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Why did this climate scientist chain herself to a pipeline?
Rose Abramoff is determined to stop fossil fuels from destroying a livable climate, no matter the personal cost.
In the dark hours of early morning on September 7th, climate scientist Rose Abramoff chained herself to a drill working on the Mountain Valley Pipeline in a last-ditch attempt to block its construction.
Abramoff was not alone—she and five elders, all women, were arrested while protesting the fracked gas pipeline, which is in its final stretch towards completion after years of environmental protests and legal controversy.
The women were criminally charged with obstruction, trespassing, destruction of property, and violation of the West Virginia Critical Infrastructure Protection Act. The Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, part of a new wave of laws designed to discourage climate protest, puts the six women at risk of fines up to $10,000, and jail time up to one year.
The charges make Abramoff, to her knowledge, the first climate scientist in the U.S. to risk felony charges for a climate protest. But this isn’t the climate scientist’s first rodeo. This is her seventh arrest for climate protests, but all previous charges were dropped.
In January, I wrote about how Abramoff was fired from her job at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee for participating in a climate protest at the world’s largest earth sciences conference. Abramoff became the first climate scientist to lose her job for a climate protest, but it didn’t stop her from taking action against fossil fuels.
In an interview following her arrest, Abramoff told me she has no plans to stop participating in civil disobedience.
“My greatest fear is the world we're creating for future generations,” she said. “That outweighs the fear I have of the personal consequences that I might suffer.”
Even after facing severe consequences to her career, Abramoff said she pushes on because direct action works.
“This ongoing campaign of direct actions, working in concert with legal challenges, has pushed the Mountain Valley Pipeline six years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget,” she said. “And so, to my mind, it's an extremely successful way to work.”
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What is the Mountain Valley Pipeline?
Over the years, the 303-mile gas pipeline, which runs from West Virginia to Virginia, has faced more opposition and environmental reviews than most projects because, once completed, it will lock in billions of tons of carbon emissions over its lifetime. “The Mountain Valley Pipeline is emblematic of our government's failure to transition away from fossil fuels,” Abramoff said.
How much the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) will contribute to global warming is a matter of debate among energy analysts and environmentalists. One oft-cited estimate shows the MVP would generate 90 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of 26 coal plants per year. But another anonymous energy analyst estimated the MVP’s carbon emissions would only be around 6 to 16 million tons.
Still, the MVP’s environmental impact doesn’t end with emissions. Since its construction began in 2018, pipeline operator Equitrans has racked up more than 300 water quality violations, and subsequently millions in fines.
A peer-reviewed study in 2021 also found that the MVP has the highest landslide risk out of all the long-distance gas pipelines in the U.S.
Those environmental concerns have led to constant delays from lawsuits, environmental reviews, and fierce opposition from activists, landowners, scientists and medical professionals, and Virginia Congressmembers.
But despite the pushback, the $6.6 billion pipeline lives on, because of one person in particular: West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.
Manchin, a Democrat, has been trying to green light the MVP for years—and this summer, with the debt ceiling deal in crisis, he got his chance. In exchange for his vote, Manchin put explicit instructions in the debt ceiling bill regarding the MVP. The pipeline was classified as being “in the national interest,” and—more importantly—shielded from any further judicial review.
In July, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that construction on the pipeline would continue. There is now only 20 miles left to complete, according to Equitrans. But that didn’t deter climate protest groups like Scientist Rebellion, which Abramoff is a member of, from showing up to protest those final miles.
Broken climate promises and backdoor deals
Abramoff, 79-year-old Marty Zinn, and four members of the senior citizen climate group Rocking Chair Rebellion, said they are willing to put their bodies and their freedom on the line because the MVP represents a significant threat to the climate.
Even at the low end of carbon emission estimates, the MVP is dirtier than the Alaska Willow project, which is projected to emit around 9.2 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.
And just like the Willow project, the protesters say the MVP is yet another example of the Biden administration conceding to the fossil fuel industry, in spite of aggressive climate campaign promises.
The debt ceiling deal President Biden signed said the MVP “will reduce carbon emissions and facilitate the energy transition. An op-ed in The New York Times called that statement an “insidious piece of misinformation” and compared it to gaslighting.
It perhaps isn’t surprising that Democrats included the MVP in the bill—one of the companies behind the pipeline, NextEra Energy, not only gave $60,000 to Manchin in 2022, but $302,000 to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Now, with construction nearing completion, the companies behind the pipeline are inverting the environmental argument in their favor. The Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC told the Supreme Court on July 26 that finishing construction of the pipeline would protect the environment because stopping the work midway did more harm than good.
“The sooner the Pipeline is completed the sooner the surrounding environment can be fully restored,” the company said. “In light of the repeated delay tactics brought forth by project opposition, it is imperative that Mountain Valley continue activities in support of its stringent environmental protection measures,” a spokesperson for Equitrans told me via email.
That argument doesn’t hold water with Abramoff. “That's total bullshit,” she said. “Any leak in that pipeline is going to damage waterways. It's going to damage the local environment.”
A spokesperson for Equitrans said that they expect construction to be finished by the end of this year.
But Abramoff and other MVP protesters aren’t giving up. “There's no reason why we can't continue to delay this pipeline until political action hopefully catches up to the science,” Abramoff said. “I really get the sense that the tide of public opinion is turning a little bit when it comes to disruptive activism.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that Rose Abramoff is the first scientist to risk felony charges, not criminal charges, and that most of her previous charges were dropped without community service.
How you can help:
If you want to help the movement protesting the MVP, Abramoff says the best thing you can do is join in the climate movement, either as an activist or by publicly supporting activists. If you can’t join yourself, and you have the means, Abramoff suggests donating to an activist organization. “There are hundreds of groups now. I feel like people can explore and see what affinity group resonates with them, and join in or support it.”
Here are some organizations that Abramoff recommended:
Appalachians Against Pipelines (specifically against the MVP)
U.S. Open protesters charged with criminal trespass after disrupting match. NBC News, September 2023.
RICO charges for “Stop Cop City” protesters could set a dangerous precedent. Mother Jones, September 2023.
US pipeline protester has ‘no regrets’ after conviction for felony obstruction. Guardian, September 2023.
The Appalachian pipeline resistance movement: “We’re not going away”. The Appalachian Voice, October 2020.
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