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Editorial: The forest and the trees

Editorial: The forest and the trees

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Sometimes it’s hard to tell the forest from the trees — especially when someone is sitting up in one of those trees, trying to block a natural gas pipeline from coming through.

What should we make of the recent saga of 61-year-old Theresa “Red” Terry and her 30-year-old daughter, Theresa Minor Terry, who are camped out in trees on the family’s land on Bent Mountain? They are now the best-known of a small but growing number of tree-sitters who hope to block the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

The focus so far has been on what supporters say are heavy-handed police tactics — for a time blocking people from supplying food and water to the two women on Bent Mountain and shining a spotlight on them at night to keep people from sneaking in. “Why are peaceful citizens being treated like terrorists?” Roanoke Valley environmental activist Diane Christopulos asked on her Facebook page.

The answer, of course, is that the two women on Bent Mountain are violating a federal court order to allow MVP’s tree-cutters on their land and not interfere with their operations. How else are police supposed to enforce that court order? In a recent interview with The Washington Post, state Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson County, said he’d have opted for a more forceful approach back when he was a state trooper: “If I had a warrant, I probably would’ve been climbing the tree. That’s just the way it was in my day.”

You can make the case — not a popular one with the tree-sitters’ supporters — that Roanoke County and state police are actually taking a pretty moderate approach here. A non-violent protest is being met with a non-violent police response. Again, how would environmentalists prefer that police enforce that court order? The answer, of course, is they wish that court order didn’t exist in the first place. That court order exists not because, as some are wont to believe, that the courts are “siding” with corporate interests. That court order exists because the law is written to give pipeline-builders access to private land. That’s the forest; all the rest merely trees.

In fact, there’s an even bigger ecosystem out there — the federal commission that governs pipelines is a rubber stamp for pipeline builders. A study last year by a Boston-based economic consulting firm found that since 1999, the Federal Energy Regulation Commission has only rejected two pipeline proposals — out of about 400 it considered.

The tree-sitters are fighting a quixotic rearguard action that they hope will generate enough sympathetic publicity that somehow somebody out there somewhere will stop the pipeline. It’s hard to see that happening, though, when the entire machinery of government is set up to enable exactly this outcome. The real question is whether that should be changed. FERC’s new chairman, Kevin McIntyre, says it’s time to for the commission to review how it evaluates pipelines: “1999 was quite a while ago, particularly in the natural gas pipeline area. So much has changed. So much has changed in our entire industry, of course, since then. But it would be hard to find an area that has changed more than natural gas and our pipeline industry.” Just last week, FERC made the first formal move toward that review. Few, though, expect FERC to make any major internal reforms. Even legislative proposals by U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, and Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, have languished. In any case, FERC has already issued the permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, so whatever it does in the future won’t help opponents of this particular pipeline. They also wish that Gov. Ralph Northam would intervene to have the state hold up the project by denying certain permits. Northam, though, has said he has no intention of doing so — that he’ll let regulators proceed without political interference and state regulators so far are on a path toward issuing MVP the paperwork it needs.

So that leaves us with people sitting in trees, trying to hold back the inevitable. Some observations:

  • “Red” wins the public relations battle. From a PR standpoint, “Red” is either the perfect protagonist (from the environmentalists’ point of view) or the most difficult kind of opponent to face (from the pipeline’s point of view). That’s because she’s on her own land. The tree-sitters out in the national forest, or on private land in Franklin County, may be making the same point, but the sympathy factor is a lot different. Here we have a property-owner being charged with trespassing while sitting on her own land. That’s a pretty powerful point to argue, even if “Red” is blocking a court-ordered easement.
  • Why don’t more conservatives oppose the pipeline? The pipeline isn’t a purely left-vs.-right issue. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe was certainly left of center, yet he was an enthusiastic pipeline supporter for economic development reasons; some of the boards of supervisors that have opposed the pipeline are dominated by Republicans. Still, the overarching construct is left-leaning environmentalists on one side and conservatives on the other side — because conservatives tend to be less motivated by concerns about fossil fuels.

However, there’s another issue involved that is usually championed by conservatives — property rights. Conservatives are also more apt than liberals to be concerned about the power of government, and to use “liberty” as a catchphrase. Here’s a clear illustration of what government power can look like — police trying to arrest a woman for trespassing on her own land (albeit when she’s blocking a court-approved easement). Why do the conservative arguments for business and fossil fuels trump the conservative arguments for property rights? Once again, the question comes back to the law, which says the pipeline company’s rights to perform work on court-ordered easements override those of the individual landowners along the route. That’d hardly a new concept; it’s rooted in a U.S. Constitution that allows eminent domain for projects deemed to be in the public interest. That begs the question of whether the MVP is in the public interest, but federal regulators have said that is. Everything flows from that.

Many conservatives drive with license plates that proclaim “don’t tread on me.” Why don’t more conservatives see those landowners as the ones being trod upon? Instead of defending inanimate Confederate statues, why aren’t they rallying around a flesh-and-blood property owner standing up to the federal government?

These seem good philosophical questions, perhaps even ones to ponder while sitting up in a tree. But none of them seem likely to change things.

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