The fossil fuel cancer comes out of its brief remission

After a moment of optimism, during which it seemed the United States might finally begin planning for a future free of fossil fuel dependence, pipelines are back.

Since the November election, the pendulum of public benefit versus private gain has swung sharply in the wrong direction, and pipeline companies are riding the wave. After months of slow progress during the closing months of the Obama Administration, it became evident following the Trump victory that the fossil fuel empire was striking back.

Since then, pipeline projects have jolted ahead like relapsing tumors. There are a number of such major projects underway in the United States – including the arguably unnecessary Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the (temporarily?) resuscitated Keystone XL Pipeline, and the once-nigh-moribund Dakota Access Pipeline, which is now actively pumping natural gas even as legal challenges remain. These Black Snakes each enjoy enthusiastic support from Washington and many a statehouse, but each faces challenges on the ground, in the courts, and throughout the coalescing resistance to this remarkable and disconcerting administration.

Much is teetering in the balance, and each day brings a new scandal or controversy from the Executive Branch. Its push for approval of seemingly every fossil fuel infrastructure scheme that crosses an executive desk takes place under a veil of denialism. This has been exemplified by attempting to reverse the Obama Administration’s clean energy initiatives, quitting the Paris Climate Agreement, appointing fossil fuel executives and energy-industry toadies to leadership positions in various federal agencies, and the persistent nominatin of individuals with anti-environmental records to the bench.

The threat this administration poses to our social, economic, environmental, and physical wellbeing is as hard to estimate as it is to contemplate.

Pipelines exemplify existential threats

As often noted in our Notes from Underground series (started in Fall 2015 with this post) and elsewhere, environmental threats – leaks, explosions, habitat destruction and a general air of toxicity – surround these behemoths of future blight.

Pipelines raise property and resource issues, from the inappropriate use of Eminent Domain to the inherent unsustainability of fossil fuel dependence.

There are cultural and human rights issues, such as the impact on public lands and the deplorable treatment of indigenous peoples whose lands and resources are at risk due to the strong-arm tactics of pipeline companies and government agents and agencies. (An exhaustive series on this subject ran in The Intercept earlier this year.)

There are also socioeconomic impacts on the largest scale: incestuous corporate practices mean fewer individuals wield increasingly more power, both in the corporate and political worlds – including disconcerting ties between fossil fuel leadership and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which, among other things, grants federal approval for pipeline projects. To some, it grants this approval far too readily.

It’s bad for consumers, who have neither free-market-style competition to offer meaningful choices, nor socialized utility provision to provide better transparency and potential influence via the ballot box.

It’s bad for democracy, too, as the votes of millions of consumers and property owners are offset by the direct impact of corporate money on our broken electoral system.

As new worries about conflicts of interest arise behind a gauzy haze of misinformation, the list of problems associated with pipelines only lengthens. Myriad relationships exist within energy conglomerates, and between those conglomerates and government. The debate the American people should be having is about what policies best serve public needs – from jobs to energy to health, safety, and the environment and the sustainability of all these things. Instead, we have become mired in a meta-debate over what facts are facts, and who makes that determination.

The veil of corporate power under a reign of deregulation and privatization will be difficult to pierce. This is why whistleblowers – or “leakers” as the President and his staff incorrectly label them – are more important than they have ever been.

Too many pipes, not enough whistles

The public – and, subsequently, fossil fuel companies – are starting to recognize that pipelines are increasingly a relic of the past, and not the way of the future. Informed citizens are rejecting the “need” for more environmental havoc, and smart companies are diversifying – despite their last-ditch efforts to convince the public it needs a decades-long investment in energy that is, in many places (including those deep in oil country), already being seen as passé.

Every aspect of the United States’ mad rush toward more pipelines is both problematic and emblematic of the current administration: ignoring facts and science and long-range thinking in deference to corporate profits. The Trump Administration’s assault on science has galvanized its opposition, but this is no silver lining unless it leads to change.

Under an administration geared toward opacity, fighting anti-science and invented facts is as vital as it is challenging. More and more people of conscience from inside industry and from within this administration and the agencies it oversees will need to come forward. The litany of democratic “no-nos” – fraud, waste, abuse, illegality, and threats to public health and safety – all loom large in the Trump Administration, and all run rich and deep in the world of pipelines.

Whistleblowers are legally protected for bringing these issues to the attention of the public. Laws including the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act and components of the Dodd-Frank Act protect truth-tellers in the government and corporate realms. Private citizens are also protected for reporting environmental risks such as threats to safe drinking water and public water supplies and to the air we breathe.

A reasonable belief that illicit activity has taken place or will imminently take place is enough to bring a claim. But every law has its own set of hoops to jump through. Environmental statutes like the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act, for example, require that information be given to a proper authoritywithin 30 days following any retaliatory action taken against an individual who discloses his or her legitimate concerns. The Government Accountability Project (GAP) organizes Know Your Rights Campaigns around these issues.

Legal battles and public action can slow or even stop a pipeline from being built, but the only way to assure that the public interest is a top policy priority is through transparency. When an entire administration and substantial sectors of the fossil fuel industry are deliberately opaque, that transparency must be fought for.

Luckily, there are people on the front lines of this struggle for good government who are not afraid to blow the whistle, and there are ways of protecting these whistleblowers. In just over six months we have already seen numerous government employees publicly denounce the Trump Administration’s efforts to dismantle environmental protections that have taken decades to evolve. GAP and its environmental program are here to support those who come forward. Contact us.

Disclaimer: “Notes from Underground” began as a blog series for GAP’s Climate Science and Policy Watch program. It will be continuing as a part of GAP’s broader Environmental Oversight Program, with a greater focus on GAP’s central objective: the protection of public interests through support and advocacy for whistleblowers.