No New Gas: Fighting Fossil Fuels at Duke University in North Carolina
by Claire Wang
December 20, 2016
Students at Duke University have succeeded in halting a major new fossil fuel investment — and they're not done yet.
It was the first day of finals week at my university, and I was sitting in the library in silent solidarity with the hundreds of other students studying for their exams, eagerly awaiting winter break. A notification popped up on my laptop screen — an email with a piece of wonderful news. The regulatory approval process for the natural gas plant proposed to be built on my college campus at Duke University was being formally suspended.
A semester’s worth of student organizing — and the research, op-eds, media hits, petitioning, flyering, fact sheets, forum events, meetings, conference calls, and countless emails that came with it — had led to that announcement, as Duke University put on hold the decision to invest in this natural gas plant until a transparent analysis of the climate impact of the plant and the availability of alternatives was conducted.
Astonishingly, Duke University had not performed such an analysis before it publicly announced the gas plant proposal, when it declared in what seemed to be quite certain terms that the $55 million plant would be built, owned, and operated by utility giant Duke Energy for 35 years (or more).
The surprise announcement came in May of this year, just 2 days after students had left campus for the summer, and without being preceded by any campus dialogue or discussion — in fact, no students or faculty were even informed that such a plant was being considered at all. Immediately after the announcement, the university began being hit by protests from students and alumni.
How could a university that claims to be an environmental leader and has a commitment to climate neutrality by 2024 invest in a project that would tie the university to fossil fuels through the middle of the century?
It’s normal to want to believe that people in positions of power have your best interests at heart. And it’s easy to think so when you attend a university that boasts a graduate school of the environment, a research institute dedicated to environmental policy solutions, and a commitment to carbon neutrality by 2024. But when those decision-makers — for reasons nefarious or naïve — make choices that threaten the health of our planet and our communities, it’s essential to take action to reverse that choice.
That is why, over seven months ago, I committed to help lead the fight against Duke University and Duke Energy’s proposed fossil fuel expansion.
These past seven months have fundamentally changed my life — both my day-to-day and my understanding of the systems that surround me. I’ve found myself collaborating with great minds at the nation’s leading environmental organizations (Greenpeace being one; Sierra Club & Natural Resources Defense Council being others).
I’ve found myself leading a team of almost 30 undergraduate and graduate students in our “No New Gas” campaign. I’ve found myself interfacing with Duke University’s President and President-elect, with Duke Energy employees, with the media, with high-profile alumni — none of whom I had imagined I would be in regular correspondence with.
Most importantly, I’ve found myself realizing the power of organizing and the ability of a single person, student, or concerned citizen to make change. Coming together with this powerful group of allies and advocates and working with all of these students, faculty, alumni, and community members who are dedicated to improving the world around them has been such a refreshing and encouraging experience, at a time when it can be easy to become jaded or disillusioned.
Certainly, the work is far from over to urge Duke University to be a true climate leader. But our hard work has paid off so far, not only in halting a dangerous fossil fuel investment, but also in sparking broader conversations about the impact of energy decisions and the importance of ambitious climate leadership.
At Duke University, we will keep fighting until we see the university become the climate leader that we — and the planet — deserve.
To support students organizing for renewable energy at Duke University, sign our petition against the proposed natural gas plant at bit.ly/nonewgas and follow the campaign on Facebook at facebook.com/DukeClimateCoalition.