It’s been quite a run for pipeline fighters recently. In just 24 hours, activists killed or nearly killed the Dakota Access, Keystone XL, and the Atlantic Coast Pipelines. These are body blows to the industry, leading The New York Times to ask: “Is This The End of New Pipelines?” Just a couple months ago, New York City had its own winning battle over a large pipeline. The Williams pipeline (formally the “Northeast Supply Enhancement”) would have pumped enough fracked gas from New Jersey to New York to emit about eight million metric tons of CO2 equivalent, driving up New York City’s climate pollution by about 15 percent with one massive project.

The Stop the Williams Pipeline coalition formed in 2017 to fight the proposed project. Activists built enough opposition to the project to win three consecutive years of permit rejections. After the second, the big utilities, who intended to profit handsomely off of the construction of the pipeline, raised the stakes and declared a “gas moratorium,” refusing to install new gas hook ups to customers throughout downstate New York. They thought this muscular move would trigger enough economic pressure to overcome activists’ opposition.  They were wrong. New Yorkers — with an assist from pipeline fighters in New Jersey — defeated Williams Companies and the state’s largest utilities through relentless organizing and mobilization.

 

 

What organizers made into a politically inevitable win was quite the opposite when Williams first proposed the project. The company had good reason to be confident that it would win New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s approval for this billion-dollar project. After all, the company had run right over opposition to a similar cross-harbor pipeline in New York in 2011. The Obama Administration had also rolled over for the fracked gas company, as did Congress, which enacted a specific law enabling Williams to run a huge project through Jamaica Bay in Queens, which is a part of the federal National Park system. The bill passed with a massive bipartisan majority.

Pipeline opponents, including 350Brooklyn, Food & Water Watch, Sane Energy Project, and Surfrider NYC, were determined to avoid a similar fate. They formed the Stop the Williams Pipeline coalition, which our organization, New York Communities for Change, also joined. The key difference that led to our coalition’s victory was the depth and scale of organizing at multiple geographic levels. (New Jersey pipeline fighters also effectively mobilized on the New Jersey side of the project.) We successfully built and activated a large, intense base of opposition targeted at the key decision-maker: Andrew Cuomo.

For over three years, we swarmed Cuomo. Over time, Stop the Williams Pipeline built a multi-racial coalition that ran an irresistible campaign at the neighborhood, city, and state levels. This meant early educational efforts, including teach-ins and canvassing in the most affected communities, particularly the Rockaways, where the pipeline would have connected to the gas system. The coalition also built local opposition through ever-larger events. We picketed Governor Cuomo’s public appearances at least 40 times over a two-year period. We organized a 600 person town hall and a 700 person march over the Brooklyn Bridge. All of the public hearings were packed with opponents. The coalition rocked the formal comment process, with over 40,000 comments to state agencies as well as thousands of phone calls to Cuomo’s comment line. We overcame the company’s insider lobbying with grassroots pressure, convincing one local politician after another to oppose the project. In total, over 70 elected officials ended up opposing the project, with several, including the NYC Comptroller, the Council Speaker, and the Public Advocate, expending political capital to help push the Governor.

It is unusual for groups to generate this volume of opposition to a pipeline project — but that’s what it took to go from underdogs to victors. The core groups in the Stop the Williams Pipeline coalition spent large amounts of staff and volunteer time and energy, coordinating strategy in weekly calls and one-on-one meetings, turning out our members to protests and events, and using our power and relationships to get local politicians to join us.

The coalition also went beyond just local community opposition and traditional white-led environmental groups. NYCC brought a strong base in Black and Latino communities, helping to form an irresistible political coalition in a blue state: communities of color and progressive whites. This coalition is the most easily dominant political coalition in a blue city because it represents a substantial majority of voters that Democratic politicians need to win primaries. 

NYCC was particularly helpful in convincing critical elected officials who are responsive to Black voters. As a concrete example, State Senator James Sanders, who represents the Rockaways, was initially on the fence about the project. Williams Companies made contributions to Black-led community groups, which then lobbied Sanders to support the project. The company also paid consultants to manufacture astroturfed support from the public housing projects in Sanders’s district, with a letter from tenants making superficially persuasive but fundamentally false claims that the project was necessary to heat people’s homes in the winter. NYCC’s membership base and real presence in the district’s Black neighborhoods, including the housing projects that the company tried to portray as supportive of the pipeline, convinced Sanders that the project was bad for the community as well as the environment. In other battles, such astroturfing offered a patina of community legitimacy to corporate interests. But because of the coalition’s on-the-ground organizing, the industry’s attempt to manipulate the challenges faced by the community and paint pipeline opponents as out-of-touch, white elitists failed.

The coalition’s member organizations also aligned with Cynthia Nixon, who was running an underdog campaign to challenge Cuomo from the Left. The coalition fearlessly pursued an electoral strategy to further our cause, disregarding conventional advice that alienating Cuomo would backfire. One of Nixon’s earliest events, at which she unveiled her climate platform, was held on the Rockaways to highlight her opposition to the pipeline. The coalition’s groups were not intimidated by Cuomo or swayed by the mainstream environmental movement’s fealty to him. We stood with Nixon at the event as she declared her opposition to the pipeline project. At that time, Cuomo was moving left on various progressive issues in response to Nixon’s challenge. And so it went with the pipeline. Reporters got a release literally during Nixon’s press conference announcing that the state would deny the company’s first permit application. That initial victory was followed by two more permit denials, with the latest a final determination.

There was no one tactic that won the day. Ultimately, the coalition’s deep, strong, multi-racial base, our relentless focus on pressuring Cuomo, and our willingness to electoralize the battle proved unbeatable. It’s also worth noting that, unlike in many pipeline fights, litigation played no meaningful role: we won the key permit fight outright. 

After this colossal fight, the pipeline developers appear to have thrown in the towel. Industry gossip is that oil and gas companies have concluded that the sophistication and ferocity of New York State’s pipeline fighters (not just in New York City!) is too difficult to beat. It now appears that the industry will no longer propose new interstate fossil fuel pipeline projects through New York, dealing a serious blow to the oil and gas industry by crimping off the Northeast. 

The “keep it in the ground” movement against fossil fuel infrastructure is winning. We’ll continue to fight any new large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure, but we can’t and won’t stop there. To prevent the worst of the climate crisis, we’re now beginning to broaden our scope to include campaigns to shut down the existing polluting infrastructure. It will take a Green New Deal style of approach — and strong coalitions working for transformative change — to win what’s needed, including shutting down climate-wrecking fossil fuel pipelines and power plants.

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