I feel a cool breeze as I stand before the group of intergenerational protesters. We’re in Washington, D.C., where some are banging drums while others carry blue, yellow, and white signs. I look around and realize how many young people are in the mix. Kids as young as 7 stand in the crowd, but some are older than 25. The dappled sunlight is shining through, the wind rustling trees where protesters and reporters are gathered in front of a stage.
The group carries signs and giant puppets. Indigenous protesters wear beaded jewelry and colorful ribbon skirts while they walk alongside older white protesters in jeans and T-shirts. One young person holds two signs shaped like a pipeline that says most clearly what they’re here to accomplish: “STOP MVP.”
Youth play a crucial role in the movement against the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a sprawling 303-mile pipeline that cuts through the heart of Appalachia. It’s a project of energy companies NextEra Energy Inc., Con Edison, Equitrans Midstream Corporation, WGL Midstream, and RGC Resources Inc. In early September, hundreds of people gathered in D.C. to call on lawmakers to stop the project from moving forward. I was there to meet the youngest people on the ground—the ones whose futures are on the line.
Guided by the efforts of elders, youth have been on the frontlines to fight the pipeline’s construction since the pipeline’s introduction in 2014. There were the youth tree sitters in Virginia who attempted to block construction in 2019. Then, the young artists who have painted murals and choreographed dances over the years to raise awareness of the pipeline cutting through their communities. Though efforts to kill the pipeline weave across generations, youth activists have played a vital role in coordinating social media campaigns, recruiting friends to the cause, and organizing direct actions to protect their future.
“One of the things that I think that the youth are really good at is making Instagram posts, the blog posts, hitting up their friends,” said Psalms White, 25, a Black youth activist who has been organizing against the pipeline for over a year and learning from Indigenous mentors. “We’re really good at being able to have a larger reach.”
I met White at the protest, their braids neatly tucked underneath a black bandana, their septum piercing glinting in the sun. As we walked, she talked about how her interest in permaculture led them to the anti-pipeline movement and how crucial young activists are in helping a wider audience understand the devastation the Mountain Valley Pipeline can bring.
“[It’s important] to be able to be like, Here’s the significance of this pipeline, here’s the impacts that it could have to our water,” White said.
Older organizers have been inspired by the level of youth investment, especially their social media savviness. Bobby Thompson, Jr., an activist and tribal citizen from the Monacan Indian Nation in Virginia, has been advocating against the pipeline for three years. He towers over me, his face friendly but his tone stern, as we discuss his fight against the pipeline. The 45-year-old father of two acknowledges that younger activists are vital to the movement. It is their future on the line.
“We’re passing down our knowledge to our next generation and then the following generation,” Thompson said.
At the protest, Grace Tuttle, 29, flits around from one place to the next. She’s one of the march’s key organizers, so she’s busy greeting other co-organizers and attendees. She wears her long blond hair in a bun, her expression warm, but the day weighs on her as her eyes dart around, ensuring everything is on schedule. She’s been working with younger organizers at Protect Our Water, Heritage, and Rights, a coalition better known as POWHR created to stop the pipeline, and understands the profound knowledge that young people bring to the movement.
“There’s so much, so much more understanding among young folks. And I still think of myself as a young person, but I’m trying to think about folks who are younger than me,” Tuttle said. “Those folks have a much deeper and more clear understanding of the crisis that we’re in and everything that they stand to lose.”
Activists had successfully prevented the Mountain Valley Pipeline from moving forward through a series of court rulings—one of the most recent coming this year in a federal appeals court that rejected key permits for the project—but legislators have resurrected it in their passing of the Inflation Reduction Act, a law that marks the first major climate action from the U.S. in decades. In the wake of President Joe Biden signing it into law, youth activists are now focused on the side deal that has emerged.
On Wednesday, Sen. Joe Manchin—a Democrat who has killed climate efforts in the past—released the text, which suggests major reforms to environmental laws and protections and the permitting of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had agreed to the side deal to appease Manchin, who receives more fossil fuel donations than any other elected official. That was the only way Manchin would vote in favor of the Inflation Reduction Act, which wouldn’t have passed without his support.
Among the number of things the permitting bill would do is prevent further judicial review on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, require the president to designate at least 25 infrastructure projects related to energy and mineral development, and limit the environmental review process to two years.
Manchin plans to attach his permitting side deal to a government funding bill to ensure it passes. Whether it does, the corporations that own the Mountain Valley have already laid down hundreds of miles of pipe, which they’re unlikely to remove, given how previous pipeline projects that never went into operation left raw materials behind. People will have to contend with having those materials alongside their waterways and land, some of which are prone to landslides.
Activists are enraged that after years of organizing, their progress could be overturned due to a sly political maneuver. The Inflation Reduction Act already created harm in its fossil fuel giveaways (again, to appease Manchin), but this permitting deal would undo important environmental protections and accelerate further fossil fuel development, locking in decades of more emissions. Young people will feel its impacts long after the legislators who pass the bill are gone.
“The fact that frontline communities were offered up on the table without being at the table continues to be an extreme issue for us and for a lot of other frontline groups who are in the same situation that we’re in,” Tuttle said. “So, of course, we’re angry, and we’re upset.”
The Mountain Valley Pipeline cuts across some of the most pristine and biodiverse land and waterways in the country. In Appalachia, bright orange fish called Tennessee shiners swim in streams next to rocks where salamanders scuttle around. Overhead, the sky serves as a dense, migratory highway for birds. The Appalachian Trail provides refuge for an estimated 64 high-priority bird species migrating through the region. The area surrounding the area looks straight out of a fairytale as beech trees and whorled wood aster flowers grow wild. Appalachia is one of the most biodiverse areas in the U.S., storing an estimated 56% of the eastern region’s aboveground carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, the pipeline would add millions of tons of planet-warming greenhouse gases (like methane) into the atmosphere each year.
“[The Mountain Valley Pipeline] threatens pristine Appalachian ecosystems, and it has hundreds of water crossings left to complete,” Tuttle said. “There’s so much––we want to focus on how much there is to save.”
For Jalyn Oxendine, a 19-year-old Lumbee and Tuscarora activist and student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the fight is personal. An extension of the pipeline would run near her college. She’s seen enough water contamination to know the Mountain Valley Pipeline will be another risk. After all, the project has a documented history of polluting waterways.
That’s why Oxendine is so excited to take part in such an important rally. She came dressed in her Native regalia, marching in the front of the crowd. She wears a sign that reads, “WE RISE, STOP MVP.” Her large glasses frame her face, and she looks me directly in the eyes when we speak.
“My grandma would be like, Jalyn, you can’t wash right now, or, You can’t drink this water, because it would be brown or black,” Oxendine said. “But when I got older, I realized that a lot of what was going on—and why our water wasn’t safe sometimes—is because there are a lot of hog farms in our area.”
North Carolina is a big state for hog farming. Each year, the state’s 9.4 million hogs produce about 10 billion gallons of waste, some of which is dumped into waterways. Oxendine worries that a similar pattern of pollution could follow the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
“Clean water is a right for everybody,” Oxendine said. “These are things that affect Black, Indigenous, and poor communities. There’s a lot of us who have to deal with issues like this on a daily basis with contaminated water.”
It’s a daily reality that has followed Sebrena Williamson’s family for generations. Her family has worked in the extractive industries over the years: “My families have been in factories here since factories came here.” When we meet on Zoom, the 25-year-old is energetic with wavy chestnut hair. When she starts to talk about the pipeline, though, her bright demeanor changes into something heavier. She knows what is at stake if they lose. The Mountain Valley Pipeline is just the latest chapter of a long history of West Virginians being foregone for the resources their land holds.
“It’s the same old crap, different day,” Williamson said. “West Virginians are kind of used to being sacrificed when the rest of the nation is getting quite a lot of other stuff.”
So, she turned to dance. Williamson uses movement to advocate against the pipeline. In 2018, she cofounded the Saltare in Elementis Dance Collective, which uses dance and narrative to start dialogues about social issues. In 2021, the collective debuted the film Terra: An Appalachian Dance Film to talk about water pollution, pipelines, and climate change. Scenes from the film show dancers mimicking various motions of fossil fuel extraction, including a scene where two dancers grip each other tightly as they move back and forth frenetically, illustrating how pump jacks push and pull to extract gas from the land.
Williamson doesn’t want this story to repeat generations into the future. Energy companies, politicians, and pro-fossil fuel advocates like to say their projects will bring jobs, but Williamson rejects that argument. She hopes older generations will see the lies, too.
“These never bring [long-term] jobs like ever, ever.” Williamson said. “Like they always are, they’re extractive. That’s what they do.”
The extraction extends beyond resources. Oxendine points to a much bleaker and violent aspect of the fossil fuel industry and the workers its pipeline construction projects bring in: increased violence against local Indigenous communities. These worker camps—often called man camps where employees stay during a pipeline’s construction—have been linked to violence, including sexual violence. Researchers call it the Pipeline of Violence.
“There’s a lot of problems that pipelines can bring,” Oxendine said. “They’re all important, but one of the things that people forget about is how it can affect our communities with these man camps because [missing and murdered Indigenous people] is not a fable that you just hear about. It is true. And it is real. And we’re the ones that have to deal with it and deal with the grieving.”
Oxendine’s own family has experienced this loss: her grandfather was murdered, and her cousins and aunts have gone missing. These instances were not related to worker camps, but they show the reality many Indigenous communities face regularly. Worker camps exacerbate the dangers that already exist.
“It’s a long fight because we know we’re not going to get answers that we should be getting or get justice like we should,” she said.
As the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s fate hangs in the balance, so does the fate of the people who live in its path, especially the youth who will have to live with its impact for their lifetimes. Their movement is gaining momentum, though. Legislators like Senators Bernie Sanders, Ed Markey, Tim Kaine, and Elizabeth Warren have said they won’t vote for the bill. Eleven people were arrested at the Senate building Friday, protesting the side deal. A few days earlier, nearly 90 environmental justice and frontline groups signed a letter addressed to Senators Tammy Duckworth, Cory Booker, and Tom Carper demanding they reject the side deal, which comes at the cost of their communities.
Youth activist White knows it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees. “A lot of people also get overwhelmed by the environmental movement because it’s literally fighting for the whole world, so it can seem a little big to some people to fight for.”
A little big doesn’t scare White. And she hopes it won’t scare others too. They don’t mince their words when they say, “Don’t give up the fight.”