percent of North Carolina’s Native population lived within a mile of the pipeline’s proposed path, and the Lumbee, Coharie, Haliwa-Saponi, and Meherrin Tribes organized for years to keep permits off their sovereign land.

Overwhelming local opposition, a broad coalition of environmental groups including The Sierra Club, petitions hundreds of thousands strong — the pipeline even drew high-profile opponents such as the Reverend William Barber II, National Board Member of the NAACP and former Vice President Al Gore, who called the whole affair a “reckless, racist rip-off.”

“It’s just absolutely a horrific project, which shows that they clearly were not concerned about the livelihoods and well being and cultural and environmental significance of the places they would destroy on the way,” said Jenna Wadsworth, EOPA signatory, NC Soil and Water Supervisor, and nominee for NC Commissioner of Agriculture.

And yet, even with eight permits unresolved and a massively bloated budget, it seemed that Dominion and Duke Energy would push ahead, aided and abetted by federal and state administrations. But as global fossil fuel assets went into free-fall and the court of public opinion demanded a shift to renewables, it was no longer certain they could recoup costs from ratepayers. That threat sent them running scared. The ACP was not abandoned because of the threat it posed to generations of cultural heritage, iconic landmarks like AT, and the public safety of vulnerable communities. Dominion jumped ship because constant pressure from dedicated organizers, seismic shifts in global markets and the court of public opinion threatened their profits. 

It’s apparent that people power was the big winner here, as well as in two other major pipeline verdicts, following swiftly on the heels of the ACP’s cancellation. The Dakota Access Pipeline, a sprawling, leaking affront to native sovereignty, was at long last brought to a grinding halt. Courts ruled that due to insufficient adherence to environmental standards oil must stop flowing by August 5th. It was a massive blow for the industry and a long-overdue victory for the Indigenous water defenders on the front lines opposing it from the very beginning. 

Just as they did in Appalachia, fossil fuel corporations thought they could bulldoze over indigenous peoples and their millenia-long stewardship of this land in pursuit of short-term economic gain. They soon learned they couldn’t. A third verdict has affirmed it: the Keystone XL Pipeline, long stalled because of its woefully inadequate environmental protections and potentially devastating path, was dealt another blow despite the Trump Administration’s attempt to bolster it. 

Grassroots organizers, indigenous leaders, and environmental groups across the nation worked tirelessly  to upend the status quo and achieve these victories. All too often, the elected and appointed officials representing them — their health, autonomy, and liberty —were fighting against them, protecting the interests of the floundering fossil fuel industry.  In the final week of June alone the Supreme Court cleared the way for the ACP to cut through iconic public lands in Appalachia, Governor Newsom issued new fracking permits in California, and the Trump administration moved to open massive tracts of Alaskan reserves to drilling. July has seen President Trump unilaterally initiate massive rollbacks of bedrock environmental regulations and brag about them on the campaign trail. 

These high-profile victories came in addition to big boons like financial and regulatory coronavirus relief from the Federal government — despite the horrible irony that these polluting industries may have contributed to a higher death rate from the virus. 

“The failing fossil fuel industry that is driving catastrophic climate change has received $1.9 billion in bailouts with public money. It has to stop,” said Meghan Sahli-Wells Co-Chair of Elected Officials to Protect California, former Culver City Mayor, and current council member. 

The people’s mandate to act on climate change is clear, with two thirds of Americans viewing the current response as insufficient . The current news cycle is rife with controversy, but activists are ensuring that the  climate crisis won’t be blurred away or swept under the rug.  The future is coming. And officials and corporations are fast finding out the costs of being stuck in the past.

A slew of oil companies are going bankrupt, including California’s largest driller.  In New York, DiNapoli’s delayed action on divestment cost  New York pensioners 25 billion dollars. 

“Currently, companies involved in the fossil fuel industry are at an even greater risk of losing value,”said New York Assistant Speaker Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, EOPA Council Member and veteran. “In combination with the negative impact fossil fuels have on the environment and climate, it’s time to divest now. New York can’t afford to wait.”

So what’s next? American consumers apparently have had enough of companies without the courage and empathy to shift their focus to the future. Evidence shows voters have had enough of this entrenched and systemic propping-up of the energy status quo, at any cost. The astronomic rise of climate champions backed by movements like Sunrise coupled with the unveiling of Biden’s new 2 trillion dollar climate plan points to a significant change in the political climate.

Forced to reckon with the impending failure of nonrenewables, from California to North Carolina, states are rolling out ambitious plans to phase out fossil fuel reliance. COVID does not sidetrack those on the frontlines from the climate crisis —- if anything, it makes efforts all the more urgent. 


The likelihood of future pandemics is looming ever greater, thanks to continued destruction of biodiversity and rising temperatures. As a hurricane season likely even more devastating than years past, approaches our coastline  and a similarly ominous fire season arrives in the West,  many Americans believe that returning to the status quo is not simply irresponsible; it is fatal. 

In the throes of crisis, a chorus of experts, scientists, policy-makers and economists alike, are calling for a transformation of our world. Where the ACP died, off the southeast coast, the promise of clean and plentiful energy from offshore wind farms is taking root in state legislatures. Where DAPL will soon sit, silent and empty, the US’ massive solar potential could light the western skies. 

The future is here. Despite the massive blows to the renewable sector by COVID-19, offshore wind production still quadrupled from its last-year’s value. Solar is a sector ride with breakthroughs: a lab in spain has managed to produce power from solar panels 24/7.  Research shows that by covering .3 percent  of our world’s surface areas with solar panels, we could power the world by sun alone. That’s 1/60th of the world’s deserts.  Coal is now more expensive than solar or wind in every major market. The excuses not to seize the moment are dwindling fast. 

Administrations cozy with coal and oil can roll back regulations, scramble to prop up failing pipelines, and spout rhetoric about coal jobs. But will it be enough to hold back the turning tide? With climate champions ready and waiting to seize this moment to build a better world it looks like the oil industry’s reign is coming to an end.