It’s hard to find good climate news these days–but there’s some out of Tennessee. A company that was set to build a hotly contested oil pipeline through Black neighbourhoods in Memphis said on Friday that the project is off.
“The stars aligned for this fight,” Ward Archer, founder of Protect Our Aquifer, a community group fighting the pipeline, told the Memphis Appeal of the decision. “Sometimes the good guys win and this is one of those times.”
The 79 km Byhalia Connection pipeline, if it had been completed, would have run through Tennessee and Mississippi to connect two existing pipelines, eventually transporting crude oil from Texas to Louisiana for export. A spokesperson for one of the partial owners of the project, Plains All American, said in a release that their decision to drop the Byhalia project was “due to lower U.S. oil production resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Finances aside, the Byhalia project had been facing increasing pressure and bad press over the past several months due to its route through primarily Black and brown communities. The pipeline was mapped out to run under several important Black neighbourhoods in South Memphis, including Boxtown, a community founded by freed slaves during the Civil War.
Boxtown had a history of neglect from the city: a 1979 news article reported that most residents made less than $US3,000 ($3,848) a year, many of the roads were still dirt, and people reported that they were unable to get water and electricity, despite paying for those services from the city.
Industrial facilities are common in Boxtown and its surrounding neighbourhoods — a 2013 study found that the risk of cancer in Southwest Memphis was around four times the national average — and anti-pipeline campaigners and community members raised concerns about how neighbourhoods like Boxtown could be impacted by a spill or a leak from a new pipeline.
Making matters worse, the pipeline was set to run over an important aquifer that provides drinking water to these communities. (The company seems to have been somewhat tone-deaf to these concerns: A representative from Byhalia incited widespread anger from community members after he described the proposed route during a meeting last year as “the point of least resistance.”)
Residents may have had good reason to be concerned — the companies behind Byhalia have pretty dirty histories. According to the project’s website, Byhalia is “part of a joint venture” between subsidiaries of two energy companies: Plains, which operates various ventures in the U.S. and Canada, and Valero, an international oil and gas company. The pipeline itself would have been operated by a subsidiary of Plains, which was responsible for one of the worst oil spills in California history in 2015 and one of the biggest on-land leaks in Canada in 2011.
The campaign against the pipeline had attracted diverse opponents, many of them high-profile, in recent months. Former Vice President Al Gore called the plans a “reckless, racist rip-off” in an April op-ed, echoing the concerns of nationwide environmental and racial justice groups. The company’s proposed use of eminent domain to seize land in Black neighbourhoods for construction, meanwhile, drew criticism from libertarian think tanks and politicians.
Celebrities including Jane Fonda, Justin Timberlake, and Danny Glover have also voiced opposition to the pipeline in recent months. The company was facing several lawsuits over its eminent domain claims; in response to local pressure, the Memphis City Council was gearing up to hold a vote on a measure to more strictly regulate pipelines like Byhalia this month.
News of Byhalia’s demise is a much-needed piece of positivity for anti-pipeline activists, who have seen several defeats nationally in recent months. The Biden administration has defended the Line 3 pipeline, currently under construction and facing fierce opposition in Michigan, and kept the Dakota Access pipeline operational during a drawn-out lawsuit from the Standing Rock Sioux, which was thrown out last month. Byhalia, which had yet to break ground on construction, had more in common with the now-cancelled Keystone XL project — which, despite high-profile opposition and a national, decade-plus long fight over its construction, faced widespread questions over its profitability — than it did with these pipelines under construction.
Regardless of how the company framed its decision, the organisers behind the local opposition are claiming victory.
“We’ve shown [Byhalia] that we aren’t the path of least resistance,” organiser Justin Pearson said on a Facebook Live. “We are the path of resilience.”