Protesters rallied in 2017 to oppose the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

By Mike Tidwell

It’s been a tough year for the Old Guard in Virginia. Powerful symbols of the past are being shut down. Toxic systems and traditions are being defunded in favor of radically new ideas for running society.

I’m talking about energy, of course. After decades of ignoring yet another elephant in the room, Virginia is getting off of coal and gas. Like changes elsewhere, it’s been building for years and now it seems to be happening overnight.

In March, the Virginia General Assembly voted to shut down virtually all the state’s coal-fired power plants by 2030.

Then, on Sunday, the real earthquake: Dominion Energy and Duke Energy Corporation announced they were cancelling the immensely controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The $8 billion, 600-mile-long pipeline would have shipped fracked gas from West Virginia, through Virginia, and into the Carolinas. Construction of the pipeline would have leveled mountain ridges, destroyed farms, polluted human communities and made global warming much worse.

The companies claim a recent court decision in faraway Montana was the final straw. And yes, environmental groups like mine, from coast to coast, have been burying companies like Dominion in nonstop legal challenges because what they sell kills people and the planet. But it’s the people themselves who really stopped the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

From the day it was announced in 2014, the proposed pipeline triggered the largest environmental protest movement in Virginia history. Rural farmers joined urban environmentalists who joined Black-led communities like Union Hill in Buckingham County, where Dominion wanted to site a giant compressor station for the project. Thousands of people wrote letters to the editor, attended hearings, camped out in trees and went peacefully to jail — over and over and over again.

All of which is to say this is a giant political force. And politicians across Virginia and nationwide can ignore it at their peril. Of course some Republicans, who want to protect Confederate statues and burn coal forever, are their own lost cause at the moment. But Democrats need to really learn from the ACP’s teachable moment.

Take former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (D). From 2014 till he left office in 2018, he was the ACP’s biggest cheerleader. He stood side by side with Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell II to announce the pipeline in 2014 with a grand press conference, calling it a “game changer” for jobs and the environment.

Now the pipeline is not happening. Why? Because everything McAuliffe said about the pipeline for years was wrong, and everything his opponents said was right. The pipeline is bad for the environment, leaking methane that destroys the atmosphere on par with coal. The pipeline creates fewer jobs than wind and solar per dollar spent. Its construction poisons water and make rural communities sicker and poorer. And it just makes no sense for Wall Street investors when the tide of history is by now obvious to nearly everyone.

Yet even now, you hear Democrats — although fewer each year — talk about gas as the “clean” fossil fuel that is good for the economy. If that were true, the ACP would have been built by now, period.

Here’s the point for politicians everywhere, borrowed from our ongoing civil rights struggle: It’s no longer enough to say you support wind and solar power. You must be AGAINST fossil fuels. By supporting fracked gas, Democrats have been enablers to Republicans and companies like Dominion Energy who have allowed the destructive fossil fuel era to last much longer than it should have — here and worldwide. It has taken a mass protest moment in Virginia and nationwide to get that point across. Now the lesson must be learned.

The mantra for the Democratic Party – and for Republicans when they one day wake up – should be this: No new fossil fuel projects of any kind, anywhere. Period. Stop all the proposed pipelines everywhere. Keep dirty energy in the ground. And rapidly tear down the existing monuments to that bygone era – the drilling towers, the power plants, the compressor stations.

In the historic aftermath of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline cancellation, Virginia should adopt a statutory moratorium on all new fossil fuel infrastructure. This is the next step for a state now moving — albeit belatedly — in the right direction. And the nation must follow.

Mike Tidwell is executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network/Action Fund.