Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine is facing pressure from landowners in his home state of Virginia to stand against the planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would carry fracked gas from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia to mid-Atlantic markets.
He’s made some moves in that direction: He’s held private meetings with landowners in the pipeline’s pathway; he’s asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to strengthen the consultation process for residents; and he introduced an amendment to a federal energy bill that would encourage regulators to carry out a review of the cumulative impact of the region’s four planned pipelines.
But he hasn’t ruled the pipeline out, making environmentalists worry that he ultimately shares the quietly fossil fuel-friendly politics of the Democratic Party.
Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign pushed the debate over banning hydraulic fracturing onto primetime and into the Democratic Party’s platform committee. But the Sanders view did not prevail in the end. The platform calls for stronger regulation of fracking — while affirming that it will continue.
Kaine’s record on energy is mixed. He’s been supportive of offshore drilling in the Atlantic and introduced legislation to speed up liquid natural gas exports. In 2012, he pushed for the construction of one of the nation’s last new coal plants. And he helped pressure the federal government to lower Virginia’s greenhouse gas emissions goals under the Clean Power Plan.
In Virginia, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s biggest investor, Dominion, was the largest single corporate contributor to local politicians between 1997 and 2016, and Kaine has accepted his share of the company’s cash and gifts: more than $300,000 in total since 2001. When asked what he thought of Kaine, senior American Petroleum Institute lobbyist Louis Finkel told Intercept reporter Zaid Jilani, “He’s the best we could have hoped for.” Virginia’s governor and longtime friend of the Clintons, Terry McAuliffe, supports the pipeline.
Still, many environmentalists consider Kaine someone who can be swayed. After all, he was one of the earliest legislators to declare opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have transported carbon-intensive tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Obama eventually canceled the pipeline in order to demonstrate to global policymakers his dedication to fighting climate change.
Nancy Sorrells, who sits on the steering committee of the Allegheny Blue Ridge Alliance, which is organizing against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, said she believes that Kaine will come around to rejecting it. “He has a strong moral sense,” she said. “I think he can look at it, and it will be the logical thing.”
“We feel like the heart side of Kaine is here with the landowners, and that’s the way that we fight these pipelines,” said Jane Kleeb, a key organizer behind the defeat of the Keystone XL, whose organization Bold Alliance is working with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline activists. “Tim Kaine has to be the No. 1 focus right now of the landowners: Get him to be their champion.”
Kaine did not respond to a request for comment from The Intercept.
In Keystone’s wake, natural gas pipelines are emerging as a gauge of Democrats’ environmental seriousness. In the Appalachian Basin alone, 19 major natural gas pipeline projects, including the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, have been proposed to carry fracked gas from production sites to markets, making them a focal point of the environmental movement.
The pipeline protesters have seen victories. On Earth Day, construction of the Constitution pipeline in New York halted when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo denied a key permit under the Clean Water Act. Only days earlier, pipeline company Kinder Morgan announced that it would cancel its Northeast Energy Direct pipeline because it lacked purchasing commitments from customers.
Organizers have not yet succeeded, however, in forcing regulators to link the infrastructure projects to one of the Democrats’ most pressing goals. The party’s platform committed Democrats to “meeting the pledge President Obama put forward in the landmark Paris Agreement, which aims to keep global temperature increases to ‘well below’ 2 degrees Celsius.” It goes on to call for a “comprehensive approach that ensures all federal decisions going forward contribute to solving, not significantly exacerbating, climate change.” But for now, the impact of new fossil fuel projects is not routinely measured against national and international climate goals.
Last week, Oil Change International, which is dedicated to revealing the societal costs of fossil fuels, released a report that shows how the 19 proposed Appalachian Basin pipeline projects could fail such a climate test. According to the study, the Energy Information Administration projections of fossil fuel consumption suggest that “even if the U.S. reduced all coal and petroleum use to zero by 2040, the U.S. would still exceed its climate goals based on natural gas emissions alone.” Since pipeline investments would incentivize the production and shipment of natural gas for decades, the report says, the pipelines are inconsistent with the 2-degree climate goal.
And yet, Democratic Party power players continue to push natural gas as part of a climate change solution. At a Politico-hosted panel event Wednesday, sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, former Obama energy adviser Heather Zichal, who sits on the board of Cheniere Energy, said she is in favor of developing a climate test for infrastructure — but she also supports fracking. Another panelist was one of Kaine’s companions on Clinton’s short list of potential running mates, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, whose memoir, published this spring, states that “fracking is good for the country’s energy supply, our national security, our economy, and our environment.”
“I think that there’s a cognitive dissonance,” said Steve Kretzmann, director of Oil Change International. “There’s not really a way to do fossil fuels right anymore.”
Kleeb, the anti-Keystone organizer, believes post-Bernie Democratic politics will require inviting more “keep it in the ground” organizers into positions of party power, starting within the Clinton campaign. “We need at the very least a stable of advisers of people like me — Josh Fox, Bill McKibben — that know the science, know the movement fighters,” said Kleeb, who was recently elected chair of Nebraska’s Democratic Party.
Of course, for many of those fighting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, climate is not the motivating factor. It’s one of the distinctive features of the anti-pipeline movement that no two activists are fighting for quite the same thing.
Lewis Freeman, a former plastics industry lobbyist who briefly worked for the American Petroleum Institute and describes his politics as moderate, said his motivation is to preserve the harsh Appalachian landscape. In mountainous Highland County, where he’s from, the line would pass through “karst” terrain, made of limestone caves with connecting fissures through which seeping contaminants easily impact the water supply.
“I have respect for the industry, but I don’t believe that that means that the energy industry should have the right to build a pipeline or an energy property anywhere they want,” Freeman said. “I do not believe that it is prudent on any measure, for safety or environmental reasons, to build a pipeline through the area where they want to build it.”
The activists are asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which must approve the pipeline for it to go forward, to conduct a study that would examine the cumulative impact of four pipelines that have been proposed for the area. They’ve also raised questions about the necessity of the pipeline to state and national power needs and the impact on ratepayers. Sierra Club has filed an anti-trust complaint against Dominion with the Federal Trade Commission.
Tea Partier Travis Geary, who co-chairs the anti-pipeline Augusta County Alliance with Nancy Sorrells, believes the pipelines could serve as a very different kind of litmus test for the Republican Party, whose platform would eliminate support for the Paris climate agreement. “Developing energy independence or infrastructure cannot [take priority over] protecting individual landowners who have purchased land with blood, sweat, and tears, and passed it on to family through the generations,” said Geary, whose parents’ cattle farm would be crossed by the pipeline. “If we lose our property rights, that’s the right that everything else is based on. I would like to see more of that in the Republican platform.”