If you walk southwest from Wilder Bowl for about 30 minutes on a Saturday morning in the fall, you’ll pass through Oberlin’s campus, then idyllic tree-lined blocks of single-family houses, until the neighborhood gives way to clearings of farmland. Around this point, you’ll hear the nearby sounds of the Oberlin Recreational Complex: children pounding the grass in their cleats, struggling for the ball, and their parents chatting and cheering from the sidelines. You’d be hard-pressed to find any clue that you’re standing within a “blast zone,” but that’s precisely where you would stand. Under your feet, natural gas flows through a 36” diameter pipeline at an incomprehensible speed greater than 1 million cubic feet per minute. Like pipelines everywhere, it could at any time “blast” open with no warning.
On October 7th, a cloudless Saturday afternoon, Students for Energy Justice (SEJ) led about a dozen students and a few Oberlin residents on precisely this walk. They bore witness to the invisible threat of NEXUS, and mark the place where, during the spring of 2018, students and Oberlin residents utilized a direct action campaign to stop work on construction and jam the machinations of the fossil fuel industry. After walking and talking for about 30 minutes, the group arrived at a seemingly nondescript location on a dirt path behind the rec center. The only indication of what was beneath the ground were three scattered white poles reading “CAUTION: GAS PIPELINE.” An impromptu teach-in commenced, facilitated by Isabel Tadmiri and Rachael Hood, SEJ members who resisted NEXUS in 2018.
The walk was marked by contradictions: the experience was so pleasant that one could almost forget that the reason for coming out was ugly. “It’s so beautiful and you see these fuzzy caterpillars and butterflies, and you just forget that there’s literally a metal snake underneath you,” remarked Tadmiri.
As Tadmiri and Hood explained, NEXUS transports natural gas from fracking sites in Southeast Ohio — the Appalachian foothills — to Southeast Michigan, where much of it is exported to Canada just across the border and elsewhere. The resources extracted by and profits generated through NEXUS don’t reach the communities which it jeopardizes; rather, Enbridge Energy, a multinational oil and gas company headquartered in Canada, ships it to foreign markets. After all, natural gas is abundant in the U.S. right now: capitalists cannot justify environmentally destructive infrastructure projects like natural gas pipelines with revenue from domestic trade. Instead, companies are incentivized to spend money on pipeline infrastructure in order to export natural gas for a high return in international markets.
Pipelines are, by any objective appraisal, volatile. Between 1986 and 2016, pipeline spills occurred an average of 300 times each year, according to data produced by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a branch of the U.S. Federal Government. Yet, as Tadmiri explained, fossil capitalists make denial of this fact their modus operandi. “If you ask Enbridge they’ll be like, ‘it’s a pipe! It’s welded. There aren’t leaks or spills — or if there are leaks or spills, we clean them up.’” The odds that Oberlin, a small town making up only a few miles of NEXUS’ 256-mile route, will be subject to a pipeline spill are not likely; yet the odds that NEXUS will spill, or leak, or blast open, at some point in its lifetime, are almost certain.
In the years leading up to its construction, Oberlin landowners were approached and strong-armed into leasing their land to Spectra Energy, the Houston-based company acquired by Enbridge in 2017. In order to secure leases, Spectra representatives offered sums on the order of thousands of dollars to landowners — no small amount for farmers in a struggling regional economy. Lacking information about the destructive risks posed by pipelines, which caused “548 deaths, 2,576 injuries, and over $8.5 billion in financial damages” between 1986 and 2016 as reported by environmental advocate Richard Stover, many Oberlin landowners saw the lease as a financial windfall and quickly took the pipeline money. However, the mere presence of the pipeline depreciates the value of the land it runs through, explained Hood — to say nothing of the potentially catastrophic public health and environmental risks posed.
Knowing the true nature of the bargain, it is unsurprising, perhaps, that many of the people “bought out” by Spectra/Enbridge are elderly -- one of the favorite populations for capitalist con artists. Spectra/Enbridge also promised to inject around $1.3 million into Oberlin Public Schools via tax revenue in the first year -- a move that won the favor of some community members. However, Steve Hammond, a local retired pastor and President of Communities for Safe and Sustainable Energy (CSSE), explained that this was yet more deceit: “the state board of education ruled that if any communities got money from these kinds of contracts, their state funding would be reduced,â€ he explained to the group, “and they weren’t telling people this.” Naturally.
The Oberlin landowners who chose not to sign the lease forfeited the lump sum offered by Enbridge, and eventually lost their fight all the same. Many of these people, said Hood, were “drained by fighting this pipeline,” pouring their energy into “legal battle[s] for years.” Eventually, NEXUS acquired leases along its proposed route through eminent domain, the U.S. government’s self-endowed right to seize property for projects that ostensibly serve the public interest.
However, these resistors galvanized a strong activist movement in Oberlin, assisted by the combined grassroots efforts of SEJ and CSSE. In order to combat the demoralizing and isolating effects of resisting Spectra/Enbridge, these groups organized potlucks where community members forged solidarity, and successfully passed a “Community Bill of Rights” in February of 2018, with strong language banning oil and gas “extraction, production and delivery infrastructures” within city limits. Although the Bill of Rights was not formally codified, it had the support of over 70% of Oberlin voters. According to Hood, its value was “symbolic, showing that the community voted to not have this here.”
Now that NEXUS is live, the fight has, in a significant sense, been lost. However, in what Hood called the potential “start of a paradigm shift,” the city of Oberlin won a victory against the pipeline in a U.S. Court of Appeals, which decided that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had not sufficiently justified the use of eminent domain on the city of Oberlin’s land. Though the pipeline is now invisible, Tadmiri implored students and community members to think of ways to continue resisting the injustice it represents. “It feels wrong to just give up,” she said, “when there are so many people affected by it.”