“Spend your energy figuring out what’s the one thing that you can agree on with a political foe,” Gen. Colin Powell told me years ago. “Figure that out and you can get a lot done.”
We’re seeing that proven across the Midwest from Illinois to North Dakota where unlikely allies with different interests and perspectives are joined in fighting against several multi-state carbon dioxide pipelines proposed by huge agribusiness and fossil fuels companies.
For some, it’s a simple as private companies trying to take private land that belongs to someone else to make private profit for themselves. For others, the pipelines would extend our reliance on dirty fuels and prolong pollution from industrial farming and the ethanol producers it supplies. Together they see the pipelines as unnecessary, destructive to precious land, and potentially dangerous.
“We might not agree on a lot of things, but this is something we will all oppose, these pipelines,” says Kim Juncker, who farms land with her husband in Butler County, Iowa, that could be grabbed for what’s called the Navigator project. “We will lock arms on this one.”
Juncker calls herself a “constitutional conservative” and explains her political leanings and in her view those of many landowners simply: “We like our property rights and we like our freedom.”
Environmental activists have seen that opposing pipelines demands the voice of the people who own land that they don’t want to sell to the developers.
For their part, landowners appreciate that environmental groups bring their organizing experience and their capacity to monitor the smallest details in the fight. One of the biggest challenges is farmers are busy farming and can’t make opposition a full-time job.
Tim Baughman, who owns land with his sister in Crawford County, Iowa, that could be disrupted by the Summit pipeline, attended a safety meeting with the developer last week; the only reason he learned of the session was hearing about from a farmer in another part of the state. In turn, he does his best to keep two other landowners informed. They’re among nine in the county who haven’t signed voluntary easements for the pipeline to cross their land and are less connected to the digital world, he says.
More than 150 landowners now join weekly Zoom calls with environmentalists to share information and strategy. One outcome is that more than 460 landowners have filed to intervene when the Iowa Utilities Board holds its hearing in a few weeks over the Summit pipeline’s request to take land through eminent domain. That’s no small feat as Baughman’s own filing to intervene was 51 pages long.
Our system allows for the power of enough people to thwart the power of money, which the pipeline developers certainly have. That’s how opponents have managed to claim some big wins.
In North Dakota, the public service commission last week denied Summit the permit it needs to move forward, citing issues from impact on cultural sites and wildlife areas to property values; the company can reapply. In Iowa, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have significantly limited the pipelines’ ability to take land involuntarily with nearly two-thirds of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans in support (the bill unfortunately was killed in the state Senate).
To really harness that people power, we need to build coalitions that are uncomfortably large. That’s what pipeline opponents have done. People who will question whether carbon is damaging the climate are fighting alongside people who will question the role of biofuels in prolonging our fossil fuel addiction.
In a country that can feel so divided, there’s promise in that beyond the pipeline fight. As General Powell told me, “As you win one victory together, you might just discover along the way that there’s something else you agree on.”
Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club, America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.