In two weeks I will be covering the massive protest and civil disobedience action being called Break Free from fossil fuel. Break Free is a global wave of mass actions targeting the world’s most dangerous fossil fuel projects, in order to keep coal, oil and gas in the ground and accelerate the just transition to 100% renewable energy.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, the Shell and Tesoro refineries at March Point near Anacortes, WA are the largest source of carbon pollution in the Northwest and refine 47% of all the gas and diesel consumed in the region.
The plan is to blockade all entrances to March Point by land and water with hundreds of folks doing nonviolent sit-ins, blockades, and kayaktivism, with some willing to risk arrest.
I will be covering this event on assignment for Issue Magazine because these protests against the status quo system usually receive very little media coverage.
In fact a recent report by Media Matters found that even during critical periods following news that 2015 had been the hottest year on record CNN spent nearly five times as much time airing fossil fuel industry advertisements than it did airing coverage of climate change. The network spent 23.5 minutes on ads from the American Petroleum Institute, compared to five minutes spent on news coverage on climate change. Just imagine the ration with more conservative news outlets like FOX?
This has the potential to be the largest protest action for moving beyond fossil fuels in history. I look forward to taking part and helping to tell this story.
Any of you interested in participating can find information here. If you are interested in participating in the Pacific Northwest action specifically find information here.
And please stay tuned for my Issue Magazine article in June.
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Note: This article was first published in Issue Magazine, April 2016
Do you think that humans are more important than bugs? Before you scoff consider that we are at risk of losing flowers, fruit trees and much of the global food supply because we are wiping out bugs. We are losing our pollinators. Bees, butterflies, bats and numerous pollinating bird species are all in decline in the U.S. and globally.
According to an important study by the United Nations, 2 out of 5 species of invertebrate pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, are headed toward extinction. Of vertebrate pollinators, such as hummingbirds and bats, 1 in 6 species are facing extinction.
This is no trivial matter. It has enormous environmental, economic and food security implications. There are approximately 20,000 species of pollinators on the planet and they are key to hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of crops each year — from fruits and vegetables to coffee and chocolate.
There are many reasons for these declines although not all are well known. At the top of the list is pesticide use, including the sprays and various poisons people use in our backyards. Another factor is that industrialized agriculture has switched to growing huge monoculture crops that have eradicated plant diversity and wild flowers that pollinators use as food. Paving over paradise has led to massive destruction in habitat in urban settings. Finally, global warming appears to be adding to the pressures by reducing habitat, especially for some species of native bees.
Both the cultivated European honeybee and indigenous native pollinators are struggling. The latter is particularly serious. While honeybees aid in pollination the native species are much more effective. Scientists studied pollination in dozens of crops in every populated continent and found wild pollinators were twice as effective as honeybees in producing seeds and fruit on crops such as coffee, onions, almonds, tomatoes and strawberries.
In 2013 one of the biggest recorded single event bee die-offs took place in Wilsonville Oregon. A landscaping company had sprayed a neonicotinoid pesticide on linden trees in a Target Store parking lot. The trees were in bloom, which attracted bees. At least 25,000 mostly native bumblebees died as a result. In an attempt to reduce further bee kills, workers wrapped protective netting around 55 trees. Visiting the site was disturbing. Looking at the plastic-covered, chemical-soaked trees poking out of an asphalt parking lot left me with a deep sadness and sense of bearing witness to apocalypse.
Although native pollinators may be more efficient, cultivated honeybee hives are critical to large-scale food production and aid with native pollination. And honeybees are facing serious challenges of their own. A variety of factors including an invasive varroa mite are hammering honeybee populations. According to the USDA, just over 40% of commercial honeybee colonies collapsed in the 2015 survey, which was down slightly from the 45% loss of two years earlier!
Growing awareness of the demise of our pollinators has led to a growing movement of hobby and urban beekeeping. In 2012 I joined the buzz, when I had honeybee hives installed at the Oregon Governor’s residence known as Mahonia Hall. The Willamette Valley Bee Keepers Association approached me with the idea and took care of the basic maintenance. I, with the help of my First Lady assistant, created a “brand” called Mahonia Gold, Political Pollen. It was delicious and a highly sought after little gift.
Shortly after that I installed a hive at my personal home in Bend, Oregon. It was something of a neighborhood affair since my good friends, Jason and Marla Jo Hardy, also got a hive. As with so many things in my life, they have been incredibly helpful me care for the new addition. We were immediately hooked. I put a little stool next to the hive and also had a little Plexiglas window installed so that I could peek into the hive’s inner workings. Throughout the summer I watched them do their work in my yard and my flowers, veggies, raspberries and strawberries thrived.
But sadly, like so many others, my first colony didn’t make it through the winter and one of the Hardy’s colonies failed as well. It was like losing a beloved pet and disturbing in its ramifications. We started over.
Just about a month ago, here in Bend, we had a bout of relatively warm weather and I checked our neighborhood hives to find the bees alive and abuzz. They made it through the winter. When I posted this happy news on Facebook many of my fellow bee enthusiasts reported that their hives had not survived.
I recently attended a “Bee Academy” in Tumalo Oregon to learn how to best care for my colony of pollinators. For anyone interested in keeping bees and supporting pollinators (and getting some delicious honey in the process) there are many resources to help get started. For a general starting point to find resources in your area check out the Pollinator Resource Center at Xerces Society (http://www.xerces.org/pollinator-resource-center/).
And for general rules of thumb for protecting pollinators and therefore our food supply think about the following:
Avoid using pesticides in your own yards and gardens. There are many safe, healthier alternatives.
Fill your gardens with plants that attract and nourish bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
Support local and state bans on neonicotinoid pesticides that are particularly destructive to pollinator species.
Buy organic food whenever you can and demand it more, and more affordably, when you can’t find it.
Pollination is needed for approximately three-quarters of global food crops. It’s really insects, not humans, who have the ability to protect global food security. The next time you think about swatting that buzzing insect think about how important she might be.
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Note: this article was first published in Issue Magazine, March 2016
On July 24, 2014 at 2am a train carrying 100 cars of highly explosive crude oil went off the tracks under the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle. Each tanker car held 28,000 gallons of oil. Fortunately the train was moving very slowly and none of the oil spilled or exploded.
All of this took place within a mile of where Abby Brockway’s daughter goes to school. For Brockway, that was a defining moment, “After that day, I realized that I couldn’t wait any longer – I needed to take action.”
Two months later Brockway and four others — Michael LaPointe, Patrick Mazza, Jackie Minchew, Elizabeth Spoerri — erected an 18 foot tall metal tripod over Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway tracks at the Delta Rail Yard in Everett, Washington in protest of oil trains and inaction on climate change. Petite Brockway climbed to the very top of the tall structure and the other four locked themselves to the foot of the poles. Eight hours later, with the help of a fire department ladder truck and the jaws-of-life, they were arrested and charged with criminal trespass and blocking a train. They were dubbed the Delta 5.
In January, I travelled to a small courthouse tucked between strip malls north of Seattle to attend the Delta 5 trial. For four days the typically quiet courtroom was overflowing with observers, supporters, reporters and television cameras. It was so packed that many times many of us had to sit on the floor. From the beginning I sensed I was witnessing something historic.
This was to be the first time the necessity defense was argued in a U.S. climate or fossil fuel-connected civil disobedience trial, and only the second climate necessity trial in the world. The necessity defense makes the case that any crimes committed were necessary to avert greater harms from climate change and fossil fuel pollution. After hearing the entire necessity defense arguments, Judge Anthony Howard determined that the defendants had met most but not all of the requirements to have the jury consider it and instructed jurors to make their decision based solely on the legal definitions of criminal trespassing and intentionally blocking a train.
The jury eventually delivered a surprising decision, finding the defendants guilty of second degree criminal trespass but not of intentionally obstructing a train. Ironically, the railroad said that the specific train the Delta 5 had blocked was not scheduled to leave until later that night.
The final two hours of the trial delivered extraordinary moments. One took place during a break after the jury had delivered their decision. The Delta 5 and their legal team were huddling in a narrow hallway outside the courtroom. Three of the jurors joined the group. As reporters and photographers crowded around the jurors and defendants addressed one another.
The jurors expressed remorse for ruling guilty on any charge. Sixty-one year old truck driver Joe Lundheim wiped away tears when Abby Brockway said, “I’m actually really pleased with what you delivered to us, because we have options now and there’s more we can do with this, and this was probably the best verdict that could have been returned to us.”
Lundheim went on to say, “That was huge in itself, that you guys were able to bring this matter to a jury trial. … There’s this very narrow window of time when traffic is going to exponentially increase on this toxic product coming through our neighborhoods to make a buck—while a buck is able to be made—before it closes … And I know this because I’ve been listening to this stuff all week long, so thank you for that.”
“We don’t want to be the corridor,” juror Sue McGowan added. The jurors and defendants hugged and then, through a big smile Delta 5 defendant LaPointe said loudly, “May I say welcome to the movement?” The crowd erupted into laughter and applause.
Shortly after Judge Howard delivered extraordinary closing comments:
Frankly the court is convinced that the defendants are far from the problem and are part of the solution to the problem of climate change . . . they are tireless advocates that we need in this society to prevent the kind of catastrophic effects that we see coming and our politicians are ineffectually addressing. People in the courtroom learned much, including the guy in the black robe.
The defendants were sentenced to 90 days jail with credit for one day already served and 89 suspended provided they did not violate a two-year probation period.
There will be more to come. At least three of the Delta 5 defendants have filed an appeal. Their goal is to have the necessity defense considered by a jury.
When I asked Patrick Mazza why he had decided to complicate his life by crossing the line to direct action civil disobedience he said,
My day on the rails was the day before my daughter’s 18th birthday, the last day before she became a full adult. By the time she’s my age it will certainly be hotter, more storm tossed and troubled. She knows it too. A few years back I was sitting on the porch late on a sunny afternoon, she came up and asked, ‘Dad, is there hope for the world?’ That’s the kind of question for which a parent needs a positive answer. When I sat down on the railroad track, I did my best to supply one.
This article was first published in Issue Magazine, March 2016
Ticking time bombs are rumbling through the Pacific Northwest. Nearly overnight the railways of the west have become primary transport routes for trains filled with highly flammable crude oil. Studies report a 5000-percent increase in oil by rail in North America since 2008. With this rapid increase in traffic has come an enormous uptick in derailments, spills and explosions. It is likely a matter of when, not if, one of these trains spews crude into the Deschutes or Columbia Rivers or explodes in someone’s neighborhood.
I first became concerned about oil trains in 2011. As a long-time energy and climate expert and at that time the first lady of Oregon I began researching the logistics and dynamics of oil by rail as well as the options available to states to regulate oil trains. My findings were troubling.
How We Got Here:
The reason for the massive expansion in oil train traffic is due to breakthroughs in drilling technology that make it possible to extract crude and natural gas from shale deposits that were previously inaccessible. Through horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking) highly pressurized fluids are forced deep underground to crack rock and allow trapped gas and oil to be pumped to the surface.
The rapid increase in production outpaced the infrastructure for transporting the crude. Lacking sufficient pipeline capacity to handle the enormous uptick in supply, the oil industry’s default option has been to ship the crude by rail in miles’ long chains of black tanker cars.
Prior to 2008 very few crude oil tank cars passed through the Pacific Northwest. Today, it’s estimated that 25 trains a week travel to refineries in Washington State. Each train consists of approximately 100 cars carrying 700 gallons of oil a piece for a total of 70,000 gallons per train. That’s nearly two million gallons each week, yet only a fraction of what’s being planned.
Until recently the oil coming through the Northwest has been destined for domestic markets. However, in December 2015, the U.S. Congress removed a forty-year ban on exporting oil. This means, the Pacific Northwest, given its proximity to Asia via shipping channels, stands squarely between the most voracious energy markets in the world and huge North American fossil fuel deposits including Powder River Basin coal, Bakken shale oil and the Alberta tar sands.
Oil Train Derailments and Explosions:
The massive expansion of oil by rail has led to numerous crashes and spills. According to records from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration 2014 saw a six-fold increase in “unintentional releases” from railroad tankers compared to the average number of spills between 1975 and 2012. In 2013 the 1.4 million gallons of oil spilled in train incidents was more than the total for all oil by rail spills since record keeping began in 1975. These incidents are especially dangerous because most of the crude coming from fracking is far more volatile and flammable than conventional crude sources.
The most sensational and tragic incident occurred in July 2013 when 47 people were killed in an oil train inferno in Lac Megantic, Quebec. Other spills sparked a fireball in Virginia, contaminated groundwater in Colorado and poured across acres of ground in Montana. Based on railroad industry data, more than 25 million Americans live within a one-mile blast and evacuation zone of a potential oil train fire.
Moving Forward from Here:
Despite the clear risks associated with oil by rail there are currently plans for massive expansion throughout the Northwest.
According to Eric de Place, Policy Director, for Sightline Institute, “There is currently enough built capacity to handle 300,000 to 400,000 barrels of oil per day. What we know is the industry wants to build the capacity to handle over one million barrels of oil per day, which is way more than we can consume in this region.”
There are approximately a dozen proposed fossil fuel export projects in the Northwest. The Tesoro Savage’s Vancouver project with a capacity of 360,000 barrels per day, is the largest proposal of its kind in North America. According to some calculations this facility alone could increase oil train traffic through the region five-fold.
Last year the federal government did take some steps to increase the safety of oil trains. This incudes a scheduled phase out of older tank cars with newer models that have stronger shells, valves and protective shields to withstand a collision or derailment. The new regulations also require that tank cars on long trains be equipped with an advanced braking system to cut the time and distance needed to stop.
The Inconvenient Bigger Picture
Preventing a massive oil spill in the iconic Columbia or Deschutes rivers or ensuring that neighborhoods don’t blow up in raging firestorms are worthy goals in and of themselves. However, even if rail transport of oil becomes safe there is still a terrible threat.
Research using detailed data and well-established economic models, shows that in order to avoid overshooting the 2 degree Celsius rise in Earth’s temperature that would bring cataclysmic consequences we have to keep a lot of the remaining fossil fuel in the ground, unburned.
Research published in the journal Nature builds on these findings by not only explaining how much fossil fuel would need to be left unburned but also showing regional variations. The study reports that meeting the 2C target would require keeping 82% of today’s coal reserves in the ground. In major coal producing nations like the US, Australia and Russia, more than 90% of remaining coal reserves would need to remain underground. For natural gas 50% of global reserves must remain unburned. And, a third of all remaining oil must be left belowground. The study suggests that keeping the necessary reserves of fossil fuels in the ground through the most economically viable scenarios would require leaving Canada’s tar sands oil virtually untouched.
This means the oil and coal trains plowing through the Pacific Northwest are carrying fossil fuels from the very places that most need to remain un-mined to prevent catastrophic levels of global climate change. Infrastructure isn’t a sexy topic but it is one that is crucial to our futures. Just like the baseball stadium in Field of Dreams, if we build it they will come. In this case, they will be more trains carrying more of the fossil fuel that needs to remain in the ground.
The Pacific Northwest, for many good reasons, claims to be a leader in clean energy and climate change action. However that claim is incompatible with allowing our region to become the Gulf Coast of oil train exports. A growing movement is stepping up to this dichotomy.
In British Columbia, Washington and Oregon Native American Tribes, environmental groups, firefighters unions, sports fishers, doctors and public health advocates have all joined the effort to stop the advancement of oil train infrastructure. Sightline Institute has begun calling the region the Thin Green Line. Approximately 20 organizations have formed a coalition called Stand Up to Oil.
There is evidence that this opposition is causing change. Both the Portland and Seattle City Councils recently passed resolutions opposing and restricting oil train transport through the cities. These actions are largely symbolic because, due to interstate commerce laws, cities and even states have little regulatory control over railways. However, the combination of citizen and governmental actions combined with artificially low oil prices is having an effect. Port Westward, the major oil export facility in Oregon has switched back to exporting cleaner ethanol and a facility in Gray’s Harbor Washington has decided to stay with ethanol rather than expanding to crude oil exports.
In the volatile world of fossil fuel extraction, export and addiction the next several years will be a defining era for the Thin Green Line of the Pacific Northwest. This is a time for vigilance and action.
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When you saw the title of this post, I bet your mind filled in the blanks with a word we’re taught not to use in public! But look carefully, there are four (not three) missing letters. The question is what the FRACK?
As a clean energy and climate professional, for many years I kept an open mind that natural gas could be an important, cleaner than coal, bridge fuel, helping us ease into the post-fossil fuel era. I now see it as a disastrous detour away from effectively slowing global climate change.
I believe when all is said and done fracking is going to go down as one of the fossil fuel era’s most destructive technologies. It results in serious groundwater contamination. It has turned Oklahoma, the epicenter of fracking into the epicenter of earthquakes, overtaking California for number of 3.5 or stronger quakes. Fracking activities further north and west are also triggering earthquakes in Alberta and British Columbia, Canada. But beyond the borders of the communities whose water has been poisoned and foundations have been shaken, the most devastating impact of fracked natural gas is methane.
In the movement to understand and address global climate change the emphasis has been on reducing carbon emissions, particularly through reducing coal consumption. This desire to cut carbon combined with the massive uptick in production of natural gas due to fracking, many coal plants have been converted to natural gas and indeed carbon emissions have begun to fall. However, new data shows that the new natural gas infrastructure has been leaking methane into the atmosphere at record levels. Between 2002 and 2014, the data showed that U.S. methane emissions increased more than 30 percent, accounting for 30 to 60 percent of an enormous spike in methane in the entire planet’s atmosphere.
And here’s the killer — methane is a much, much more potent climate change pollution than carbon, approximately 30 times more potent.
As it turns out natural gas is not a bridge fuel, it’s a bridge to nowhere we want to go.
Investors and taxpayers have spent billions building the new natural gas infrastructure that is now pumping disastrous levels of methane into our atmosphere. It is time to get real and honest and start redirecting those funds into the new renewable energy infrastructure.
I used to find it amusing, now I find it prescient that the Battlestar Gallactica series used “Frack!” as their sanitized version of F_ _ _ k (yes, three missing letters this time). Enough said.
Here is a link to a detailed article about this topic in The Nation.
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