It was a frigid, soggy afternoon on the Lancaster, Pennsylvania farm, and a pen of robust pigs were thrusting their snouts in the mud. They were oblivious to the scene just a few feet away: Nearly a hundred chanting people were forming a bloc, their arms tightly linked. Across a barricade of piled crates, a group of men in hard hats and safety vests yelled for them to disperse. A chainsaw dangled ominously from one of their hands.
This was a field exercise for the coming standoff against the Williams Co. pipeline company. One week earlier, on February 3, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had suddenly greenlighted the company’s Atlantic Sunrise fracked gas pipeline, just a day before Trump’s new pick for FERC chairperson, Cheryl LaFleur, took office and the old chairperson resigned, leaving the agency with too few board members to approve any more pipelines. Not expecting this decision so soon, Lancaster residents scrambled to respond. For several hours that afternoon, they prepared themselves to block roads and de-escalate encounters with Williams contractors, invigorated by a new sense of urgency.
Along with two other pipelines greenlighted at the same time, the Atlantic Sunrise is one of the last pipelines to be approved under Obama’s FERC. It will also traverse this Lancaster farm en route from the Marcellus Shale in northeast Pennsylvania to a network of pipelines that could bring gas to the Cove Point and Chesapeake Bay export terminals, and as far south as Alabama.
Local residents are worried about the threat this poses to local waterways, including the Conestoga River that the pipeline crosses less than a mile away.
Under the name Lancaster Against Pipelines, community members have been trying to halt the project since 2013. This includes the owners of the farm, who have allowed the group to launch a Standing Rock-inspired protest encampment on the land, named the “Lancaster Stand.” For the occasion, a local carpenter had constructed two structures, resembling a deer stand (a raised platform to give hunters a better vantage point), on the proposed route of the pipeline. Like cabins on stilts, they are like emblems of chic, minimalist living, and reminiscent of the Imperial Walkers in Star Wars.
“The pipeline company has trampled on individual people's rights here, taking people’s land through eminent domain,” said James E. Baker, a retired forklift operator. (Eminent domain allows the federal government to appropriate private property for public use, like highways and electrical lines.) Sitting on a haystack in the barn before the simulation began, Baker was explaining why he was prepared to engage in civil disobedience and potentially get arrested for the first time in his life. His family has lived in the area for more than a hundred years; even his mother was sympathetic to the anti-pipeline movement.
“But she's also 84, so she doesn't have the physical energy to get down to stuff like this,” he said.
“Only 84?” Barbara Van Horn twisted around from the row ahead, her incredulous glare crowned by a slanted bowl cut of white hair. “I’m 85!” she exclaimed.
Both were enraged about what seemed like government by corporations. The way Baker saw it, eminent domain was being used for private profit, with Williams transporting the gas to export terminals, where it could be shipped overseas, and providing few benefits for the community.
“That's what fascism is!” Baker exclaimed. “It's a blending of government and corporate power.”
This was a far cry from the liberal urban setting where condemnations of the Trump administration as “fascist” are typically heard. Lancaster is rural Republican country, after all, where Confederate flags can occasionally be seen along the winding roads. But the residents perched on haystacks in the barn were eager to resist Williams Co. and the new administration. Many were still buzzing from a gathering the previous day of Lancaster Stands Up, a community group launched after the November election to fight racism and misogyny in the era of Trump. Many were also quick to emphasize that the Lancaster Stand movement was bipartisan. Nevertheless, a pink pussy hat could be spotted in the crowd.
“This is the natural continuation of what we’ve been doing for three years,” proclaimed Lancaster Against Pipelines co-founder Mark Clatterbuck, riling up the group. “The system isn’t designed to protect us. The change isn’t going to come from the top down, because they’re benefiting. It’s going to come from the bottom up!”
For three years, Lancaster Against Pipelines tried everything: They confronted Williams’ representatives at local presentations. They flooded FERC with calls and emails expressing their concerns. They pressured local organizations to turn down grants from Williams, framing them as attempts to buy “social license” from the community.
Once the group learned that neither local politicians nor federal agencies were going to intervene on their behalf, they organized for two of the local townships, Martic and Conestoga, to adopt “home rule,” a form of governance that empowers local residents to make certain decisions over their township supervisors. (Forty-three states in the U.S. allow for home rule, and Pennsylvania boasts dozens of home rule municipalities, including Grant Township, which approved a home rule charter in 2015 and used it to ban fracking injection wells.)
This might have been a pathway for the towns to adopt local bills of rights, upholding the rights of nature and local residents over corporations and providing a potential legal basis to ban the pipeline. But Martic’s supervisors—elected members of township governments—opposed it and it was voted down by local citizens.
That is why few of those gathered in the barn were surprised that FERC had approved the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline, and saw the entire process as antithetical to American democracy. Crucially, all of this predated Trump: The vast web of fracking pipelines now blanketing the United States is a legacy of the Obama administration, built to accommodate the fracking boom of the last decade.
The main difference now, for communities like Lancaster being traversed by pipelines, will be what happens in the event of an accident or spill. If the administration succeeds in slashing the EPA staff and budget, as it is promising to do under the leadership of climate-denier Scott Pruitt, the agency will have fewer resources to investigate accidents and enforce its own rules against toxic pollutants in the air, soil and water. And that’s assuming the rules still exist: The administration is also promising to nix a whole suite of Obama-era environmental regulations.
“We have been negotiating in good faith with affected property owners for the better part of two years,” wrote a Williams Co. representative in an email. “Our goal is to treat all landowners fairly throughout this process. The use of eminent domain is only used as a last resort when all other attempts to negotiate an agreement fail.”
As for the argument that the pipeline won’t serve the community, Williams Co. responded that “[t]he vast majority of natural gas transported by this project will be consumed domestically in markets along the East Coast, displacing natural gas which previously originated in production areas located within the Gulf of Mexico. A point often forgotten is that Pennsylvanians will consume natural gas transported by this project.”
But for many at Lancaster Stand, both the Obama and Trump administrations represent corporate agendas. At stake are the many local farms near the pipeline route. “Who controls your food controls your destiny,” said Saheeb Abdus Sabur, an urban garden educator in Lancaster City, who was watching the field exercises from the sidelines.
Although the region is being developed quickly, farming remains the central feature of its history and identity, and in Lancaster County, 99% of farms remain locally owned. And development has not yet eradicated ways of living that are closer to nature. Just the previous day, a truck had gotten stuck in the mud across the street from the encampment and was pulled to safety by the Amish man who farms the land and his horse.
“People are just pissed and fed up with everything,” said Gregory Fritz, sitting on a haystack next to his son. In the past year, they had joined numerous rallies—for Bernie, against racism and xenophobia, for better healthcare—and were dedicated to opposing “the machine,” which Fritz described as the confluence of government and corporations.
“It's our generation that's going to be living on this planet, we might as well make it the best we can,” said 15-year-old Shane Fritz, peering from behind glasses with black, plastic frames, his floppy hair dyed crimson red. “No one can really predict the future, but that's why we're standing up.”
What he did know was that society needed to be expanding into safe, renewable forms of energy like solar and wind, not natural gas that might run out within his lifetime. And he definitely didn’t want pipelines. “That's just going to be a detriment in the future,” he said.
Audrea Lim is a journalist who has written for New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The New Republic and The Nation, and an editor Verso Books. She lives in Brooklyn.