Elise Keaton on conserving in West Virginia

By Peggy Mackenzie

“I think fossil fuel extraction in West Virginia benefits a few and compromises the health, safety and land for many. This is fundamentally unjust.”—Elise Keaton

Trying to have an honest conversation with West Virginians about the impacts of several pipelines proposed for our state can be a hard sell. Just ask Elise Keaton.

Keaton is outreach and education coordinator with the Greenbrier River Watershed Association (GRWA), one of several groups organizing against the pipelines that would cut through the state – and move 2.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas from the track fields of West Virginia to domestic and export markets.

Increasing awareness about the pipelines is an essential part of Keaton’s job, and yet, she says, “I’m amazed that some people in this state have no idea what hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is or how it is impacting our people.”

Keaton is not only fighting the energy giants seeking to build the pipelines, but also apathy. However, she insists, her goal is not to stop the pipelines but to help people understand what’s happening and give them factual information about their choices. “If they want to allow pipeline easements across their land,” she says, “that’s OK,” so long as they know what the real impacts might be.

“Many, many people still have no idea that these are the largest pipelines ever proposed in West Virginia, and there are potentially four that could impact our local communities.”

The pipelines she’s referring to are 1) the proposed 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP); 2) the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP); 3) the Rover Pipeline; 4) and the proposed Appalachian Connector. To stay ahead of energy companies rushing to receive approval for the development of these pipelines, her travels have taken her to Montgomery and Roanoke counties in Virginia, and Monroe, Summers, Greenbrier, Nicholas, Upshur, Pocahontas, Lewis, Monongalia, Braxton, Harrison, and Franklin counties in West Virginia.

Last year, she reports, the pipeline companies sued 103 landowners, whose properties intersect the paths of the proposed pipelines, under the West Virginia eminent domain statute to gain entry to their land in order to survey for the easements. But, the investors saw that the lawsuit was going to hold them up in federal court for about eight or nine months. “They saw that it would kill their timeline,” she says. “Instead of following through with that lawsuit, they are now going to those 103 landowners and offering them money for the easements,” amounting to contracts between $60,000 and $160,000 – depending on the acreage. About a third of the property owners are less adamant, but are asking, “What do I need to do to start preparing for the worst case scenario for myself?”

“Then there is another third who are really okay with taking that money and signing that easement,” she adds. “When you depress the economy the way they have in this state, it’s like 150 years ago when the coal companies did the same thing with coal. It’s easy to depress an economy and then wave money in front of them to encourage them to give up more of what they have. It’s a continuation of that same narrative.” Keaton said in an interview, in 2015, with Corporate Crime Reporter.

Keaton stands out among conservationists as someone who doesn’t mince words.

“Every market that shuts down and says no fracking means that West Virginia is more of a target. It means we are the state that is going to let them frack it, so they all want to come here and get it,” Keaton says. “West Virginia, from its inception in 1863, has been an extraction state. We have been conditioned to believe that that is our identity and that is what we do we produce coal and natural gas.”

The problem, Keaton says, is, politicians in West Virginia almost universally support the pipelines. They know that opposing the extraction industry won’t get them re-elected next time.

“We lack a voice from our elected officials who know that their people are suffering,” Keaton says. “We know that we have the highest death rates and cancer rates. We know that the life expectancies here are the lowest in the country.”

Yet, Keaton remains optimistic. Opposition is growing. As people learn more, they become more engaged, she says. “That’s why this work is so important to me. It’s easy to mislead people when you keep them in the dark. For example, many people believe that a gas line through their property will bring them free gas. That just isn’t true.”

Misconceptions about environmentalists also still persist. Many believe that environmentalists are here to “take jobs away.” That narrative, perpetuated by industry leaders, is misleading and dangerous, Keaton says.

That being said, the environmental movement in this state touches every county – people across the state are concerned about protecting our water, our land and our health, says Keaton.

Keaton’s passion for environmental conservation flows out of personal experience. Born and raised in Raleigh County, Keaton was brought up to be a steward of the land. Her environmental education began, when, as a student at Virginia Tech, she met Larry Gibson and began her environmental activism against mountaintop removal coal mining as a student volunteer for the Stanley Heirs Park on Kayford Mountain with Gibson.

“That work,” she says, “changed the trajectory of my life and prompted me to go to law school to understand why mountaintop removal was legal.”

After getting a degree in political science at Virginia Tech, she moved to Houston, TX, and got a law degree with a focus on environmental policy at the University of Houston Law Center in 2005. She returned to West Virginia in 2011 and resumed her work with Gibson on Kayford Mountain, serving as executive director for the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation in Charleston from 2012 until 2014.

From there, she pursued a career in public policy advocacy and lobbying. While in Charleston, she experienced, first hand, the Freedom Industries chemical leak in January 2014.

Returning to her home near Hinton, she learned about the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), planned to cross West Virginia counties to deliver natural gas to a transport station in Virginia. Her interest in protecting water resources at any cost prompted her to transition her attention to the pipeline issue. “The proposed pipelines are moving very quickly and the opportunity to work on the issue was a timely one for me,” Keaton says.

A job opening with GRWA was also timely, and she quickly threw her energies into her travels around the state advocating community awareness of the hazards and the potential negative impacts on their land and water. “The extraction industries continue to benefit from a general lack of awareness among our residents,” Keaton says.

“It’s easy to say it’s a lost cause,” Keaton said. “It’s harder to get out there and talk to your neighbors and community about who we are and what we value as a state.”

Ultimately, it is the threat that our water resources may become irreparably contaminated in some of these at-risk places that drives Keaton’s passion. At 36, she hopes to someday to marry and raise her children here; she, like all West Virginians, has a stake in protecting West Virginia’s clean waterways. “This is not an issue impacting only West Virginians,” she noted.

“We know that the watersheds they want to cross with some of these lines are some of the last pristine water resources in our state. And yet, nobody stands up and says that. There are layers of institutional and community pressures that are holding down an honest conversation about what we can imagine for the state and for our future.”

Despite the efforts by the energy industry to convince the public that the ACP and other pipelines are inevitable, Keaton remains hopeful. “Until there is a pipeline in the ground, there is still a chance it won’t be built. We’ve [recently] learned that the route is probably going to change through Monroe County. That tells us that nothing is a foregone conclusion yet.”


Elise Keaton, outreach and education coordinator, Greenbrier River Watershed Association
Elise Keaton, outreach and education coordinator, Greenbrier River Watershed Association