Thousands Protest Fossil Fuel Projects in the Pacific Northwest: Battleground for America’s Vital Climate Justice Movement
by Skylar Lindsay
Breathing the fumes from the Tesoro and Shell oil refineries on March Point, WA can give you a headache in under ten minutes. It is far riskier, however, to live and work inside the one-mile “blast zone” threatened by oil trains that travel on nearby tracks or to inhabit a drastically warming world in which Northern Canadian cities burn in early May.
Over 1500 activists highlighted these dangers this weekend through protests, civil disobedience and community dialogues during Break Free Pacific Northwest, a popular push for climate justice and “breaking free” from the fossil fuel economy.
This weekend’s actions included a rally led by indigenous tribal leaders that took over the beach in front of Shell and Tesoro’s refineries and a three-day blockade that prevented oil trains from entering March Point. Hundreds of activists camped on the train tracks, fifty-two of whom were arrested Sunday after refusing to leave. Two women in the group locked themselves together through the floor of a van, painted to look like an orca whale, that was parked on the rail tracks.
Those arrested could face misdemeanor trespassing charges from the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway company. According to a spokesperson for Break Free PNW, however, “No word yet on charges for those responsible for the climate crisis. Shell and Tesoro officials are still at large.”
Hundreds of “kayaktivists” also risked arrest on the water around the March Point facilities.
Break Free PNW was just one surge in a global wave of actions over the last two weeks. Over 30,000 people demonstrated at 20 sites around the globe. Ten thousand people marched to oppose a 600-Megawatt coal power plant in Batangas City, Philippines and two thousand protesters shut down the world’s largest coal port for a day in Newcastle, Australia. In the Pacific Northwest, no oil trains left or entered the March Point refineries, which produce almost half of the region’s gas.
Local paper The Seattle Weekly called Anacortes, WA, the closest town to March Point, “ground zero for climate resistance,” and the label couldn’t be more accurate. A report by the Sightline Institute estimated that planned fossil fuel projects in the Pacific Northwest could transport more than five times as much climate-warming carbon as the Keystone XL Pipeline would have.
Climate activists have stopped many of the fossil fuel projects that once threatened the region. This month, the indigenous Lummi Nation defeated Pacific International Terminal’s coal export project at Cherry Point, WA; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied PIT’s permit after receiving more than 260,000 comments.
But the Northwest is still struggling to push past a fossil fuel economy, a frightening prospect given that wildfires have already started in Eastern Washington during this record-hot year. Tesoro has proposed to increase export capacities at its March Point facilities and bring in five tankers of materials for refining a product called mixed xylene. Oil trains bound for Anacortes have already had multiple accidents, including a 35,000 gallon spill in Montana.
The existing refineries also continue to threaten the workers in their facilities: in April 2010, seven Tesoro workers were killed by an explosion at the March Point plant.
A transition to 100 percent renewable energy has long been necessary – Exxon knew about anthropogenic climate change in 1977 – and it is now also possible. The question in the Northwest, as in the rest of the world, is not whether we can make this transition but how; as in any movement, for every “no,” there must be a “yes”: an alternative proposal.
Anacortes community members and activists from out of town met during Break Free PNW to discuss what this just transition to renewable energy would look like. As a town that is “ground zero for climate resistance,” Anacortes is extremely dependent on the refineries for jobs and funding for local schools, Boys and Girls Clubs and other programs.
As one resident put it, “Here in Anacortes, the fossil fuel industry puts more into the community than it takes out.”
While this perspective focuses only on the financial footprint of the refineries, it articulates a central difficulty for Anacortes. The town faces challenges similar to those of oil-dependent communities around the world – like Ogoniland, Nigeria, for example, where Break Free actions centered around the country’s first oil well.
Participants in the Break Free discussions voiced their concerns that a new economy in Anacortes must keep income from the energy industry within the community, rather than piping it to the top of the economic pyramid as the fossil fuel industry does.
But rather than discussing technical details of clean energy for Anacortes, the weekend’s community dialogues focused more on how to talk about making this just transition. The language that activists use can be polarizing; it is vital to assure would-be allies that no one is talking about making this transition overnight and forcing them to renounce every aspect of their lives.
Dialogue participants discussed how, while drastic lifestyle changes and a willingness to be uncomfortable may be necessary for climate justice, it’s more important to “meet your neighbors where they’re at,” as one Break Free activist from Portland, OR put it.
Members of Washington State’s BlueGreen Alliance demonstrated this coalition-building, a buzzword sometimes invoked by among community organizers more than it’s practiced. They presented successes that they’ve had in working with the Steelworkers Union, which represents the March Point refinery workers, to identify common causes between labor and environmental movements.
As a woman from Seattle put it, a vision for a just transition must reflect a race-based analysis just as much as a class-based one. For Anacortes, the indigenous community must be central architects of a just transition to clean energy, in which all can benefit equitably from “breaking free” from fossil fuels. Youth from the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community recently made a film about the refineries’ impact on the area; since the 1950s, the refineries have occupied land that legally belongs to the Swinomish under the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott. The tribe, now on land just south of March Point, has suffered the consequences of massive water and air pollution ever since.
The actions during Break Free PNW represent a powerful, growing movement for climate justice in the region that is led by indigenous tribes as much as, if not more than, environmental activists. This movement is increasingly self-reflective, learning from mistakes in language and tactics and clearly trying hard to reach out to new allies.
Yes, the coalition of activists at Break Free PNW could elaborate on the concrete details of a just transition to clean energy. But this movement is clearly self-aware. After the weekend, local residents called out activists for leaving behind piles of debris from their oil train blockade and Break Free PNW spokespeople responded quickly: they are seriously concerned about the movement’s relationship with this community and clarified, to all who asked, that police had not allowed them on railway property to clean up after the protest.
Skylar Lindsay is a young journalist writing about environmental and peacebuilding issues. He has worked in Thailand, Argentina, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Canada and is always learning another language. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Colgate University with a B.A. in Peace & Conflict Studies, focusing on the Middle East. @SkylarLindsay // www.SkylarNoah.wordpress.com // www.linkedin.com/in/SkylarLindsay
Top photo by Skylar Lindsay