Home Climate change Stunning Atlantic Coast Pipeline Book, “Gaslight,” Is Best Ever Written About Communities...

Stunning Atlantic Coast Pipeline Book, “Gaslight,” Is Best Ever Written About Communities Fighting Fossil Fuel Goliaths

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by Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. His newest book about climate change, The Lost Trees of Willow Avenue, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2025

Review of Gaslight: The Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Fight for America’s Energy Future. Island Press, 346 pp. $30

I’ve read lots of books about communities fighting the abuses of fossil fuel companies, but Jonathan Mingle’s new book is the best I’ve ever read — Gaslight: The Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Fight for America’s Energy Future. This is a masterwork, hands down, and one that every American concerned about climate change and corporate excesses should read right now.

The pipeline in Gaslight is not just any pipeline. It’s the 600-mile-long, $8 billion dollar Atlantic Coast Pipeline that Dominion Energy proposed in 2014 to run through West Virginia and Virginia. And the story of how that methane superhighway was defeated over a 6-year battle turns out, in Mingle’s hands, to be an unputdownable combination of tense courtroom drama and heroic land-owner resistance. It’s a masterfully written primer on how Goliath can fall hard in the face of never-say-die community organizing with a focus on human and ecological justice.

Full disclosure: My nonprofit was one of scores of groups that fought the ACP over a half-dozen years until Dominion cancelled it in 2020. So I approached Mingle’s book with the view that I already knew pretty much everything about this story. But holy cow was I wrong. Mingle guides the reader from the kitchen tables of resistant Appalachian farmers all the way to the US Supreme Court. The writing could not be more vivid and the reporting more ambitious. I blissfully lost a whole weekend to this book, abandoning chores and skipping church so I could turn the next page – even though I knew the ultimate outcome.

Mingle traces this fight to the discovery in the mid 1700s of methane bubbling up through seeps in present-day West Virginia. He describes the subsequent greed and sloppiness of Dominion to get that gas to market 250 years later with a radical pipeline design traversing the most arduous mountain route of any pipeline in world. He describes the heroic efforts of career regulators at the US Forest Service who were ultimately overwhelmed and silenced by the combined forces of reckless investors, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the pro-pipeline staff at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and a host of corrupt Trump Administration officials. He describes the saving grace of a federal court system where facts still mattered, with the Fourth Circuit Court in Richmond insisting on regulatory integrity in ways that ultimately delayed the pipeline as activists on the ground continued to build momentum and Wall Street grew weary of cost overruns and missed deadlines.

But the book’s real strength comes from the people on the ground Mingle interviews. Their stories of resistance are laid out in a seemingly effortless, riveting way that makes the pages fly by: the ranchers and hotel owners along the pipeline route, the nature lovers and low-income retirees, the indigenous families whose roots go back centuries. They are — in the mountain parlance — the “from heres” and “come heres” who banded together to stop Dominion. Naturalist Rick Webb of Highland County, Virginia postponed a retirement of trout fishing to devote himself fully to stopping the pipeline, forming the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition. Webb accurately captures the up-from-the-ground resistance movement across the region by saying, “Everybody thinks the fight against the ACP began around their kitchen table.”

Mingle points out that, in the end, the victory over Dominion was so close that the absence of any one protestor, any one kitchen table, could have led to the pipeline’s construction. Among the seemingly endless cast of pipeline heroes, a few stand out: Greg Buppert, the senior lawyer at the Southern Environmental Law Center; Ernie Reed, the grandfatherly leader of the group Wild Virginia; Nancy Sorrells, community organizer extraordinaire in Augusta County, and the tireless Fenton family whose rustic hotel on the edge of the Appalachian Trail led to the lawsuit delay that put a final nail in the ACP coffin.

And then there’s gadfly Vicki Wheaton of Nelson County who asked Dominion officials early on if they truly understood the extreme rain the mountainous county was historically prone to. Astonishingly, the remnants of Hurricane Camille in 1969 killed nearly one percent of the county’s human population through floods and landslides. Now, with intensified precipitation from climate change, critics like Wheaton wondered not only if Dominion could keep its pipeline on each mountain, but “if it could keep the mountain on the mountain.”

Gaslight’s only real flaw is underplaying the huge role Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe played in promoting the pipeline. As Dominion’s nefarious cheerleader-in-chief, McAuliffe whipped Wall Street into a frenzy early on and bullied many statewide green groups into silence over the pipeline. (The governor’s environmental harms also included supporting Dominion’s plans to dump coal ash in rivers and weaken Obama-era climate rules). But McAuliffe, like the pipeline, was ultimately cancelled, punished by voters when he ran for re-election in 2021.

Few environmental victories in American history involve as much drama and high-stakes consequences as the win over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Now, in Gaslight, that victory has an instant-classic book worthy of the story.

 

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