In the chipper chill of one of this winter’s few cold days, protestors this weekend filled the block near a local Food Bazaar and gave force to the continued opposition to a National Grid pipeline currently being built underneath North Brooklyn.
The target of their scorn sat across the street: three pipes, oblique thirty-inch tubes the color of wax, sat next to an unoccupied yellow digger. Left by itself, it looked like the remains from just another busy construction project, abandoned in the weekend’s quiet sun. Sites like these were not unheard of in this corner of Brooklyn, where the latest phase of National Grid’s inconspicuously named, Metropolitan Reliability Infrastructure project, had been burrowing through the borough since 2017–4.9 miles of new gas main built already.
“The sheer possibility of encountering an enraged and engaged public was enough for National Grid to buckle and halt construction,” a group called the Sane Energy Project announced in a heady press blast the next day. The move notched another win in the Project’s fight against the pipeline: last week, Brooklyn’s Community Board 1 voted to oppose the rate hike that National Grid planned on imposing to pay for the project, which would act as an additional connection between the gas-fracking operations in Pennsylvania to a National Grid depot in Newtown Creek, near the tip of Greenpoint and would cost, the Project says, a little under $200 million.
As a utility, National Grid’s rate hikes can be challenged before an administrative court. Sane Energy is among the groups busy doing that, a motley collection of interests which include fellow environmentalists, small business advocates and legal advocates for the low-incomed.
“National Grid is the worst, don’t wait for the pipe to burst,” went one of the chants Saturday morning, with a rhyming quality that brought to mind the post-Occupy style of savvy, accessible populism. In fact, the Sane Energy Project has its roots in Occupy Wall Street, the decade-old centerpiece of New York protest culture, Lee Ziesche told Bushwick Daily, tracing the group’s beginnings to a splinter faction called Occupy the Pipeline, which garnered a mention in The Nation for its crusade against the Spectra Pipeline. Ziesche goes by the title Community Engagement Coordinator in the small group.
“We’ve been fighting pipelines for a really long time,” she says.
Lately, many in these circles have become advocates for public energy and point to inherent costs in using corporate infrastructure to manage utilities. Ziesche mentions that a local branch of the Democratic Socialists of America had been among those involved in one of these rate cases but they expressed cultural and political frustration with engaging with for-profit businesses that, nonetheless, have a monopolistic hold on their customers. A company like National Grid, Ziesche says, is motivated to endlessly build new infrastructure because of the immediate return shareholders make from new capital investments. A word that Ziesche and her set like to use to describe the massive new pipes that National Grid has been intent on building is stranded asset, a vivid bit of protest-ese that reimagines the pipes as abandoned husks of concrete left on a dying world.
“We’re in a time of climate crisis right now, people are caring more and more about energy than ever before,” Ziesche says, “How much we’re paying on our monthly bills and where that money is going is being decided in closed doors and mostly by white guys in suits.”
She says of her work in the ongoing rate case: “I’m definitely the only one who’s got activist stickers all over my computer.”
The burst of recent successes testifies to the group’s organizational heft, which finally managed to get the attention of the city’s protest set. Among those gathered outside the Food Bazaar in East Williamsburg was Jody Kuh, a figure in an anti-Trump group called Rise and Resist which, most recently, organized rallies in support of last month’s impeachment.
Kuh said she came because she was suspicious of National Grid’s effort to conceal the pipeline from residents.
Other characters hailed from a richer tradition of agitation.
The anarchist-riffing flag of Extinction Rebellion could be seen flying above the mass of held posters (e.g. “Get the FRACK out!”). Among these was John Keller, a well-bundled up man who wore the group’s insignia, a lean black-lined hourglass, on his jacket. He was from the East Village and he gamely expressed the group’s conviction that humanity was heading to a toasty end.
But while the protest largely appealed to career agitators, its argument tried to stay local, and the event was smarty set near a street of local businesses who’ve publicly complained to Bklyner about the construction’s impact on street sales, also a centerpiece of a video package that a News12 affiliate made of the protest.
“We are standing together. East New York and Brownsville, Bushwick, Williamsburg and Greenpoint,” Sane Energy quotes a faintly moustached man in wiry glasses named Kevin LaCherra. LaCherra was among those who addressed the protestors and who the release referred to only as a concerned resident of Greenpoint.
Sane Energy hopes to bring about the success of protests last year, after which Governor Cuomo’s Department of Environmental Conservation rejected the Williams Pipeline, another National Grid project. National Grid had responded to the move by initially cutting off new gas hookups in Brooklyn and is still challenging the state’s power to legally do so in the courts.
“Today proved that the community’s tireless dedication to environmental preservation and justice will undoubtedly put a stop to National Grid’s destruction,” Sane Energy says, optimistically.
Top photo taken by Erik McGregor, courtesy of the Sane Energy Project.
For more news, sign up for Bushwick Daily’s newsletter.