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Appalachian, Indigenous pipeline foes say climate deal ‘left us to burn’

Climate and Indigenous activists walk into the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and 3rd Street NW during an Oct. 15, 2021, climate change protest by the U.S. Capitol. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Crystal Cavalier-Keck sat inside the home her grandfather built on rural land in Mebane, N.C., that now has been in her family for more than 300 years, since before the Declaration of Independence. She was thinking about all they could lose.

Democrats and many environmental groups have been celebrating the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, the climate movement’s biggest legislative success, but Cavalier-Keck and many other people living in communities threatened by a warming planet said they feel this deal came at their expense. Once again, she said, she feels they were a bargaining chip and ultimately, they were sacrificed.

To secure the support of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) for the Inflation Reduction Act, the climate, energy and health-care package that President Biden signed into law last week, Democratic leadership reached a side deal with Manchin that would overhaul the process for approving new energy initiatives and expedite the Mountain Valley Pipeline project — which Cavalier-Keck has been opposing for years.

“They didn’t have all the players at the table,” said Cavalier-Keck, an enrolled citizen of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation in North Carolina. “I went through the stages of grief — anger, sadness, depression, hopelessness, and then I was like ‘We’ve got to stand up. We’ve got to do something.’”

Cavalier-Keck, 44, is planning to rally in Washington on Sept. 8, recruiting other Indigenous, Black and Appalachian community members who are fearful of what this side deal could mean for their homes and the planet. Representatives for Manchin, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not respond to a request for comment.

Though the days’ details are still being planned, Cavalier-Keck said organizers hope to secure meetings with lawmakers during business hours and then rally at 5 p.m. at the Robert A. Taft Memorial and Carillon, north of the U.S. Capitol, on Constitution Avenue between New Jersey Avenue and First Street NW. There will be music, art and testimonies from people directly affected by the Mountain Valley Pipeline project, among others in communities affected by human-induced climate change, Cavalier-Keck said.

The landmark Inflation Reduction Act will significantly advance the fight against climate change, spending about $370 billion to bring the country closer to achieving the emissions cuts scientists say are required to avoid the devastating consequences of the Earth’s warming.

The White House said environmental justice leaders were key to developing the bill, calling it “the most significant investment in climate, clean energy, and environmental justice in U.S. history and defeating the special interests who for decades have blocked progress.”

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Rally organizers argue the side deal “guts bedrock environmental protections, endangers public health, fast-tracks fossil fuels, and pushes approval for Manchin’s pet project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline,” according to a messaging guide from the People vs. Fossil Fuels coalition sent to community members and climate activists.

“Just the fact that something has passed has given people some sense of optimism,” said Russell Chisholm, the Mountain Valley watch coordinator for Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights (POWHR), a coalition representing groups from West Virginia and Virginia that has been in opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline project. “And there’s also a deep frustration of how that came about and the compromises in there, and everyone is really struggling with that right now.”

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Last fall, the People vs. Fossil Fuels coalition organized five days of protests, including Indigenous-led marches to the White House and the U.S. Capitol, and an occupation at the Interior Department, to demand that the Biden administration declare a climate emergency and take more urgent actions to curb carbon-producing fossil fuel projects at a time when scientists say the world needs to sharply cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Advocates are again returning to reemphasize these calls at a time when they say mostly White climate activists seem to be celebrating, without acknowledging the concessions made to pass this bill.

“They rode the roller coaster of compromise all the way into the ground and left us to burn in the flames,” said Ashley Engle, 38, who lives in a rural community outside Tulsa, is enrolled with the Absentee Shawnee tribe of Oklahoma and also descended from the Lakota nation. “This is not only not enough, but it’s really harmful, and we need Biden to step up.”

Hundreds gathered in front of the White House on Oct. 11 to protest the use of fossil fuels. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Eric Lee/The Washington Post)

Cavalier-Keck has been among the many people who have been battling the Mountain Valley Pipeline for years.

The project, first proposed in 2014 and mostly finished, is a key priority of Manchin’s. It would transport Appalachian shale gas about 300 miles from West Virginia to Virginia. A proposed 75-mile extension would reach central North Carolina.

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, which the United States is sending to help Europe during the war in Ukraine.

Opponents like Cavalier-Keck have protested, lobbied lawmakers and fought permits in court, successfully stalling a project they say will be devastating to their ancestral homelands, cutting through rivers and rolling hills and damaging access to clean water.

The project is now years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Mountain Valley Pipeline said in a statement that “MVP is being recognized as a critical infrastructure project that is essential for our nation’s energy security, energy reliability, and ability to effectively transition to a lower-carbon future.” Cox said the project has faced “unprecedented” scrutiny, “undergone rigorous review and evaluation” and “the final authorizations have exceeded regulatory and legal requirements for infrastructure projects.”

Joe Lovett, executive director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, said his organization will continue to challenge the pipeline in court. Nevertheless, he said, the Inflation Reduction Act’s passage was progress for the climate movement.

“It’s a first step this country has been unwilling to take,” Lovett said. “I just wish [Manchin] understood that the Mountain Valley Pipeline is counter to all the aspirations of climate in that bill.”

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In southern West Virginia, Maury Johnson stopped using his well water in 2018 for cooking, drinking and washing clothes because of turbidity, meaning the water was clouded with sediment. When it was clean enough, he’d use it for bathing. But last August, he said, it became “nonusable for anything” and he turned off the pump.

He blames the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which he said is crossing a section of his 150 acres of land that has been in his family for several generations. A Mountain Valley Pipeline representative said there was no support for Johnson’s claim that the project impacted his water, according to an August 2021 filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Johnson plans to join his neighbors and other climate advocates in the nation’s capital next month to rally against this pipeline and other fossil fuel infrastructure.

“This is more than just about the Mountain Valley Pipeline,” said Johnson, 62, a retired farmer and educator, and co-chair of POWHR. “This is about the Gulf Coast, North Alaska and every community that has been sacrificed for decades. We can’t continue to sacrifice communities and people.”

Joye Braun, 53, plans to travel from her home in Eagle Butte, S.D., to stand in solidarity with people from Appalachia, like Johnson, at the rally. She hopes to recruit others to join her, too, like those opposing the Willow project in Alaska, which would new oil infrastructure to the middle of Arctic tundra and wetland.

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Braun said she is especially concerned with the side deal, including the easing of permitting restrictions. She said this could weaken an important environmental protection law Indigenous people have frequently used to challenge projects they believed would harm their communities.

“It’s going to cut out tribes. It tramples on our rights to have meaningful consultation,” Braun, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux and a national pipeline campaign organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. “We, as Indigenous people, have already sacrificed a lot for this country. We’ve sacrificed in lives. We’ve sacrificed in lands and water.”

Jennifer K. Falcon helped organize the protest last month at the Congressional Baseball Game, less than 24 hours after the announcement of an agreement between Manchin and Schumer on the spending package.

Despite the immediate reaction from many people in the climate movement who were celebrating the news, Falcon said she and other Indigenous activists wanted to protest.

Falcon, 39, a climate advocate with the Ikiya Collective, an Indigenous woman-led collective of organizers in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, will be rallying in D.C. next month, in hopes someone in power will hear their concerns — and act.

“It’s a long-standing tradition of front-line folks having to leave the fights in their own communities … to go and advocate for themselves in D.C.,” said Falcon, an enrolled citizen of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribal Nations. “Because D.C. is not listening.”