Organizing at the Frontiers: Appalachian Resistance to Pipelines

Courtesy La Rote Art. Blog/Website

By BRRN Radical Ecology Committee (REC)

The history, ecologies, and cultures of Appalachia are interwoven with the expansion of fossil fuel industries. Appalachia, both across its landscape and within its depths, has historically been a commodity frontier for Capital investment in low-wage and low-cost energy production. Appalachia, particularly Central Appalachia, serves as an “appropriation zone” for capital investment from core urban areas, such as New York and Philadelphia. (1) Appalachia has astounding similarities to both “developing” extraction regions of the Global South and the environmental toxic Locally Unwanted Land Use zones (LULUs) experienced by segregated communities of color throughout the United States. The poverty and marginalization of working-class Appalachians, the ecological destruction, including species extinction, and the deterioration of public health are all intimately bound up with over 100 years of the coal, petrochemical, and shale oil/natural gas industries’ drive for accumulation.

Outsourcing to cheaper labor markets in the Global South and the automation of the coal industry through extreme techniques like Mountaintop Removal and natural gas “fracking” has intensified this ongoing “accumulation by dispossession” through natural resource and land grabs. Neoliberal policies, state subsidies to fossil fuel industries, and financialization of new infrastructure projects, such as pipeline construction, has accelerated this accumulation. This drive for profit dispossesses those who work and live here, not only of their wealth, land, and resources, but also of their ability to sustain their communities in increasingly toxifying environments. (2) In Appalachia, like other resource “appropriation zones” such as the petrochemical “Cancer Alley” of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, rural poor, working-class, and communities of color live in contaminated areas created by industries that remove the cheap energy resources and leave behind toxic waste and ravished landscapes.

This uneven development in Appalachian zones of fossil fuel extraction involves a complex mixture of land grabs, often from “public” wilderness spaces as well as from smaller, working-class land plots, often with the complicit go ahead and subsidization from state bureaucracies. Extraction industries increasingly employ technologies that for the most part don’t rely on paid human labor, and if used, involve temporary jobs with higher than average job-safety risks. These projects, whether they be Mountaintop Coal Removal Projects or Natural Gas Pipeline construction, are characterized by the type of volatile financialization that has come to characterize neoliberal capitalism. How these factors co-produce global fossil fuel development can provide significant insights into how sustainable, popular movements against extraction may be built.

At the Frontiers. . .

The frontiers of capitalism expand through the commodification of untapped cheap natures (labor, food, energy, raw materials). Why and how these sites of resource extraction are always situated within these commodity frontiers is of strategic importance. Capitalist World-Ecology theory is a useful lens to explore how Capital, Power, and Nature co-produce this frontier accumulation and can provide some valuable insights into the production process of these extraction industries. Expanding on Marx’s theory of value, World-Ecology theory holds that the creation of value occurs in two interrelated zones, that of exploitation and that of appropriation. The “zone of exploitation” in commodity production is ruled by the capital-labor relation and involves the “paid” wage work that Capital extracts from the worker, while profiting from the surplus value the worker produces. But this ‘exploitation zone’ depends heavily on a close relation with the “zone of appropriation.”(3)

This appropriation zone includes all of the human and extra-human “unpaid work/energy,” including not only the labor of women, migrants, and other racialized groups, but also that of forests, soils, and rivers. This unpaid work/energy is what autonomist-feminist, Maria Mies, calls the work of “women, nature, and colonies.”(4) Without the constant (and rising) appropriation of this unpaid work, capitalism cannot expand, develop, or be maintained. The entire capitalist production-commodification process relies on how much can be extracted cheaply from these appropriation zones. A crucial contradiction exists between the zone of paid work and this zone of unpaid work/energy. (5)

Frontiers of fossil fuel extraction function as “appropriation zones” to consolidate the work of humans and the rest of nature into an ecological simplification centered on one or two lucrative commodities. These specific commodities, in the case of Appalachia, coal and most recently, natural gas, develop their own set of contradictions which often result in recurring, regional crises. The history of Appalachia involves the exhaustion and succession of these commodity frontiers, which form in regions with low costs that are also rich with resources and cheap labor. These commodity frontiers rely on under-reproduction, which allows Capital to cut into the subsistence needs of humans and extra-human natures “through not ‘paying’ for the socially necessary levels of reproduction” to maintain life. This under‐reproduction of labour power includes wage repression, forced underconsumption, and inadequate housing. Capital’s under‐reproduction strategies turn on both the paid and unpaid work of humans and the rest of nature, a project that exhausts earlier forms of production and reproduction. Accumulation and reproduction crises occur throughout these zones, directly impacting communities in their ability to socially reproduce and live in these areas. Capital flows in and out of these regions as it ecologically remakes the rise and fall of these frontiers attempting to fix these contradictions and expand accumulation in its search for cheap commodities. (6)

From these interrelated zones arise “the family of processes through which capitalists and state-machineries map, identify, quantify, measure, and code human and extra-human nature in service to capital accumulation.” (7) Accumulation relies on Capital’s ability to organize Nature and expand towards its next “Great Frontier.” Extractive industries organize land, labor, and resources along power relations that create and maintain a structural binarity between what is considered Society, mostly “white, male, property-owners” and what is relegated to part of Nature, which includes the unpaid cheap labor/ energy of other humans and extra-human “resources.”

The settler-colonial implications of this frontier movement, with its environmental-racist overtones, is particularly pronounced in these extraction-based industries. Historically, throughout Appalachia, the divide between absentee capitalist landowners and a largely, semi-proletarian population has been marked by multiple layers of racial, colonialist, and patriarchal divisions.The underlying environmental racist aspects of resource extraction in Appalachia are particularly evidenced in the proposed route for the Atlantic Coastal Pipeline, in which ninety-nine families live within one mile of the compressor station and one mile of the pipeline; and of those 99 families, 85% of them are African American. Dominion Energy paid $2.5 million for a 68-acre parcel from the white descendants of a large tobacco producing slave plantation known as Variety Shade. Dominion seeks to build a massive 55,000-horsepower compressor station here to service the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) for 200 miles in each direction. The compressor station would run 24/7, powered by burning ‘fracked’ methane gas from the pipeline, and spew volatile organic compounds, including formaldehyde and ammonia, into what pipeline planning documents refer to as the “incineration zone.” The compressor station would increase nitrogen dioxide pollution by 54.5% in a 24-hour period resulting in massive ozone pollution [i.e. smog]. The pipeline would run through Nash County, North Carolina, which has an Latinx population that is about three times the state average, as well as Robeson County, North Carolina, which is more than 50% Native American, and more than 80% Native American in some areas running directly through indigenous tribal lands. 64% of the communities targeted by the ACP raise “environmental justice concerns because of significantly larger percentages of minority or impoverished communities (or both) within one mile of the pipeline route.” The pipeline would “traverse regions of Eastern North Carolina and Tidewater Virginia that are among the most ethnically and racially diverse and among the poorest regions in their respective states.” (8)

Capital accumulation by extraction functions along neo-colonialist lines through “land grabs”. Most Appalachians do not have legal “mineral rights,” meaning that the land on which they live is subject to investment and development at any time because the minerals beneath its surface are owned by a coal or other extractive industry. In this absentee land-ownership arrangement, land-holding companies and coal companies have ‘broad form deeds,’ giving companies the right to mine subterranean minerals. (9) Legally, this has been sanctioned throughout Appalachia, allowing extraction industries to survey, mine, or “frack” land at will, without paying taxes or reclaiming the land. When this occurs, folks are presented with a difficult dilemma of either staying in the toxic, ecologically depleted areas or being displaced from their homes. This bears striking similarities to the massive land grabs throughout the Global South, for example, with the clear-cutting of Amazonian rainforests, where many indigenous communities are displaced into urban areas with the devastation of the forest ecosystems. In the case of Appalachia, ‘public’ lands, such as the so-called Jefferson National Forest, which comprise historically occupied Monoken, Tupelo, Shawnee, and Cherokee lands, are the proposed route for the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Already evident from the Mountain Valley Pipeline construction has been immense flooding from water runoff and erosion that have destroyed surrounding Appalachian farmlands and homes. Rural communities in and near these “appropriation zones” face similar dispossession, in which the environmental-toxicity of extraction, such as acid mine drainage, coal slurry, and soil contamination from Mountaintop Coal Removal or pipeline rupture and explosion results in forced displacement, because living conditions becomes untenable.

Ecological Struggle as Class Struggle

Significantly, many of the direct actions against extraction within these ecological struggles have been undertaken by women on the front lines of resisting this appropriation. Appalachian women have been central to ecological justice organizing, often identifying as “mothers” and “Appalachians” within their communities, opposed to the dominant patriarchal narrative that masculinizes the region as “King Coal,” in alliance with the coal and other extraction industries. Over the last few decades, while many women have entered the formal workforce, they continue to shoulder most of the unpaid work of the household. This is leading to a social-reproduction crisis, where even as women work more hours in paid jobs, because men’s employment is also increasingly precarious, women are forced to ‘make up’ through their ‘supplemental’ paid and unpaid work for this loss in income to support themselves and their families.Women’s earnings in most of these service sector jobs fail to pay living wages, so women often do housework, gardening, childcare, eldercare, among others, to survive. (10) These economic conditions are exacerbated by the ecological depletion and contamination that has disproportionate effects on women’s health, including fertility issues, birth defects, and fetal death through toxic chemical exposure. The 750 or so chemicals pumped into the ground at high pressure to frack shale rock alone has been associated with these fertility and development problems, not to mention potential later illnesses from exposure. (11) It is not surprising that it has been predominantly women who have engaged in the tree-sits and lockdowns against pipeline construction in Appalachia. This ‘direct action’ tendency has parallels in other contested “extraction zones,”such as the indigenous and environmental women water-protectors against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock and the “L’Eau est La Vie” resistance against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline outside Lafayette, Louisiana. It is foremost women in these struggles who recognize that unless extraction is stopped, communities will no longer be able maintain the necessary social reproduction essential for life.

Popular Appalachian resistance to pipeline construction, in their use of collective direct action and solidarity-based community organizing, are contesting these extractive frontiers. These movements provide some important insights into how emergent, anti-systemic movements against Climate Change can be grown, strengthened, and spread. The terrain of class struggle, in relation to these extraction industries, has shifted within this Appalachian frontier over the last century. From the coal miner strikes and insurrections in the early 1900s, through the militant union organizing of the 1920-1930s, the Keynesian labor “compromise” of the 1950-1970s, to the current neoliberal restructuring of the coal industry, and the “fracking” boom to bust economy, working-class resistance has dramatically shifted. In the past, these communities have been deeply divided between those who endure this toxic dispossession in exchange for the “jobs” it brings and those who struggle to resist and stop further extraction, because they are not willing to put up with the death, impoverishment, and destruction any longer. Today, as the allure of “living wage” jobs is disappearing with the automation of fossil fuel industries and the spread of precarious conditions, Appalachians are drawing upon these strategic lessons of class struggle to build a growing movement of counterpower against resource extraction.

Building on decades of fighting Mountaintop Coal Removal, which contaminates soils, land, and rivers, making them toxic sinks for human and other species, many Appalachians are cultivating a grassroots resistance movement against Natural Gas Pipelines. This “Appalachians Against Pipelines” movement targets the extraction infrastructure projects that store and carry “fracked” methane gas, whose extraction process involves not only local water, land, and air pollution, including periodic pipe ruptures and explosions, but is also one of the largest fossil fuel contributors to planetary warming, ozone depletion, and Climate Change.

Courtesy Energy Information Administration Credit: Leanne Abraham, Alyson Hurt and Katie Park/NPR

As of 2017, there are nearly a dozen approved or pending projects to build interstate pipelines, that spread through Appalachia to markets in every direction, comprising 2,500 miles of steel that would flow out of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia beneath rivers, through mountains and people’s backyards. (12) Of these, two specific pipeline projects are facing mounting popular resistance: the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), which would traverse West Virginia into eastern Virginia, crossing numerous regional freshwater streams and rivers, and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), which would cross Virginia and branch deep into North Carolina, covering over 800 miles. Both pipelines would move “fracked” natural gas from Marcellus and Utica Shale for market export. (13) If built, together, MVP and ACP would contribute to as much greenhouse gas pollution as 45 coal-fired power plants, emitting over 158 million metric tons per year. (14) Both pipeline projects are facing growing popular movements that are impeding their continued construction.

Courtesy Appalachian Mountain Advocates

Towards Extraction Abolition

These “Appalachians Against Pipelines” movements are using a combination of strategic tactics to stop construction, including environmental direct actions (tree-sits, lockdowns, blockades), legal defense, divestment campaigns, and widespread community solidarity and mutual aid. As “Appalachians Against Pipelines” movements grow, there are immense opportunities to broaden these tactics of resistance. The environmental direct actions, such as tree-sits and lockdowns, can be expanded through a ‘Blockadia’ network to prevent new fossil fuel extraction. This could broaden and strengthen resistance through alliances between local residents and environmental organizers. A ‘Blockadia’ network has the potential to develop solidarity-based connections with other struggles against extraction, such as Louisiana’s No Bayou Bridge Pipeline, No KeystoneXL, and No DAPL at Standing Rock, to share and coordinate on-the-ground strategic actions to prevent new infrastructure projects from being built.

Building this ‘Blockadia’ network is particularly urgent, given the rapidly expanding, proposed fossil fuel infrastructure projects in these “appropriation zones.” The Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub (ASTH) is the largest proposed infrastructure project in the region’s history. It would serve as a mega petrochemical hub in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, consisting of hundreds of miles of pipelines, fracked gas processing facilities, and underground storage of petrochemicals and fracked gas liquids. Once completed, ASTH would stretch along the Ohio-West Virginia border from Kentucky to Pennsylvania. If this Shell Oil project is constructed, with its $84 Billion investment from the Chinese government and brokered support from the Trump administration, it would result in the creation of an Appalachian Cancer Alley with leaks, spills, and explosions even more dangerous than the Gulf Coast’s, because of the mountainous topography. Air pollution in the mountains gets trapped in the low valleys and hollows “like a smothering blanket, and any leaked gases from underground storage could remain stagnant and ignite with one spark.”(15) This potential for trapped air pollution was a similar concern for Kanawha County residents in 1984, when the same chemical products made by Union Carbide in Charleston, WV, methyl isocyanate (MIC) was released from its sister plant in Bhopal, India, exposing more than 500,000 people to MIC and other toxic chemicals and resulting in a confirmed 3,787 deaths from the gas release. (16)

Courtesy Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine

In conjunction with the direct action approach of ‘Blockadia’, Jeremy Brecher, in Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual, describes the strategic importance of invoking a legal concept known as the public-trust doctrine. Under this precept, no one has the right to destroy the climate, where public trust redefines natural resources, land, and the means of production as a commons that must be protected. This means that the public has the right and responsibility to protect ourselves, our communities, and the world’s ecology. Invoking ‘public trust’ has the potential to massify and mobilize ecological resistance through civil disobedience. Its use has the capacity to drive a wedge between sections of State bureaucracies, for example Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the U.S. Forestry Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on whether extraction projects are given the go-ahead. Emphasizing public trust helps reconfigure power into the hands of workers and their communities, by undermining State authority and its political “representatives” and “bureaucrats” who pretend to follow public will, all the while enacting corporate agendas. ‘Public trust’ can also help support the public lawsuits against construction and permitting and support those participants arrested in collective direct actions. (17)

Another important aspect of ecological resistance employed in “Appalachians Against Pipelines” are divestment campaigns. These can range from boycotts of corporations to protests and occupations of corporate offices. In each case, these divestment campaigns target the banks that finance the pipelines, as well as the extractive industries themselves. Divestment campaigns serve a movement-building function and may build public support for wider demands for non-cooperation with fossil capital. This could lead to societal demands to not only defund fossil fuels and stop infrastructure construction, many of which receive state subsidies, but could also lead to a demand to leave new fossil fuel reserves in the ground. (18)

This appropriation of cheap natures have taken an interesting turn at the frontier, in which no longer are these extractive industries, with their ecocidal implications, involved in substantial wage labor production. A pivotal point by which workers and communities can strengthen resistance to resource appropriation involves a widening economic contradiction within extraction industries themselves: the acceleration of automation, artificial intelligence, and technological innovations that seek to reduce “time and costs.” Automation translates into the eating-away at jobs, severely reducing and eliminating the need for paid human labor. While this trend has been consistent in the coal industry over decades, with Mountaintop Removal, it appears that the shale oil/gas industry is rapidly shrinking their human workforce at drilling and fracking sites and in pipeline construction. An example of the extent to which this development has advanced industry-wide involves the use of Iron Roughnecks, remote-controlled machines that construct and pull apart drill pipes on rigs, replacing the rig workers who previously did that job. (19)

The potential for workers in these industries to organize against further automation is fertile ground for convergent ecological resistance to extraction, something along the lines of a “Redwood Summer” uprising. In 1990, in northern California, loggers and environmental organizers, drawing on the syndicalist tradition of the IWW union merged with Earth First! environmental defenders, created a grassroots movement that helped stop clearcutting of Old Growth Forests. In the case of Appalachia, there is a similar dire situation, where extraction workers can organize through collective direct action, win some of their demands from the industries that are slashing their jobs, contribute to delays or halt infrastructure projects, while protecting their communities from further ecological destruction and impoverishment. Substantial numbers of workers from fossil fuel industries are also transitioning into renewable industries such as solar construction and installation.


Organizing resistance at these points of frontier production has the potential to create “cracks” in global “fossil fuel” commodity chains that maintain and finance Capital accumulation. As these frontiers, with their land grabs and extraction schemes in conquest of nature, are primarily spaces where the unpaid work of nature and humans are appropriated, organizing mass resistance at these sites is strategic in the global struggle against Climate Change and towards a post-carbon, post-capitalist world. Many of these extraction frontiers are declining, despite increased financial investments, resulting in higher costs for production and capital. This increasing system-wide cost for capital development creates deepening crises that can only be temporarily resolved through “spatial fixes” towards new commodity frontiers. The combination of quicker depletion and unpredictability, especially in natural gas fracking, are co-producing these rising costs of production, that in turn create negative value for the industry. The rate of Capital decline in extraction industries is coupled with financialization that is highly unpredictable, especially with an impending “carbon bubble” in the financial markets. These central processes of capital accumulation are now generating more barriers to the expanded reproduction of capital. (20)

Direct action approaches to organizing, within workplaces and communities on the front lines of ecological struggles,are playing a central role in massifying this resistance. The contradictions within capital in these extraction industries, “arising from negative-value, are encouraging an unprecedented shift towards a radical politics beyond capital.” The more conventional appeals to state legislators and agencies as well as the symbolic protesting of many nonprofit organizations have been found to be limited. These ‘indirect’ appeals to the state are beginning to be replaced by grassroots anti-systemic movements, led by and embedded in the communities most affected by extraction. Some of the multiple layers involved in this shift relate directly to social reproduction in a toxifying system of “unpaid costs” and “unpaid labor.” It is “Capital’s drive to expand accumulation (that) becomes unmoored from its social bases and and turns against them.The logic of economic production overrides that of social reproduction, destabilizing the very social processes upon which capital depends.” (22)

Extraction itself has exhausted the social ecology of Appalachia’s political economy and has led to a deepening reproduction crisis. Working-class communities are beginning to challenge this (il)logic of Capital, especially in its patriarchal and racial dimensions, by resisting the very extraction industries that are undermining their ability to sustain and reproduce life. Solidarity and mutual aid are integrated as a path of both resistance and transition through struggle. These resilient communities have their eyes on creating a more liberated, ecological society beyond extraction. Appalachians, like all who reside in extraction zones, have lived and died with ‘business as usual.” Mere survival is no longer an option; the stakes are higher now.

If you enjoyed this piece, we recommend checking out The State Against Climate Change: Response to Christian Parenti.


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