Just over a year ago, fifty-one-year-old Greg Yost decided to quit his job. It wasn't because he didn't like it—he loved teaching math to ninth graders in Madison County, just outside Asheville. But he had other concerns: namely, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a multibillion dollar, six hundred-mile project that would carry fracked gas through Virginia, West Virginia, and eight counties in eastern North Carolina.
Yost was worried about the project's environmental consequences and the precedent it would set for the state. He saw the proposal as a make-or-break moment.
"If this infrastructure gets built, it’s there for the next thirty or forty years, and it yokes us to this price-volatile, very dangerous fuel," he says. "If we build this stuff, we can’t build the clean energy solutions that the state really needs
That's what compelled Yost one day, while walking along the Appalachian Trail, to decide to give up his job and dedicate his life full-time to stopping the pipeline from being built.
He's been keeping busy. For the past nine days, Yost and other pipeline opponents have been taking part in a water-only fast in front of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality office. The agency has a deadline to approve or deny a water quality permit necessary for the pipeline's construction by September 19. If approved, the pipeline, which is being built by Duke Energy, Dominion, and Southern Gas Company, would traverse Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Sampson, Cumberland, and Robeson counties.
Yost was joined by several environmental activists and clergy members, including Reverend Mac Legerton of the N.C. Alliance To Protect Our People & The Places We Live, and
Susannah Tuttle, director of
N.C. Interfaith Power & Light. Participants sang and held a prayer vigil on the sidewalk outside of the DEQ's office while people filed in and out of the building. At one point, a police officer interrupted the event to tell attendees to move a bright yellow plant from the middle of the sidewalk. That plant, Legerton later explained, is going to travel across eastern North Carolina and be watered from all of the rivers and streams the proposed pipeline will run through or below. Legerton spent the rest of the vigil carrying the plant in his right arm, like a baby.
"There’s no reason why we would need to become dependent on the most dangerous and destructive form of fossil fuel that we now know exists," says Legerton, a minister in Robeson County. "But we’re up against a major company who sees now that the only future that they have to make maximum profit is in methane gas. As coal and oil diminish as forms of energy, they are rapidly trying to get states to become dependent on fracked methane unnatural gas so that we move as rapidly toward renewable energy as we can.”
Pipeline proponents, meanwhile, say the project would bring much-needed economic development and infrastructure to depressed parts of the states. In July, the mayors of six towns and cities across eastern North Carolina wrote an open letter
in support of the pipeline, arguing the pipeline would "breathe new life into our region’s economy."
But opponents say there is no need for the project—the environmental implications are too profound, they argue, and supporters haven't made a compelling enough argument for economic growth and job gains. (The Southern Environmental Law Center, for example, estimates
that the project will result in just thirty-nine permanent jobs in Virginia.)
For both sides, time is running out. The DEQ will issue a decision on granting the water permits needed to begin construction on the pipeline on or before September 19, the day Yost will end his fast. After that, presumably in October, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is slated to issue its final decision on the pipeline.
Pipeline opponents are not optimistic about the likelihood of a FERC denial. A recent investigation
by the Center for Public Integrity found the FERC approval process to be essentially a rubber-stamp: in the past thirty years, FERC has only rejected two pipelines out of hundreds of proposals. "At best, FERC officials superficially probe projects’ ramifications for the changing climate, despite persistent calls by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for deeper analyses. FERC’s assessments of need are based largely on company filings," the CPI investigators wrote. "That’s not likely to change with a pro-infrastructure president who can now fill four open seats on the five-member commission."
That leaves the DEQ with enormous decision-making potential. Democratic Governor Roy Cooper has not yet clarified his position on the pipeline, but if the DEQ denies the water-quality permit, the project would hit a major barrier.
"We all understand the tremendous weight that Duke carries in this state, and how traditionally if Duke wants it, Duke gets it," says Yost. "It will be a courageous political decision when the Cooper administration decides to weigh in and deny this permit."