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Fossil Fuel Opponents Face New Challenges Under Donald Trump


For months now, demonstrators have protested against the Dakota Access oil pipeline in North Dakota, and they've drawn inspiration from a big win last year. President Obama blocked construction of another pipeline, the Keystone XL.

President-elect Donald Trump promises an energy policy that embraces fossil fuels, and that, as NPR's Jeff Brady reports, has pipeline opponents rethinking their protest strategy.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Here's why environmental groups protest new oil pipelines. These are big projects that are designed to transport oil to where it's sold for decades.

SUSAN CASEY-LEFKOWITZ: That's a long time to be locking us in to what often is an expansion of dirty fuels.

BRADY: Susan Casey-Lefkowitz is with the Natural Resources Defense Council. If an oil company can't get its crude to where there are buyers, then it won't drill for it in the first place. The oil will be kept in the ground. Casey-Lefkowitz says the purpose isn't so much to stop a pipeline.

CASEY-LEFKOWITZ: It's really about the fact that our world can't afford a continued dependence on fossil fuels if we want to stay healthy and fight climate change.

BRADY: This strategy to target new pipelines has become such a concern for the oil industry that a new term emerged. At industry conferences, you'll hear people talk about getting keystoned, a nod to the successful campaign to block the Keystone XL Pipeline.

But then last week's election happened. President-elect Donald Trump says he wants to help the coal and oil industries thrive. Here he is at a rally in Iowa last month, walking around the stage as a woman asked what he would do about the Keystone XL Pipeline.


DONALD TRUMP: First of all, I'd approve it because it's thousands of jobs...


TRUMP: ...OK? I would approve it so fast, so fast.


KELCY WARREN: I'm very, very enthusiastic about what's going to happen with our country.

BRADY: Kelcy Warren is CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline. His company has accused the Obama administration of political interference by delaying construction to address concerns from the nearby Standing Rock Sioux tribe. During a recent earnings call, Warren talked about how he thinks life will change under a Trump administration.

WARREN: Having a government that actually backs up what they say, that actually says we're going to support infrastructure, we're going to support job creation, we're going to support growth in America and then actually does it - my God, this is going to be refreshing.

BRADY: So once Trump becomes president, what will become of the keep-it-in-the-ground, anti-pipeline movement?

JANE KLEEB: We may not be fighting at the national level as much now. You know, we're really going to be focused I think at local and state level.

BRADY: Jane Kleeb was one of the main organizers of the campaign against the Keystone XL Pipeline. She worked in Republican-dominated Nebraska and built an alliance that included more than just environmentalists. There were farmers, ranchers, Native Americans and landowners who were concerned about their private property rights. That broad coalition had credibility even with conservatives.

Now she thinks the same model can be used to lobby state legislatures to restrict pipeline companies from using eminent domain laws. She says they can work with local regulators to craft more restrictive permits, and they can change regulations to make it harder to locate a pipeline in a community.

KLEEB: When you do these things, if you end eminent domain, if you put more precautions on, if you do better zoning, it really becomes financially not attainable for a pipeline company to really build these pipelines.

BRADY: Pipeline opponents hope those local efforts will be enough to stop new projects at least for the next four years when they hope a new president will be elected who is more sympathetic to their cause. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.