From Protests to Policy: Tennessee Rep. Justin Pearson's Victory Against Big Oil
Justin J. Pearson, the Democratic House representative from the 86th District of Tennessee, has frequently been the subject of national news this spring. On April 6, Representative Pearson was expelled from the Tennessee House after protesting the chamber's inaction following a mass shooting in Nashville on March 26. The protest earned Representative Pearson and two of his colleagues who also participated in the protest the moniker, the Tennessee Three. The Tennessee Three faced expulsion from the legislature, but ultimately, only the two Black representatives were expelled while the third, a white woman, was not.
Representative Pearson had very clear words when speaking about the Tennessee legislative body. In an interview with Salon, he spoke of “being within this institution but not being of this institution”. A “mass movement” of people outside the building, he said, is necessary to push the “few good folk” inside that “have some moral courage” to achieve change.
Pearson’s recent call for commonsense gun legislation was not the first time he has spoken out against powerful opposition to protect the health and safety of his community. When a 49-mile crude oil pipeline was proposed to connect an existing pipeline in Memphis to one that runs from central Illinois to the Gulf Coast, local residents and environmental groups raised the alarm. The Byhalia Connection oil pipeline, a joint project between Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy, was to pass through several neighborhoods near schools and churches, raising concerns about the risk of oil spills, leaks, and explosions. Additionally, the pipeline would cross over an important drinking water aquifer that serves the Memphis region. In early 2021, a land agent for Byhalia Pipeline LLC reportedly stated that the pipeline route through predominantly Black and low-income communities was found to be the "the path of least resistance."
Pipeline construction is known to endanger aquifers and groundwater. In December 2022, Energy Transfer was ordered to pay for independent testing of residents’ private well water after the construction of its Mariner East 2 pipeline contaminated drinking water supplies along the Pennsylvania pipeline’s 350-mile route. Water quality violations attributed to Energy Transfer and other pipeline companies cataloged by NRDC detail the destruction imposed on communities, an outcome Memphis residents were determined to avoid. Learn more about the impact of oil and gas development on water here.
In response to this threat, Justin and other community members co-founded the grassroots organization Memphis Community Against the Pipeline (MCAP). MCAP led a campaign against the proposed Byhalia Pipeline, organizing protests, rallies, and community meetings to raise awareness about the risks of the pipeline and to pressure local officials and the pipeline companies to abandon the project. National organizations and prominent activists including former Vice President Al Gore rallied to the cause.
In July 2021, Byhalia Connection LLC announced that they were abandoning the pipeline project, allowing the City of Memphis to pass two protective ordinances making future pipeline projects in the area highly unlikely. Justin Pearson commented on the victory in a Facebook Live video, saying, "We've shown them that we aren't the path of least resistance. We are the path of resilience."
Historically, the oil and gas industry responds strongly to defeats brought about by community organizing and supported by local government decisions. When Arlington, Texas, residents won hard fought battles against gas wells by packing public hearings with concerned citizens, drillers found a loophole to gain approval for projects without a public hearing. Tennessee is poised to follow a similar path. Last year, the Tennessee Senate approved a bill that would strip local governments of the authority to regulate energy projects. Justin Pearson says the legislation would leave communities powerless to stop oil pipelines.
Memphis Community Against the Pipeline is now known as Memphis Community Against Pollution (MCAP), a group that continues to fight for clean air, soil, and water in the pursuit of healthy communities in Memphis. The fight against the Byhalia Pipeline has entered a season of quiet vigilance as activists watch for activity on the statewide legislation that would limit community input into the placement of oil and gas infrastructure. Representative Justin Pearson was reinstated to the Tennessee State House one week after his expulsion, resilient and ready to take on the challenges that face his district, his state, and our world.
Pearson's resilience and dedication to protecting his neighbors’ health and safety serve as an inspiration to communities fighting for environmental justice. A foundation built on love, with pillars of justice, and doors open to everyone, regardless of their status, is necessary to create a safe space to live for all. The fight against the Byhalia Pipeline shows that community organizing can be a powerful tool to protect our homes, our health, and our environment from powerful industries that prioritize profit over people.
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