In the last two weeks, 12 climate activists were arrested after shutting down the North Brooklyn pipeline site by chaining their bodies to the construction. The in-progress National Grid-owned pipeline would carry fracked gas through Black and brown neighborhoods in Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Williamsburg. This project is ongoing despite the 2014 bans on fracking in New York, the 2020 ban on fracking, and escalating community resistance.
“We won’t stand for new fossil fuel infrastructure being built by National Grid, a for-profit company that has a monopoly hold on New York City. No pipelines on stolen land!” said Sixth Street Community Center’s program director and Brooklyn organizer Jen Chantrtanapichate.
“Fracking” is short for “hydraulic fracturing,” a process by which water, sand, and chemicals are injected underground at very high pressures to crack open rock layers and release the oil or gas trapped inside. Unfortunately, the decades-old technique process can and has gone wrong, leading to pollution. During the vice presidential debate, both Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris swiftly muted the fracking conversation as a non-issue. Both parties are committed to not banning fracking despite the risks. Like many politicians, Biden and Harris laud the U.S. fracking boom’s perceived benefits without calculating the cascading violence it creates. Their refusal to acknowledge the fracking crisis in Indigenous, Black, brown, poor, and rural communities is a warning sign that community organizers must continue to fight for environmental justice no matter the election outcome.
Anna Tsomos-Leidecker is a 21-year-old CUNY public health student who can see the north Brooklyn pipeline from her home. She got involved with the anti-fracking movement out of concern for her health and community. She believes politicians should do what’s in the best interest of the constituents, and that is to ban fracking and move away from these toxic harmful, environmentally damaging fossil fuel industries.
“Folks think that to have a healthy economy and to have a healthy climate are just diametrical. They are not opposed,” said Tsomos-Leidecker. “Suppose we keep depending on unsustainable extractive industries? In that case, we’re going to have an even larger economic crisis as a byproduct of the climate crisis. It’s already starting to affect us. Still, it’s going to affect us so, so much more in the future.”
Fumes Across the Fence-Line, a 2017 white paper co-authored by the NAACP, found that more than 1 million Black people live within a half-mile of existing natural gas facilities, and the number is growing every year. They cited that it is not a coincidence; many Black Americans live near oil gas development. Historically, companies take advantage of communities that have low levels of political power. In these communities, companies may face lower permitting costs associated with development serving as an incentive.
Neoliberal policies that incentivize fracking shareholders have not kept communities safe. Instead, for every pipeline and attempted pipeline project, Black and brown activists have held the protest lines. Groups such as the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), the National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN), and We ACT have been organizing for decades of racial, environmental justice.
Colonial fracking violence has long played out in Native American communities in light of property rights laws. The complicated land ownership structure on reservations creates bureaucracy that silences the voices of Native Americans. Pipeline right-of-way laws deem fracking as a collaborative process between landowners and third-party companies. This allows utility companies to claim ownership of the land around a pipeline. Pipeline easements specifically give the easement holder the right to build and maintain a channel on a landowner’s property—the federal government as landowners collaborate with pipeline developers, not with Native Americans who live on the reservations. The political power that utility companies and the federal government jointly wield, plus the land trust legal matrix (based on a constitutional commerce clause that dates back to the 1830s), allows them to bypass dialogues about accountability and risk health before construction.
Radical community resistance to oil refineries is often the only way to initiate a conversation with utility project managers. The Dakota Access Pipeline, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in North Carolina, Union Hill in Virginia, and the East Bay Refinery Corridor in California are examples of battleground projects where communities applied pressure to politicians to protect their health and bring awareness.
Noel Sanchez is a nonbinary Dominican youth educator who lives in Brownsville.
They got involved with the #NoNBKipeline coalition back in June through Chantrtanapichate, who is also a member of the coalition, as well as FrackouttaBK, a BIPOC-led effort to stop National Grid from building a toxic pipeline through Brooklyn.
“I think many of us, because of the purposeful distractions granted living in America, remain somewhat oblivious to the actual severity of the climate crisis,” said Sanchez. “With that being said, imagine the amount of people in this country who don’t even know what fracking is. The times I have done community outreach, spoken to strangers, family and friends I have constantly witnessed automatic receptivity and sense of concern.”
Anti-fracking movements are urgent for Black and brown organizers because people of color carry the health burdens of environmental injustice. The disparities resulting from climate change, toxic air emissions, and oil refineries are lethal. Black American communities face an elevated risk of cancer due to air toxics emissions from natural gas development. Over 1 million Americans live in counties that face a cancer risk above EPA’s level of concern from toxins emitted by oil and gas facilities.
Despite the election results, Black and brown organizers are gearing up to force national leaders to address the pollution from the oil and gas sector. The colonial history of America is rooted in the violent dispossession of lands from Native Americans. De facto segregation and de jure segregation has secluded brown and poor people to neighborhoods where they remain vulnerable to environmental exploitation. Tsomos-Leidecker believes that similar to the idea that the economy is opposed to climate justice, the concept that climate justice is only for rich white folks is also something that needs to be “totally dismantled.”
“I think it’s like another tool of white supremacy and capitalism to separate race and class issues from matters of the environment,” said Tsomos-Leidecker. “Black and brown communities and lower-income communities and Indigenous communities are always the leaders on this issue because we are the folks who live on the ground and interact with climate change effects.”