The Library and the Pipeline

My older sister works as a public librarian about an hour north of New York City. Her library sits just above the Hudson, with a commanding view of the river and the surrounding town, and on a fall day you’d be hard pressed to imagine a better place to sit and read as the light comes in from the floor-to-ceiling windows, glittering off the river and weaving through the changing trees. Whenever I come up to visit, we eat and drink and catch up and laugh—we are twenty years apart but have an identical sense of humor—and she tells me stories about her job. Her job has its difficulties, like all jobs, but whenever she talks about it, you can see how deeply she believes in what she does. She considers herself the custodian of a public good and holds herself firmly accountable to the surrounding community. She is proud to work at a place where anyone can come to access human knowledge, supported by revenue from the surrounding tax base—one of the very few examples of a “commons” in modern American society.

All over the country, libraries like hers are threatened by budget cuts, privatization, and an increasingly hostile neoliberal culture. But this library in particular is threatened by something more concrete. Just up the river, Spectra Energy is proposing to build the Algonquin Pipeline Extension, a 42 inch diameter, high-pressure natural gas pipeline whose revenues would flow directly to Spectra’s investors, leaving the surrounding community to deal with the health and explosion risks. Spectra has an abominable safety record, and their favored site is a mere half mile away from the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant; the pipeline would sometimes come within a hundred feet of the plant’s fuel storage tanks. To put that in perspective, regulators in New Mexico have in certain cases mandated that pipeline projects stay outside of a mile radius of any nuclear facilities. According to Paul Blanch, a registered professional engineer who has worked at Indian Point and has 45 years of management experience in the nuclear industry, there’s no reason to relax this standard—as he puts it, “the regulators in this case just don’t seem to care about nuclear safety.”

The risk that this pipeline could explode is clearly unacceptable, and many community members are saying loudly and clearly that they do not want the project to be built. But thanks to the way dirty infrastructure is regulated in this country, Spectra is completely unaccountable to the community—they answer only to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an agency that does not serve the people and that sustains itself on revenue from the fossil fuel industry.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, the project is part of a larger campaign to lock the Northeast United States into the production, transport, and consumption of shale gas, when we know that fracked gas is as bad for the climate or worse than traditional fossil fuels. Combatting global warming means moving rapidly to 100% renewable energy, and this project is actively hindering that effort.

These are some of the reasons why I oppose the pipeline—and of course my sister’s health and safety is at the absolute top of the list. But whenever I think about this fight, I keep coming back to the contrast between the pipeline and the library. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect contrast between value systems: the library sustains itself communally, benefits anyone who walks through its doors, and answers entirely to its neighbors. It is under threat from a project that exists for the wealthy, running roughshod over the community while expecting it to bear all of the burdens (I wish I could say that the Algonquin Pipeline Extension was unusual in this regard, but the truth is that this dynamic of private gain depending on public harm is standard operating procedure for the fossil fuel industry). The choice between these projects is, in miniature, the choice that climate change is presenting to our civilization: it is a choice of value systems, between an ethic of extraction and one that values land and people.

There are places like this all over, if we look for them—sites of choice, bringing the fundamental conflict between these two value systems into sharp, local focus. Just off of Long Island, for instance, there are two competing proposals to build on a triangular parcel of ocean space about 12 miles offshore. One is for a wind farm. The head of the AFL CIO has endorsed offshore wind projects for Long Island, and wind power enjoys widespread support there. And this project is a potentially groundbreaking step toward the larger prize of getting New York State off fossil fuels altogether—while that may sound at first like a pipe dream, Stanford’s Mark Jacobson has outlined how it could be done in only five years.

The other proposal is for a liquefied natural gas port. This project, called Port Ambrose, faces local opposition, threatens nearby communities and businesses, introduces a potential terrorist risk and ultimately helps no one but the company’s investors (who stay anonymous using a convoluted ownership structure that hits a dead end in the Cayman Islands). Furthermore, this project will create huge economic incentives for ramping up fracking in the northeast US, further endangering communities and worsening climate change.

There are plenty of other examples, including the Marsh Fork Elementary School in West Virginia, where kids are made sick by Big Coal; threats from fracking to the Onondaga Nation’s water and way of life in New York State; countless indigenous communities across the global South who have been exiled from their homes so that polluters can use forests as carbon credits; and the list goes on and on.

The scale of climate change has traditionally made it difficult to think about. We cannot visualize, much less relate to, increases in atmospheric carbon or disturbances to the El Niño Southern Oscillation system. Fortunately, we don’t have to visualize global phenomena in order to act on this crisis—all we have to do is start thinking about those places in our lives where the choice of values becomes clear.

This approach has similarities with the concept of “finding your frontline,” which encourages people to identify how their lives are impacted by climate change—one approach identifies the personal stakes of the choice between value systems, while the other grounds this choice in our immediate physical surroundings. Both approaches help bring a massive, global fight to a level we can understand.

When we do this, the choice we have to make becomes obvious. When I think about confronting climate change, I think about the library and the pipeline, and the decision to embrace one value system and reject the other becomes as sharp and crisp as the reading room’s changing light.

Patrick Robbins is a writer, researcher and activist based in Brooklyn. He is currently working with Sane Energy Project toward the goal of an entirely renewable New York, and was an active member of Occupy The Pipeline from 2012 to 2014.

Photograph by Kimba Howard.