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The Achilles heel of the fossil fuels monster

Northwest ports ship in extraction equipment and ship out coal and oil

Hurricane Sandy and the Great Drought and wildfires of 2012 have finally focused public attention on climate change, and climate justice groups promise to increase pressure on President Obama in his second term. But any efforts to curb greenhouse gasses will become moot if the fossil fuel monster continues to expand in Alberta, the Great Plains, and beyond. Our own local public port is now implicated in opening up oil and gas fracking fields in North Dakota, endangering the health of that state and our entire planet.

Despite the enormous scale and reach of energy corporations, their top-heavy operations are actually quite vulnerable to creative social movements. The climate justice movement has identified the Achilles heel of the energy industry: shipping. The industry needs to ship equipment from ports into its oil, gas and coal fields, and to ship the fossil fuels via rail, barge, and pipeline to coastal ports for the global market. Yet every step of the way, new alliances of environmental and climate justice activists, farmers and ranchers, and Native peoples are blocking plans to extract and ship the carbon that will turn our planet into a greenhouse.

Olympia citizens in Port Militarization Resistance blockaded our port in 2006-07, to keep Stryker armored vehicles from enforcing the occupation of Iraq, which secured profits for oil companies. Now, our Port is supplying the same oil companies with equipment to run roughshod over the rights and health of occupied peoples closer to home, and doing so in our name. Like the new “Great Game” in Central Asia to build oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Basin, the “Great Game” in North America is to extract fossil fuels in Alberta, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota, and ship them out to the global market, particularly in Asia.

The Alberta Tar Sands are the Mordor of the energy industry, with vast northern tracts of the province turned into a wasteland, air quality degraded to the level of Beijing, and Cree and Métis communities contaminated with toxic chemicals in their water. The oil is reaching the Asian market via the Kinder-Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline to Burnaby, near Vancouver, B.C. The pipeline has ruptured at times, affecting First Nations along the route. A proposal for a second pipeline along the existing route would double oil tanker traffic in the narrow interisland straits of the Salish Sea. The proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan TMX Northern Leg pipelines across northern B.C. would transect the territories of several First Nations, most of which are determined to prevent their construction. (The planned pipeline terminus at the Port of Kitimat was shaken on October 28 by the 7.7 earthquake that struck the coastal region, strengthening the anti-pipeline argument.)

In the United States, the proposed Keystone XL pipeline across the Great Plains has faced blockades by Lakota tribal members in South Dakota, resistance by Nebraska farmers facing the lowering or contamination of their groundwater, and direct action by activists in Texas who recently blockaded a construction site. On November 5, pipeline opponents also blockaded the Washington DC offices of the pipeline company TransCanada. Opposition has also been growing to the proposed Trailbreaker pipeline, which would ship Alberta oil via the Great Lakes region to Portland, Maine. Oil companies are also engaged in a “heavy haul” of gargantuan mining equipment from Pacific Northwest ports to northern Alberta. Objections by the Nez Perce Tribe and other Idaho residents forced the cancellation of a proposed Heavy Haul along windy river roads through Lolo Pass. Instead, the “megaloads” would be off-loaded from barges–at Vancouver, Wash., Pasco, and Lewiston–and shipped by truck via Spokane to Alberta.

The Powder River Coal Basin in Wyoming and Montana, has been a fossil fuel frontier since the 1970s. Stripmining machines the size of a 20-story building ravage the landscape, removing the “overburden” topsoil and leaving behind a sterile “hardpan” surface where nothing can grow. In oil boom towns (such as Gillette, Wyoming), trailer parks have colonized the hillsides, as the local community extends its public services for the influx of miners. As soon as the inevitable “bust” occurs, a boom town is left only with bills to pay and a hole in the ground. This “boom-and-bust” cycle is the hallmark of extractive industries, due to limited resources and fluctuating commodity prices.

Although the expansion of oil and coal is sold to the North American public as a way to gain “energy independence” from the Middle East, in fact the industry is turning toward exports to growing Asian economies as the key to future profits. Industry propaganda about the benefits of “clean coal” is irrelevant, since China does not even pretend to limit emissions, which are laden with mercury and greenhouse gasses. Only one West Coast port, in Tsawwassen, B.C., currently has a coal-export terminal. The energy industry is now proposing to ship Powder River Basin coal to Asia through ports in Oregon (St. Helens and Coos Bay) and Washington (Longview and Cherry Point).

Environmentalists, farmers and ranchers fear the coal dust from the trains (up to a ton of dust from each of 150 rail cars) would endanger waterways along the routes—including Thurston County—and the health of local people and livestock. The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission has opposed the planned shipment of coal barges and trains along the river. At least 32 towns and cities have passed resolutions against the plans, and thousands of people are attending scoping hearings on the projects, or plan to attend upcoming hearings at Vancouver’s Clark College (Dec. 12) and Seattle’s State Convention Center (Dec. 13).

The Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) project at Cherry Point, near Bellingham, is proposed by SSA Marine of Seattle. It would be the largest coal terminal on the West Coast, exporting 48 million metric tons a year. But Cherry Point (Xwe’chi’eXen) is on land taken from the Lummi Nation by White House executive order in the 1870s, and is the site of a 3,500-year-old village and its sacred burial ground. The rail trestle would be built 300 feet out into a historic reef-net fishing area, where ancient anchors have been found, according to Tribal Council member Jeremiah Julius (who spoke in Olympia on October 20). The area is used for tribal salmon fishing, and is one of the few herring spawning grounds left in the Northwest.

Because the Point Elliot Treaty of 1855 guarantees tribal access to fish in their “usual and accustomed grounds,” the Lummi can demand that federal agencies and courts fulfill their trust responsibility to defend tribal interests. On September 21, Lummi representatives symbolically burned a $1million check, to make the statement that no amount of money will convince them to back the project. Lummi Nation Chairman Cliff Cultee said, “It is our promise and our duty to our ancestors, our elders, and our future to protect and preserve Cherry Point.” Hereditary Chief Bill James added, “This is the home of the ancient ancestors and it’s up to us today to protect Mother Earth.”

The Bakken shale formation in North Dakota is a growing fossil fuel frontier zone, around the new oil/gas boom town of Williston. The Port of Olympia is now involved in a “Heavy Haul” of extraction supplies to northwestern North Dakota. On October 28, The Olympian documented how the Port is shipping supplies for use in hydraulic fracturing of the bedrock, or “fracking,” to release oil and natural gas. The process has been criticized for contaminated groundwater supplies with oil, releasing chemical-laden wastewaters, and even causing local earthquakes. The region had previously gone through boom-and-bust cycles, but the new technology enables the industry to blast open previously unreachable deposits.

The supplies that have arrived at the Port of Olympia are 1.5-ton “super sacks” of proppants, which consist of a sand-alumina mixture coated with ceramics. The proppants literally prop up the weight of the earth so that underground oil and gas can be released in the fracking process. The Port has a two-year contract with Houston-based Rainbow Ceramics to ship the proppants from China. Three ships have made deliveries this year (including the Star Dieppe, which delivered 6,500 metric tons worth in October), and three more are expected this year. The Port, which employs 40 workers, stands to make $1.5 million in annual revenue from the proppant cargo. Port business development director Jim Knight said, “We are participating in increasing our energy independence and jobs. I couldn’t be prouder.”

Once the rail cars are loaded with proppants, “they roll out of Olympia, typically during the late afternoon or evening, and head to East Olympia before connecting with BNSF railway lines in DuPont,” said Tacoma Rail marketing and resource planning manager Mike Klass. The enclosed rail cars take 7-10 days to travel (via the Columbia Gorge, Wenatchee, or Yakima) to Spokane and on to North Dakota. Up to 7,000 wells have been drilled in the Williston area (at an annual rate of up to 1,300), and the state has a capacity for 63,000 more. About 400 oil and gas service companies, including Halliburton, operate in the Bakken Formation.

This area of North Dakota is the homeland of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people, the Three Affiliated Tribes that now live on the Fort Berthold Reservation. Tribal member Kandi Mossett explains that her people are “already experiencing disproportionate environmental fallout from oil development” and from the burning of lignite coal in seven power plants that surround their lands. When she was a 20-year-old college student 13 years ago, Mossett discovered a pea-sized sarcoma tumor on her torso, which grew to the size of a walnut within six days, and had to be removed with five surgeries. The cause of her cancer was unknown, but she had also known three fellow high school students and two other tribal members who had developed brain cancer. She is convinced that the oil wells and refinery near the reservation are to blame.

Mossett’s experience led her to become the campus coordinator with the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and its energy justice program. She has spoken at protests and United Nations conferences around the world, and gave moving testimony to Congress on fracking and climate change in her community. She notes that “Several community members, including myself, are tired of being sick and are tired of seeing everyone, even babies, dying from unprecedented rates of cancer. We are taking a stand and fighting back, not only for our own lives but for the lives of those who cannot speak for themselves, and we will not stop fighting until we have a reached a true level of environmental and climate justice in our Indigenous lands.”

Local, national, and global responses

The Environmental Protection Agency has been examining the impacts of fracking, and may release a draft report by 2014. But the presidential debates—in which both candidates competed in their praise of fossil fuels, and failed to even mention climate change—should give us few illusions for a federal solution. Like the communities opposing coal trains and tar sands pipelines, we in Olympia now have a way to think globally, but act locally, to help roll back climate change by stopping the shipments of fracking supplies.

Geographic strategies to stop equipment from reaching the oil fields, or to block fossil fuels from being shipped via rail or pipeline, can be effective if they are coordinated continent-wide. The goal is to make the expansion of energy projects more costly and risky, and ultimately to downsize them. But the energy companies can also play a geographical “shell game” to shift burdens around the landscape, and pit communities against each other. In the Olympia area, attention on the coal trains threat declined when Aberdeen was dropped as a possible terminal port. In the Midwest, pipeline companies have tried to buy off some farmers by moving the planned Keystone XL route away from their lands—but those farmers have not given up the fight, and continue to work with others who are still directly affected. The key to any successful environmental strategy is to turn it from Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) struggle to a Not In Anybody’s Back Yard (NIABY) struggle.

Ultimately, thousands of local climate justice campaigns have to combine to make a global impact, and keep the fossil fuels in the ground. At the very least, the climate justice movement can help to prevent the rapid expansion of the energy industry. As climate change melts the Arctic, softening the permafrost and opening new passages through the sea ice, energy companies ironically see new opportunities to extract the region’s fossil fuels and generate even more greenhouse gasses. The climate justice movement has to keep the energy company “pushers” from dealing these new supplies to the energy “addicts” of fossil fuel-consuming industries.

The South American country of Ecuador has touched on a possible solution, by demanding that the West pay it to not extract oil from the Amazon Basin rainforest.

It raised enough funds to temporarily halt oil companies from exploiting 900 million barrels of crude oil from one of the world’s most biodiverse land, Yasuní National Park. Ecuador is looking toward the international Green Climate Fund as a source of funds for its plan to trade oil for forests. Perhaps one day North Dakota could demand that it be paid not to drill for oil, which would in the long run save even more funds from being spent on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The only way to actually slow fossil fuel extraction is for our economy to convert to clean, renewable energies, and draw us all away from addiction to coal, oil, and natural gas. But we have to start in our own local community in this global campaign to keep fossil fuels in the ground. In Olympia, we can demand that our Port Commission ship in more wind-turbine blades, rather than fossil fuel equipment that will hasten climate change and rising seas–which, ironically, threaten to inundate the Port itself.

Port Fracking Resistance, anyone?

Zoltán Grossman is a member of the faculty in Geography and Native Studies at The Evergreen State College, currently co-teaching “Making Effective Change: Social Movement Organizing and Activism.” He is co-editor of Asserting Native Resilience: Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crisis (Oregon State University Press, 2012).

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