Vermonters lead the charge in tar sands protests

Bill McKibben. Photo courtesy of Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben. Photo courtesy of Bill McKibben

The ‘sit-in’ protests in Washington D.C. resulting in the arrest of environmentalist author William McKibben, Vermont Law School professor Gus Speth and roughly 150 others, are scheduled to continue every day from now until Sept. 3. About 30 more Vermonters have banded together and are slated to go down Sunday.

McKibben, author of the seminal book about climate change, End of Nature, is also the founder of the activist group Tar Sands Action, and Speth, a Vermont Law School environmental lawyer and activist, were arrested and held over the weekend for protesting against a permit for a $7 billion pipeline that would run from Alberta Canada to the eastern part of Texas. They were released Monday afternoon.

Because the pipeline crosses international boundaries, it was originally up to the State Department to decide whether to approve the project, but due to disagreements between the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department, President Obama is the one who signs or rejects the permit. Activists are participating in the sit-in to let the president know he should reject the permit, and people are coming from all corners of the country to join. Climate scientist and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute James Hansen described the tar sands oil extraction development as a game-over proposition for climate change in an interview with the Huffington Post Sunday.

After the first round of arrests, authorities held roughly 65 protesters much longer than expected. According to Kathryn Blume, an organizer of 350 Vermont– an environmental activist group – the usual penalty for civil disobedience is a $100 fine and you can be on your way; this was not the case for McKibben and Speth.

“They held McKibben and others over the weekend because they wanted to do it as a deterrent to prevent other people to come,” Blume said.

Blume and others are not dissuaded. Protests happened in similar manners both Sunday and Monday,  resulting in roughly 100 people arrested since the original 65 on Saturday, and Blume is heading down with at least 25 to 30 Vermonters on Sunday to have sit-in on Tuesday.

Blume said they have arranged for a bus, which still has open seats, to travel down to Washington on Sunday. The protesters will have civil disobedience training on Monday to go over how the process works.

“I don’t know exactly what the training will be, but I suspect they are going to go over the procedure of being arrested,” Blume said. “Even though it’s a cause you believe in, getting arrested is outside most peoples’ comfort zone.”

The participants will then go to the White House on Tuesday and position themselves in a place to be considered trespassing. According to Blume, the police will then come and give three warnings, at the end of which the protesters will be arrested. Blume said most people will pay the $100 fine so they can get back to their regular lives;  the bus will return Wednesday evening.

Activists have been readying to have the sit-in for some time as a letter inviting all to come to participate was sent in the end of June. The beginning of the letter states:  “The short version (of this letter) is we want you to consider doing something hard: coming to Washington in the hottest and stickiest weeks of the summer and engaging in civil disobedience that will quite possibly get you arrested.”

Many of the people who sent out the invitation also sent a letter  to the president asking him to reject the permit on Aug.  3. The environmental activists wrote: “The tar sands are a huge pool of carbon, but one that does not make sense to exploit. It takes a lot of energy to extract and refine this resource into usable fuel, and the mining is environmentally destructive.”

Joe Solomon, another organizer of 350,  wrote the following in an email:

“I’ve been thinking a lot about why Vermonters are making this trip, and keep coming back to this thought: It’s fair to say the Keystone XL is currently the greatest threat to Vermont’s climate future. We can debate how much oil the pipeline will spill onto America’s heartland, but we can guarantee it will spill a massive amount of carbon into the atmosphere. And all that extra carbon will affect us: hotter summers, worse floods, out-of-whack farms, shrinking ski seasons, and on and on with the growing effects of climate change. So, we’re going down to join Nebraskans and Native Americans and stand with the heartland, but just as much to protect the future for all of us here in the Green Mountain State.”

The pipeline is owned by TransCanada Corp..  Although there has been no construction,  the pipeline is to pump raw oil — extracted from tar sand fields out of Alberta — all the way to Texas. Although the oil companies have cited studies showing tar-sand oil is no more corrosive than regular oil, environmentalists claim the tar sand is much cruder.

According to Josh Fox, Oscar-nominated director of the film Gasland, the biggest industrial development project ever is happening in the tar-sand fields of Alberta and is the size of Florida. In a short film made about the project, Fox said it is the biggest capital investment and largest energy project in the world. He also said the tar sands produce 36 million tons of carbon dioxide a day and is the cause of as much green house gases a day as 1.3 million cars.

“Oil companies have invested $120 billion in tar sands development,” Fox said in his film.

TransCanada has pressed for Obama to sign the permit as it offers approximately 20,000 new jobs for the economy. The president has until Oct. 1, to sign or reject the permit,  and Blume said the decision will be colossal.

“This is an opportunity and a profound decision and will have a monumental change on the future,” Blume said. “A woman turned to her daughter while a group was being arrested (at the protest) and said ‘this is what democracy looks like.’”

Released from prison

According to a Twitter tweet from TarSandsAction, the protesters jailed Saturday and held through the weekend were released at roughly 4 p.m. Monday. Upon release, McKibben was quoted saying:  “I’m so glad more people are getting arrested. We aren’t deterred.”

While in prison, both McKibben and Speth released statements – Speth wrote the following statement through his wife:

“We the prisoners being held in the Central Cell Block of the D.C. Jail need company and encourage the continuation of the protests against the tar sands pipeline. Help us stop this disastrous proposal! I’ve held numerous positions and public office in Washington but my current position feels like one of the most important.” – Gus Speth

McKibben sent the following through the Tar Sand Action legal team:

“Hello everyone! We don’t need sympathy, we need company. It’s clear to us that police were hoping to deter this action, and it’s equally clear to us the opposite will be the result. I’m looking forward to seeing everybody over the next 2 weeks. It has been a little hot here in central cell block, but not as hot as it will be if we don’t stop this project. People here have been in good spirits, and there has been a great deal of learning. We are thinking ahead to this weekend to share stories about Dr King and freedom movement. Even though uncomfortable, this experience has given us a greater sense of that part of history. Come on in, the water is fine.”

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