For high officials attending the July 30 Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers at the Hilton hotel overlooking Burlington’s waterfront, the one-day event will be a chance for face-to-face discussion of finance, trade and energy policies.
But this year the annual gathering may also be the spark for one of the largest regional environmental protests in years.
The NEG/ECP conference co-chairs, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and Quebec Premier Jean Charest, officially welcome participants in the hotel’s Adirondack Ballroom on Monday morning. Protesters gathering from across the region plan to stage a Sunday mass march from downtown to the conference site, following by a “human oil spill” aimed at corporate plans to ship tar sands oil through Vermont and other New England states.
Activist from the climate crisis group 350VT say this could be the largest direct action ever staged in New England to resist tar sands expansion.
According to the conference website, the NEG/ECP is “an inter-regional, bi-national, trans-border organization” that recognizes a special bond between six New England states and five Eastern Canadian provinces. Last year’s meeting was held in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Presentations and discussions between the governors, premiers and the Canadian and U.S. ambassadors are expected to cover “shared issues including managing the fiscal reality, enhancing the trade relationship, maximizing the potential of each region’s energy resources, and confronting environmental challenges,” says a press release. An agenda released by the Canadian Intergovernmental Conference Secretariat specifically mentions economic growth opportunities in the fields of energy and transportation.
In 2011 the event’s big sponsors were Northeast Utilities (NU), which operates New England’s largest utility system, and Brookfield Renewable Power, owner of more than 170 generating facilities. Other sponsors in recent years include Bangor Hydro, Emera Energy, Solenergy, FPL Energy, Maine Public Service, NE Industrial Transmission, Northern Utilities, Bay State Gas, TransCanada, Iroquois Gas, Northeast Gas, and Gaz Metro.
The Vermont Workers’ Center charges that despite conference rhetoric about regional cooperation, its corporate sponsors are mainly interested in the generation and transmission of energy to markets “in large cities to our south.”
Protest organizers describe the annual conference as a meeting of the “political and economic elite of the Northeast.” They decry its “closed door meetings” and “greenwashed resolutions for trade, energy, climate change, transportation and infrastructure.”
In addition to opposing the transportation of tar sands oil through New England, environmental activists object to a “private mega-highway” across the north of Maine and transmission lines cutting through New Hampshire.
Last summer’s protests against the Keystone pipeline became the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years. They resulted in mass arrests and drew renewed attention to the plans of the fossil fuel industry. Activists say that the the next major battle will be the Alberta tar sands. Energy companies want to convert an existing pipeline to ship the heavy, corrosive fuel from Canada to East Coast markets. The Tar Sands Free Northwest campaign aims to prevent that from happening.
Tar sands pipelines are not an apparent agenda focus for the governors and premiers. But protesters hope that their “human oil spill” will make it an issue for the media “and anyone else watching.”
A noon rally at City Hall Park on Sunday will be followed by a march through downtown Burlington to the conference site. Environmental activist Bill McKibben with join “front line” speakers for a 2 p.m. speak-out at Battery Park, then join those already outside the Hilton.
“This will be a mass march for groups and individuals who wish to show the governors, premiers and their corporate sponsors that they won’t be able to push through their greenwashed industrial development agenda without a fight,” says one of several calls to action. Participants are being asked to wear black T-shirts and clothing “to create an oil spill motif.”
The Vermont Workers’ Center advises the governors and premiers to focus instead on “the human rights that arise from the human needs of the people,” and calls for an open process “that engages those people in holding their governments accountable for respecting, protecting and fulfilling their rights.”
The New England Governors’ Conference was launched in 1937 to promote economic development, and incorporated as a tax-exempt group in 1981. The region’s six governors are also its directors.
The NEGC website lists programs areas like economic development, transportation, environment, energy, and health. The stated goal is “to coordinate, effectively and cost-efficiently, regional policies that reflect and benefit the states.” Joint conferences with the Canadian premiers have been held since 1973.
Dueling schedules and competing goals
Registration for the 36th NEG/ECP conference will begin on Sunday afternoon. Credentialed media will be briefed at 8:15 a.m. Monday, and the proceedings will begin at 9.
Two days before, activists will open a two-room People’s Convergence Welcoming Space on Clarke Street near the Unitarian Church. The plan is to provide space for those arriving from out of town to get local information and hold small meetings.
On Sunday the Unitarian Church will be used for a 5 p.m. community dinner and 7 p.m. “people’s alternative to the conference.” Organizers want to “highlight voices from communities that are traditionally silenced or marginalized.” Speakers will include representatives of the Innu people and migrant justice groups.
At 9:30 a.m. Monday, shortly after the conference starts, Innu organizers who are visiting Burlington from Northern Quebec will hold a press conference outside the hotel to discuss their fight for indigenous rights and resistance to projects like Hydro Quebec and Plan Nord, an $80 billion industrial development project involving huge dams, logging and mines in northern Quebec.
Bread & Puppet, the famous Vermont-based theater group, will offer a thematic performance nearby at 11:30, followed by a Burlington Occupy General Assembly at noon in Battery Park.
After lunch the conference will resume from 1:30 to 4 p.m., with a press conference immediately following its adjournment. As that happens, protest organizers will shift their focus to the Citizen’s Bank, across the street from City Hall Park on College Street.
In April, Occupy Burlington demanded that the bank, whose parent company RBS recently paid a $137.5 million settlement to customers, close its local branch and leave town. Activists have picketed the bank up to four days a week since then.
The last time such a convergence of officials and activists occurred in Burlington was 1995, when hundreds of protesters gathered to confront participants at a National Governors’ Association conference held at the Radisson Hotel and in a huge tent on the waterfront. Hoping to hug some governors Michael Moore showed up to film a segment of his television series, “TV Nation,” but was not admitted.
A major focus then was the impending execution of journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. The protests ran from July 28 to Aug. 1, specifically targeting then-Pa. Gov. Tom Ridge, who had signed a death warrant for Jamal. The death sentence was dropped in 2011.