In 2021, Putting Justice at the Center of the Fight Against Oil and Gas

As the year comes to a close, I’m reflecting on the growing power of our movement for climate justice and our work together, even as we face a fossil fuel industry that is hell-bent on polluting our communities and wreaking havoc on our climate. 

As the nation’s largest and most powerful environmental organization, the Sierra Club is most powerful when we work in partnership and follow the lead of frontline communities -- the people who are hit hardest by the climate crisis and the fossil fuel industry’s pollution.

We invest in places where the fights are hard, where the politicians are beholden to fossil fuel interests, and where philanthropists and Big Green groups (including us) have historically neglected, facing odds that can seem insurmountable. But over the last year, we doubled down to center environmental justice and take on these challenging fossil fuels fights. And in many cases, we won: 

  • We kicked off the year with a victory on a campaign we’d been fighting for more than a decade: One of President Biden’s first acts in office was to cancel the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, which would have carried 830,000 gallons per day of the dirtiest oil on the planet from Alberta through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska, threatening farmland, critical water resources, and wildlife habitat along the way. When the pipeline was proposed in 2008, its construction was considered a sure thing. But a nationwide movement of frontline communities, Indigenous leaders, and environmentalists came together to fight back against the proposed pipeline and eventually stop it in its tracks. The powerful movement that arose to fight Keystone has only grown since then, taking on fights to protect communities and the climate from other fossil fuel infrastructure projects across the country. Even in the face of heartbreaking losses, like the one we faced with  the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, our movement continues to grow and fight for climate justice and a future free from fossil fuels.
  • Our growing Gulf Coast team scored big wins against three fracked gas export terminals proposed for Brownsville, Texas. One, Annova LNG, was scrapped by its developer in the face of public opposition and mounting legal challenges. Those same legal challenges, spearheaded by the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program, successfully sent federal regulators back to the drawing board on the other two projects – Rio Grande LNG and Texas LNG -- because they’d failed to conduct an adequate analysis of the facilities’ climate and environmental justice impacts. We’ll continue to fight in 2022 to ensure that this setback is not the last for these dangerous projects. Not a single one of the 20 proposed fracked gas export facilities received a final investment decision to move forward this year. Not a single one of these proposals will go unchallenged in the years to come.  
  • We also defeated the PennEast pipeline, which would have shipped fracked Marcellus Shale gas from Northeast Pennsylvania across the Delaware River to New Jersey for export. Despite a win for the project’s backers at the Supreme Court, community advocates in New Jersey and Pennsylvania successfully pushed state regulators to deny a key water permit for the project. 
  • At the federal level, we saw the Biden administration take action to address methane pollution from the oil and gas industry, a critical step toward protecting communities and the climate from this super pollutant. Responding to the calls of advocates and frontline communities, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules undoing the Trump administration’s efforts to give the industry free rein to release as much methane as it wanted. They went even further by ensuring that the methane protection policies applied both to new projects and existing oil and gas infrastructure.
  • In California, we secured huge victories against neighborhood oil drilling. Los Angeles County is home to more than 1,600 oil wells, many of them located just feet from people’s homes. This fall,  the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to begin the process of banning and phasing out existing drilling, create a program to ensure that wells are properly closed and cleaned up, and to work toward a just transition for fossil fuel workers and communities. The Newsom administration also took major steps to protect communities statewide from drilling’s harmful health impacts: They instituted a nation-leading 3,200-foot buffer zone between new drilling operations and homes, schools, and public parks, as well as a ban on fracking that will take effect in 2024.
  • We continued to hold off completion of the fracked gas Mountain Valley Pipeline, which is now three years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Earlier this month, Virginia regulators denied a key air permit for the pipeline’s “Southgate'' extension into North Carolina, citing concerns about the project’s environmental justice impacts. This setback cast even more doubt about the future of the extension and the MVP mainline, which would subject communities along the route to dangerous levels of pollution.
  • We also saw continued delays for PTT Global Chemical America’s massive petrochemical facility slated to be built in Belmont County, Ohio. It was one of five proposed petrochemical plants in the Ohio Valley that would use byproducts from fracked gas to make plastic. The project was delayed indefinitely due to local opposition and an inability to line up financing.
  • In Oregon, the company behind the proposed Jordan Cove LNG export facility and Pacific Connector pipeline filed a request with federal regulators to cancel its permit for the project, officially closing the book on this massive fracked gas export project. This was the result of years of community organizing and legal challenges in partnership with local groups, Tribes, and landowners.

The common thread across all of these victories was the interconnectedness of climate action and justice. Our fights to stop these dangerous oil and gas infrastructure projects were about preserving a livable planet for all of us. They were also about protecting the communities whose health and safety were on the line, many of whom are already overburdened by industrial pollution thanks to decades of housing discrimination and other forms of systemic racism. And in many cases, we won explicitly based on arguments centered on environmental justice, with courts and regulators recognizing that these projects would disproportionately harm low-income and communities of color, and rejecting them on those grounds. 

When we hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for the environmental racism they perpetuate, we’re successful in our fights to block infrastructure that would harm communities and our climate. That’s because, as my colleague Hop Hopkins put it last year, “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can't have disposable people without racism.” Working to dismantle systems of oppression is a critical part of effectively advocating for an end to the climate crisis. 

In the coming year, we will continue to center justice in our work to block new markets for oil and gas and invest in areas that have for too long been ignored or treated as sacrifice zones. I’m excited about the groundwork we’re laying in the Gulf Coast region, as we continue to build up our team to take on the industry’s plans for a massive expansion of oil and fracked gas exports. More than anything, I am honored to work alongside incredible and inspiring activists who are relentless in their commitment to creating a better world. 

Rest up, change makers. I’ll see you in ‘22! 


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