The following was written collectively by the Stop the Williams Pipeline Coalition.
In May, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) decisively denied the Oklahoma pipeline company Williams a permit to build a high-pressure fracked gas pipeline in New York state waters. It was a huge victory for a grassroots movement that took on an unwinnable battle—and won.
Had it been built, the Northeast Supply Enhancement (NESE) pipeline would have run beneath the seafloor for over 20 miles, starting in Raritan Bay in New Jersey and travelling along the shores of Staten Island and Brooklyn before ending off the Rockaways in Queens.
While the DEC based its denial on the pipeline’s threat to water quality, their decision was strongly influenced by the overwhelming public opposition to the pipeline, which made it politically impossible for any agency or elected official to support the project.
As the primary leaders of this fight, we—a dozen activists from five local New York City groups—offer this retrospective assessment of the fight in hopes that others will find our reflections helpful or of interest. At the same time, we recognize that every place is different, every fight has its particular aspects, and other states have very different political landscapes to contend with. Here in New York, for example, we benefited from having aggressive state climate legislation to cite as yet another reason for opposition.
We are proud of what we did, but we fully recognize that luck and circumstance also played a real role in the outcome. Nonetheless, our fight against the Williams NESE pipeline highlights how powerful ordinary people can be when, out of love for the planet, place, and one another, they work together to make a better world.
The heart of our fight was a grassroots effort aimed at generating massive popular opposition to this project.
Here’s how we did it.
We built a true grassroots movement centered on the communities most directly threatened. A large part of the battle—especially at the beginning—was informing people about the issue, particularly in the most vulnerable communities. The vast majority of people had no idea about the pipeline proposal. So we set out to change that. We spoke with people at community boards, beaches, farmers markets, public housing, shopping streets, and political clubs. We held information sessions across the city. And we collected names and emails on a petition and built an email list that we communicated with consistently.
But we didn’t just build a list; we offered people many ways to be involved: show up at a rally, make a phone call, help with an art build, testify at a hearing, file a comment, write a letter to an editor, meet with an elected official. We sent emails sparingly so that people didn’t burn out during the marathon fight, while always reminding them that they were making a difference. And we recruited other groups to help circulate our letters and updates to maximize our reach.
Genuine collaboration kept us moving forward. Early on, we formed a coalition with five main groups, which remained the core coalition members throughout. At least one member from each group joined nearly every weekly call, which enabled quick decision making. Different group members had different strengths and we appreciated each other for that. No group tried to hog the limelight; we would strategize together on who would be the best voice in various circumstances. We had a high degree of trust in each other’s good faith. On the rare occasion when we had a conflict, we spoke frankly but without personal rancor, and then moved on without holding grudges. Meeting and talking often ensured accountability and continued engagement while providing emotional support and a regular dose of motivation. We made sure to celebrate together and we made sure to vent together.
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We knew our stuff. Some coalition members dove deeply into the documents filed by the pipeline company and tracked down studies to counter their claims. These were summarized into easy-to-understand talking points on topics like the impact on the climate, the effects on wildlife, the threats to human health, the economic burden, and the company’s safety record. We used these as the basis for public forums, letters to the editor, op eds, and comments to regulatory authorities. By adapting the information for different audiences, we could make our case to everyone from workers to policy wonks. And we always cited our sources.
Money mattered—but not as much as you might think. Some of the core leadership were paid staff of their organizations, but others were volunteers. And literally thousands of people gave of their time to perform the myriad small acts required to get the job done. We did have to pay for flyers, art supplies, an occasional interpreter, and the modest cost of a website, but most of what went into this work was freely given. Costs were split equitably between groups. However, when a larger organization (350.org) joined us in the fight, they responded to our concern that we needed well-documented proof that this pipeline was not needed, and used their financial resources to hire a professional researcher. This sophisticated analysis was important in persuading elected officials in particular that they could take a risk in opposing the pipeline. So, while most of what we accomplished we did on a shoestring, at key moments, money helped.
We chose our words wisely. The long fight to win a statewide ban on fracking, which finally came in 2014, educated many people to the dangers of that widespread practice. We chose not to use the industry’s manipulative description of choice, “natural” gas, in favor of “fracked’ gas because we knew it would resonate. We also constantly reminded the press and in others that fracked gas was methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. Importantly, we always used the conditional to speak of the pipeline, as in the pipeline “would” threaten local marine life, not “will,”making clear that the pipeline’s construction was not inevitable. Lastly, we continually reframed the industry talking point that “New York needs gas” to “New York needs energy.” That let us expound on our vision of a truly renewable future with energy sources like wind, solar, geothermal, and battery storage.
We stayed focused on the targets. While science and the law were on our side, we knew we couldn’t win without building serious political pressure against the key decision maker in New York: Governor Cuomo. We relentlessly hammered Cuomo, showing up to picket any event he had in our region, and we flooded his DEC with tens of thousands of fact-based comments. We also identified secondary targets that could send clear messages to the governor; for instance, we helped persuade the New York City Council to pass a resolution against the pipeline, which sent a clear message that local elected officials opposed the project. We knew to avoid putting too much energy into pushing for a pipeline denial from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which greenlights almost all fossil fuel infrastructure, but we also knew to trust that the NYS DEC would take public comments and climate science seriously, and we focused our efforts accordingly.
We used every tool in the toolbox. The heart of our fight was a grassroots effort aimed at generating massive popular opposition to this project. Yet we didn’t shy away from also working from the inside. We lobbied relentlessly, scheduling meeting after meeting with city council members, state senators and Assemblymembers, and other government officials. And we wielded technocratic expertise and opinion when those things were called for, mobilizing the opinions of scientists and policy experts. We also used art and street theater to produce creative expressions of solidarity and grab people’s attention in novel ways. And we engaged in non-violent civil disobedience as a part of larger efforts to stop fossil fuel infrastructure. Nothing was off the table.
We utilized the press. A small team of people met regularly to hone our media strategy while building trusted relationships with journalists. We also had volunteers ready to write letters to the editor when articles misrepresented the situation. (Even when letters like these don’t get published, they alert reporters (and their editors) that there is substantial public interest in the issue.) It’s important to note that we received virtually no attention for at least a year and a half. But then, small neighborhood outlets began to write stories here and there, until finally we got larger outlets like The Nation and The Guardian to cover us. When they did, we were ready with our talking points.
We got elected officials to pitch in. The importance of mobilizing grassroots opposition was never clearer than when approaching elected officials. Most politicians were only interested in throwing their weight behind the campaign when there was evidence that many constituents were opposed to the pipeline. Evidence of the drawbacks of the project was important, too, but without the weight of sheer numbers, this would have been, for them, just one issue among many. Once we got a few key city council and state representatives to join us, the resulting critical mass made it easier to persuade others until we had a groundswell of elected officials to match the popular opposition.
We were not discouraged by doubters. We were often told, especially at the beginning of the campaign, that we had no chance of defeating this project. In one meeting, an elected official essentially told us that Williams was going to win so we might as well try to get something out of the company for the community. We were never discouraged. We stayed together and stayed positive and believed we could win all along.
We relied both on science and the heart. We were on sure ground when wielding the science of climate change and marshaling wide-ranging data on everything from whale migration patterns and methane loss rates to the fuels currently being used in New York City boilers. And yet, this was a moral fight as well as a technical one. People who would have been affected by the construction of this pipeline on Staten Island, in Brooklyn, and in the Rockaways had lived through Superstorm Sandy with its death and local destruction; many communities have high asthma rates and elderly people who are vulnerable to heat waves. While non-New Yorkers often associate New York City with Broadway, Wall Street, and skyscrapers, city residents who live far from Manhattan are often of modest economic means living in some of the lowest-income neighborhoods in our entire state. They have a deep connection to their neighborhoods and a deep love for the ocean. The construction of this pipeline would have released toxins into the waters where they swim and interfered with the marine life they want to protect. Love of place was as important a motivator as overarching concerns with the climate crisis. In the end, it was as decisive a factor as any in beating this disastrous project once and for all.
In Sum. So yes, we worked hard. And yes, words and facts and the press all mattered. And yes, we had the luck of living in a state which has publicly committed to facing the climate crisis head on. But we also can’t say enough about all the people who helped: all the volunteers who gave their time, the first elected officials who went out on a limb to support us, the reporters who cared about understanding what was really going on, the sister organizations who circulated our petitions and showed up to our rallies. And we had the moral support of a parallel campaign led by groups in New Jersey, where Williams proposed building another segment of this pipeline along with a compressor station. All in all, solidarity in the name of a common vision of a more just and sustainable world ruled the day. This is how we build a future rooted in social and ecological justice.