Divestment and Bank Exit: How We Fight Pipelines Everywhere

With a radical Republican agenda threatening this nation on so many fronts, many of us are spread thin fighting back. How do we prioritize our time, our money, and our energies? We see so many threats, including to workers, immigrants, women’s reproductive rights, health care, public education, and consumer financial protection.

On all these fronts, the Republicans could take us back years, even decades. On the most crucial environmental issues, however, the corporate political establishment doesn’t just threaten our drinking water in specific geographic areas. It threatens the sustainability of life on Planet Earth. And nowhere is this more apparent than here in Florida.

The Threats from Fracking and Pipelines

The struggles of the Standing Rock Sioux against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has woken people everywhere to the threats to our water supplies. We’ve learned that there are pipelines being built all over the country to transport oil and gas. We’ve also learned that, on average, there’s about one major pipeline spill or leak every working day, and thousands of more leaks that are not even reported. In the final weeks of the Obama administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) completed a five-year study in which it finally concluded that fracking contaminates drinking water. This was no surprise to anyone who has watched Josh Fox’s award winning documentary, Gasland, which showed flammable gas flowing from the kitchen faucets of people living near fracking facilities.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration approved a tremendous amount of fracking and pipelines during the past eight years, and now the Trump administration is making the situation worse by taking steps to green-light DAPL and the Keystone XL Pipeline. Militarized police forces may also be even less restrained in dealing with peaceful protesters.

Florida is truly on the front lines on what could become an environmental disaster. Climate change is all too apparent here. Rising sea levels have resulted in saltwater intrusion into the Lower Floridan Aquifer that provides drinking water to all of South Florida. We also see flooding on the streets in Miami Beach and even further inland on cloudless days during our King tides, for instance. Projections are grim for even greater flooding of many more coastline neighborhoods throughout the entire state of Florida in the future.

Florida residents recognize the dangers and are trying to respond. Unfortunately, our politicians are getting in the way. For instance, Florida residents voted overwhelmingly for a major solar energy referendum last year, with nearly 73% support statewide. This was most impressive, given that the private energy and utility industry spent tens of millions of dollars against this solar initiative. But thanks to our grassroots movement and social media, we prevailed. Floridians are recognizing that solar and other renewable energy sources are creating more jobs now than fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the state legislature in Tallahassee has dragged its feet on providing any support for solar energy.

The Sabal Trail “Sinkhole” Pipeline: Florida’s DAPL

Standing Rock is Everywhere! All across the nation, we see dangerous pipelines threatening our drinking waters. Florida provides a case study of the dangers and perhaps a model for how we can resist the fossil fuel industry’s economy of death and destruction.

Here in Florida, we are fighting against the Sabal Trail Transmission Pipeline, a $3 billion joint venture of Spectra Energy, Duke Energy, and NextEra, the parent company of Florida Power & Light — a 515-mile pipeline that when completed will pump a billion gallons of fracked gas a day — and not for our energy needs, but to export as Liquefied Natural Gas to countries like China. Meanwhile, the studies show that if we put solar panels on half the acreage of the pipeline (515 miles by 50 meters wide), we would produce the same amount of energy that will be going through the pipeline, without any of the environmental dangers.

The Sabal Trail Pipeline will cross underneath some of the world’s most beautiful rivers, including the Crystal River, a crucial sanctuary for endangered manatees, and the Suwanee River, also home to several endangered species. The pipeline will cross an area with many hundreds of lakes, ponds, and pristine sea caves, all part of the Upper Floridan Aquifer, one of the world’s largest freshwater aquifers that is held together by a thin layer of karst limestone and provides 60% of the drinking water for Floridians.

However, this is also sinkhole country. Sinkholes are cavities that open up in the ground, often unpredictably, and are caused by water erosion. All that has to happen is for one sinkhole to open up unexpectedly underneath the pipeline and a billion gallons of fracked gas will spill into the aquifer — and the entire state of Florida will look like Flint, Michigan.

Are sinkholes a real threat? Some of you may recall that four years ago, a 37-year-old man, asleep in his bed was swallowed up by a giant sinkhole that opened below his house. His body was never recovered. In this part of Florida, it is not uncommon for sinkholes to appear out of nowhere.

In October 2015, the EPA wrote to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about its “very significant concerns” that the proposed route of the Sabal Trail Pipeline posed a threat of contaminating the Floridan Aquifer. Unfortunately, the EPA was forced by industry pressure to back away from its early objections and the administration of Florida’s Governor Rick Scott helped block the EPA report from being part of a legal challenge to the pipeline.

How to Fight these Pipelines

With Republicans in control in Congress and state legislatures — and establishment Democrats in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry — we have limited options in fighting against the Sabal Trail and other pipelines. In Florida, Governor Scott’s administration actually weakened our drinking water standards last year by allowing higher levels of methane and other toxic chemicals found in the fracking process. Perhaps this is not too surprising. Gov. Scott has invested more than $700,000 of his own fortune in these pipeline companies.

Progress For All and Change.org teamed up some weeks ago to circulate a petition calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop the Sabal Trail Pipeline. We submitted nearly 90,000 signatures to Senator Bill Nelson’s office. We wondered why I had not heard a word from Senator Nelson, a Democrat who in opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline, expressed concern about the massive Ogallala Aquifer and the source of drinking water for millions of people in the Midwest. Why wasn’t Senator Nelson equally concerned about the drinking water of his own constituents? I hope it’s not because Senator Nelson has taken more than $73,000 in campaign contributions from the companies building the Sabal Trail Pipeline.

With our elected officials apparently unconcerned with the environmental threats posed by the Sabal Trail Pipeline, many of us have turned to protests and civil disobedience. Some weeks ago, I took part in such demonstrations at the pipeline construction sites along the Suwannee River and stayed at the nearby Sacred Water Camp. But the protests and arrests of peaceful demonstrators have not significantly slowed the pipeline and have hardly gotten any attention by Florida’s mainstream media.

What tools are left for us to resist the Sabal Trail and other pipelines? Some months ago, I threw my support behind the growing divestment movement, urging ordinary citizens to move their savings out of investments in these fossil fuel and pipeline companies, and to change their bank accounts from the banks that fund these pipelines.

The “Divestment Movement” was effective in bringing an end to Apartheid in South Africa, but it took years. We have only months before the Sabal Trail Pipeline and many others are completed. But we also have a grassroots movement that was mobilized during the recent presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders and we have the power of social media. Just days ago, the Seattle City Council voted to divest and break its contract with Wells Fargo because of that bank’s funding of DAPL and its predatory banking practices.

Progress For All has already begun to organize a divestment movement in Florida. In the coming days and weeks, we will intensify our efforts at the many colleges and universities here to divest their endowments from the pipeline companies and the banks that fund the Sabal Trail Pipeline, including Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and JP Morgan Chase. #BankExit. We hope to mobilize thousands of students and alumni of our universities to demand action. We also hope to follow the lead of Seattle by demanding our city and county governments to divest.

Divestment may truly be the only effective tool we have left in this fight. And please remember, what happens in Florida is happening everywhere.

For a list of the pipeline investors, see our post  on Pipeline Investors.

By: Tim Canova, Chair, Progress For All

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