One of the only obstacles standing between construction workers and building the rest of a fracked gas pipeline in West Virginia earlier this week was a rusty, 1971 Ford Pinto with a 64-year-old teacher and grandmother of five chained inside.
That display of civil disobedience got Becky Crabtree, who's never faced criminal charges, arrested on Tuesday. But to her, the risk of up to a year in jail is worth trying to stop the 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will transport 2 billion cubic feet of fracked natural gas through West Virginia to Southern Virginia right through her property.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline, as well another closely related natural gas infrastructure project, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, kickstarted wide ranging protests from the area’s residents and environmental groups. The two pipelines would cross more than 1,000 water bodies and 245 miles of pristine forest, potentially endangering municipal water supplies and ecologically sensitive habitats.
“It just hit me,” Crabtree, who works as a science teacher, told VICE News. “I can’t just teach my students about climate change and have them fill out a sentence about fossil fuel energy and its negative impact. I know what the impacts are. I have to live this.”
Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is 20 times more powerful than CO2 and a lead contributor to global warming. Energy companies promote natural gas as having a smaller global warming footprint, but scientists believe that current figures greatly underestimate how much the increase in natural gas will contribute to climate change.
“I’ve pretty much exhausted all my other options. It wasn’t on bucket list to get arrested."
Crabtree has been protesting the pipeline for three years, but last year, the company acquired her land, which sits at the foot of Peters Mountain in West Virginia, using eminent domain. But Crabtree and her husband have yet to see any compensation. To fight the pipeline, she’s organized debates, written letters, and attended town halls and protests.
“I’ve pretty much exhausted all my other options,” Crabtree said. “It wasn’t on bucket list to get arrested, but now can tell my grandkids that your grandmother was arrested trying to save this land.” She’s currently awaiting her sentencing.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline, the smaller of two natural gas infrastructure projects underway in Virginia, began construction earlier this year, along with a second pipeline, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 584-mile pipeline that passes through the middle of the state. Once completed, both will transport fracked gas from the Marcellus and Utica shales — deep deposits of natural gas that have experienced a boom in the past five years that increased production more than threefold.
This isn’t the first time protests against the Mountain Valley Pipeline have erupted on Peters Mountain, part of which sits inside the Jefferson National Forest. Appalachians Against Pipelines, a grassroots group, have staged tree sit-ins at the same site; the most recent one lasted 95 days and led to several arrests. But direct actions — like tree-sits and protestors chaining themselves to cars (as Crabtree did) — are somewhat of a last defense for protestors.
“I’m trying to slow up the process,” Crabtree explained. ”Because once the pipeline is in the ground, the judge can say, ‘It is too late now.’ Sometimes the courts need time to catch up.”
And the tactic seems to be working. Last Friday, a panel of judges on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, sided with the anti-pipeline protestors and unanimously rescinded permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline to cross through 3.6 miles of the Jefferson National Forest, where Appalachians Against Pipelines had staged their sit-in. That means, at least for now, completion of the pipeline is on hold.
Pipeline protestors, like Crabtree, have been ramping up their efforts since 2011, when construction of the Keystone XL pipeline started. And increasingly protestors are facing jail time. During the height of the protests over the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, over 700 protestors were arrested. Even in Canada, 150 protestors and two politicians were arrested earlier this year for protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Two of those protesters were sent to jail on Tuesday. They’re the first protestors to receive sentences in the case.
But there may be good news on the horizon for many of these demonstrators who risk — and even serve — jail time to stop pipelines in their tracks. Judges have recently allowed protesters to use what’s called the “necessity defense,” where an individual can argue that the actions they took, even if they were illegal, were necessary to prevent an “imminent threat,” like climate change. And for the first time in Minnesota, it’s being used in a criminal jury trial.
That already set a precedent, according to David Dorfman, a practicing criminal lawyer and law professor at Pace University.
“If it [the defense] goes through, the message to protestors now who are protesting pipelines will be different,” Dorfman said. “It is now telling protestors, ‘block entrances, trespass, jump into pipelines.’ They have a viable defense. And that will be disaster for pipeline companies.”
Cover image: Becky Crabtree's 1971 Ford Pinto in front of the continuation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. (Photo courtesy of Becky Crabtree)