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The Battle Over Tar Sands

How Quiet Environmental Uprisings are Spreading Across the Country

by SCOTT PARKIN

It was the largest mass environmental civil disobedience in a generation.

Over 1200 were arrested over a two week period after writer Bill McKibben had called for urgent action to pressure President Obama to deny the permits for the Keystone XL pipeline. McKibben referred to the pipeline as a “carbon bomb” that would have had dire implications for both eco-systems and communities from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, and the climate as well.

I’ve worked in anti-war, environmental and anti-corporate movements for the past twelve years. I’ve been arrested doing various forms of civil disobedience ten times now. I’ve chained myself to ExxonMobil’s headquarters, helped to hang a banner on the Golden Gate Bridge for Tibet and spent five days in an Australian jail in 2005 for teaching students and environmentalists civil disobedience tactics.

Besides risking arrest numerous times, I’ve also organized dozens of similar actions as well. I always feel every action is somewhat the same, but then different as well.

Last August, I traveled to Washington D.C. to get arrested at the Tar Sands Action.

The Tar Sands Action was different to me because it wasn’t just dedicated environmentalists or “action jocks” participating in it, but a diverse group of people converging to hold President Obama accountable. My arrest day included climatologist James Hansen, a former Obama for America staffer, more than a couple of directors of environmental non-profit organizations and a large interfaith contingent of Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Muslims. More importantly the day included scores of regular people (most of them Obama voters) from around North America who saw that something is not working.

People were tired of waiting for politicians to do something and are moving beyond the ballot box. This action allowed people to voice their outrage at the pipeline and Obama’s unwillingness to act on the climate issue.

As author Naomi Klein observed at the end of Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, “A particular model of dealing with climate change is dying.” Instead of faith in a political system that continues to fail at stopping fossil fuel extraction and burning, smaller community groups, informal networks and concerned individuals have begun to both create local solutions but also confront the root causes of those problems.

Environmental crises are ravaging the country. Mountaintop removal coal mining, hydrofracturing, or “fracking,” to extract natural gas and tar sands oil extraction are fueling climate crisis. Furthermore, industry wages war against the earth in the extraction zones with little regard to the populations who live in them.

In response, this summer, anti-extraction groups are organizing their own actions with a hard-hitting fervor in the backyards of the fossil fuel industry across the United States. These groups are standing shoulder to shoulder with the frontlines of these catastrophes and pushing back against the drillers and strip-miners.

In Appalachia, over 500 hundred mountains have been leveled and 2000 miles of rivers and streams have been buried by coal companies with little regard for anything living near them. The toll this catastrophe takes on surrounding populations is devastating. According to a recent peer reviewed health study, people living near Appalachian strip mining sites have a 50 percent greater risk of fatal cancer and a 42 percent greater risk of birth defects.

Appalachians in West Virginia have mobilized with environmentalists from all over the country for the “Mountain Mobilization.” The fight against surface mining resumed after a thirty year hiatus in the late 1990’s. It is another step in a decades’ long struggle to end mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. By the end of the Mobilization, organizers are saying they will have instigated a long term occupation of a strip mining site. Effectively shutting it down until they are forced to leave by authorities.

Oil companies drilling both offshore and inland for tar sands oil from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico are further damaging the atmosphere and the planet as well. British Petroleum spilled over 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico wrecking eco-systems and local fishing and tourism. Tar sands oil has seriously contaminated watersheds with dangerous poisons such as arsenic. The refining of tar sands oil means more asthma and respiratory diseases, more cancer, and more cardiovascular problems. The Keystone XL pipeline will expose many along its route to potential oil spills.

Last year’s popular action in Washington D.C. around the Keystone pipeline has inspired thousands to stop it. This summer oil company TransCanada plans to build the southern leg of the pipeline from Cushing, OK to the Texas Gulf Coast. The Texas Tar Sands Blockade, a group consisting of climate activists and landowners, has put out a call to set up blockades along the southern route.

The natural gas industry is quickly becoming most known for the environmentally destructive extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Fracking’s methods of extraction from deep gas shale include the burning of diesel fuel and polluting ground water with toxic chemicals. While promoted as a “bridge fuel” by industry and prominent environmentalists like former Sierra Club director Carl Pope, fracking is having a profound impact on the ground.

From the Marcellus Shale states of New York and Pennsylvania to Texas to the interior west, a fiery populist uprising has caught fire throughout the country. Just this past month, activists in Ohio and Pennsylvania blockaded gas drilling wells to disrupt business as usual. Academy award nominated director of the documentary Gasland Josh Fox has joined a coalition of community groups and non-profits in calling for the “Stop The Frack Attack” rally on July 28 in Washington D.C.

As environmental regulation and market forces are shutting down coal-burning power plants across the nation, the industry is responding with plans to export coal overseas. They are seeking permitting to build mega-ports along the Pacific Northwest coast. Once the coal terminals are operating, the industry will rail coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana for shipment to Asia.

This new battle in extraction has sparked consciousness in Montana. Youth activists are aligning with ranchers to challenge coal mining in southeast Montana’s Otter Creek coal reserves. Also inspired by the Tar Sands Action, the Coal Exports Action is calling for seven days of civil disobedience at the state capitol in efforts to influence decisions around Otter Creek.

Some of these environmental uprisings are modeled on the Tar Sands Action, others resemble past protests. But what is becoming clear is that more and more people are tired of waiting for politicians do something and taking matters into their own hands.

The night before I was arrested at the Tar Sands Action, we’d been prepped on what to expect from the police, how to line up and march to front sidewalk and what to expect in the brief time we were in jail.

That morning at the White House a flurry of activity was happening. The interfaith contingent held a short vigil while Dr. Hanson and Bill McKibben gave interviews to the media. Calling us to line up, the organizers gave some last minute instructions and then we headed to sidewalk in front of the White House. Some of us stood, others sat down. Lots of pictures were taken. The U.S. Capitol Police gave us three quick warnings and began the arrests.

During the arrests, I stood with an older Canadian couple (from Alberta, no less) who had driven to Washington D.C. after McKibben’s call to action.  As they took the woman away, her husband yelled “your grandchildren are proud of you today Mary!”

That day, I was literally the last one arrested out of over a 100 people. As I watched them take people away one by one, with women going first than the men, the power of the moment for first time participants and mainstream environmentalists caught in a crisis of faith about Obama and climate change told me that things were beginning to change.

Scott Parkin an organizer around climate issues working with Rainforest Action Network and Rising Tide North America.