Extinction Rebellion DC parked a boat—with activists attached to it—in front of the utility’s building earlier this month
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The D.C. Council passed two new pieces of legislation last week, codifying the city’s climate goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 and banning the use of natural gas in most new buildings. The move puts the District ahead of most cities when it comes to climate, but activists with the group Extinction Rebellion DC — whose campaign against Washington Gas has been going on since April — say it’s still not enough.
“The council’s two latest bills are half-measures that simply don’t match the urgency and severity of the crisis,” Reilly Polka, an organizer and spokesperson for the group, said in a statement.
Earlier this month, before the Council’s new legislation came out, Extinction Rebellion DC disrupted business as usual in front of the Washington Gas building at the Wharf, staging an action that included several activists chained to a boat parked on Maine Avenue SW. The July 8 action was the latest in their escalating campaign to protest a multibillion-dollar planned investment in new gas pipes throughout the city.
Since launching the campaign on Earth Day, Extinction Rebellion DC has interrupted several city council meetings and other political forums. The group says investment in new gas infrastructure will further entrench D.C.’s use of toxic fossil fuels.
“We were able to get our message out about how harmful methane is to the District,” Polka said in an interview after the protest. “It disproportionately affects residents in the District causing cancer, asthma and birth defects. And we were able to get the message out about Washington Gas’s $4.5 billion plan—that they’re charging the [ratepayers]—to lock us into 30 more years of methane emissions, which heat the city much more rapidly than carbon dioxide does.”
Washington Gas released its Climate Business Plan in 2020, which includes the investment Extinction Rebellion is protesting. The utility says the plan will allow it to meet D.C.’s citywide goal of achieving zero emissions by 2050, even though the plan does not include a complete switch away from burning natural gas.
“Washington Gas is committed to delivering a safe, reliable, and sustainable network,” the company said in a statement. “We take reports and concerns from our customers and the District seriously and will continue doing our part to build a clean, low carbon future.”
Activists and government officials—including attorney general Karl Racine—have been skeptical about the plan’s emissions reduction promises, arguing that a switch to renewable energy is the only way to genuinely achieve carbon neutrality.
In addition to concerns about climate, Extinction Rebellion DC activists point out that gas leaks—and even, some studies say, gas stoves that are working fine with no leaks at all—cause unsafe levels of indoor and outdoor air pollution, which disproportionately impact Black and low-income communities. One analysis of 41 different studies found that children in homes with gas stoves had a 32% higher risk of asthma than children living without gas stoves.
A February study from Beyond Gas DC, conducted by volunteers from D.C.’s Sierra Club chapter, Washington Interfaith Network, and other religious groups, found almost 400 gas leaks across the city. Fourteen of the identified leaks had methane concentrations high enough to potentially light on fire.
“In the district, we are battling the effects of systemic racism; we are battling heat islands; we are battling homes where methane leaks are not getting noticed,” Polka said. “This is a public health issue, this is a racial justice issue, and this is an environmental issue that affects all of us.”
The organization fights those battles using direct nonviolent action, often incorporating huge banners and bright colors into their protests. Often, Extinction Rebellion’s members are arrested for the disruption—though last week’s action ended without any arrests. In a press release, the group described Friday’s protest as an “illegal street party.”
“We know disruption is the only way that they’re going to listen,” Polka said. “So let’s have fun doing it. We gather in joyful rebellion.