Protesters pick up slack for government inaction on fossil fuels


It’s beginning to look like 2015 will be a banner year for political activism around efforts to block the growth of fossil fuels — both here in the United States and around the world. Indeed, this year we’ve even seen the invention of a new word — “kayaktivists” — to describe the protesters in Seattle who bravely tried to block the movement northward of Shell’s Arctic drilling rig, by paddling their tiny watercraft in the giant rig’s path.

The urgency of these actions is completely understandable. On one hand, the news about climate change in 2015 has been grim; month after month, the planet continues to register the hottest average temperatures ever recorded. But instead of spurring government — here at home or elsewhere — to act, the world’s leaders have reacted to soaring carbon levels in the atmosphere and predictions of almost irreversible climate change with seeming indifference. In fact, fossil fuel production within the U.S. has been at its highest level in decades, and that has led to more pipeline spills, more offshore accidents, more exploding “oil bomb” trains. If elected officials aren’t immediately responsive, citizens are realiizing, the next step is the streets. Or at least a sturdy kayak.

In California, as many environmentalists predicted, the fallout from the oil spill in the Pacific Ocean near Santa Barbara has been worse than oil company officials had first wanted the public to believe. As a result, the kayaktivist movement has moved its way down the Pacific Coast:

Activists in Santa Barbara, California took to the sea this past weekend to “raise awareness and generate action in support of four critical bills currently moving through the State Assembly” to help stop future offshore oil spills. The kayaktivists paddled out five miles and unfurled a 70-foot floating banner that read: #CrudeAwakening.

The groups involved said the Refugio Oil Spill off the coast of Santa Barbara this past May was a “rude awakening” for them. The spill ended up blanketing the shore and coastal waters with 140,000 gallons of crude oil.

“It shut down beaches, greased marine protected areas and killed or injured several hundred birds and marine mammals,” said Patagonia. “The effects continue to linger and likely will for some time. If there’s any upside to this horrible mess, we now have a good opportunity to stop future spills.”

Meanwhile, the Midwest has never been a hotbed of environmental activism. But that is changing quickly, thanks to the flood of proposed pipelines that would carry dirty tar-sands oil from Canada across the American heartland. This week, a group of young activists calling themselves Midwest Unrest traveled to Washington, D.C., and called attention to a tar-sands pipeline project that may pose even greater risk than the much discussed Keystone XL project:

On Tuesday morning, over 100 protesters gathered front of Secretary of State John Kerry’s Georgetown home, urging him to stop a pipeline that would carry thousands of barrels of tar sands from Canada into the United States.

But the pipeline in question wasn’t Keystone XL — it was the Alberta Clipper, an expansion project that would increase the capacity of an Enbridge-owned pipeline from 450,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day to over 800,000. Environmentalists have accused the State Department of allowing Enbridge — the Canadian company responsible for the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, the Kalamazoo River Spill — to push forward with expanding the Alberta Clipper pipeline without undergoing necessary regulatory process, including presidential approval required for all cross-border pipelines.

“This expansion is going to be expanding this pipeline to 880,000 barrels of tar sands a day, whereas the Keystone pipeline is proposed to 830,000 barrels a day,” Kieran Williams, a protester and student at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, told ThinkProgress. “We think it’s absolutely absurd that there has been the environmental review and delay of the Keystone pipeline, but that Enbridge can continue this illegal expansion.”

When it was all over, some 20 of the protesters from Midwest Unrest were arrested. But in a very dramatic way, they also brought attention and raised awareness about this project that has been on the brink of State Department approval, with little public notice. As an environmental lawyer, I’ve had a lot of success over the years using the American justice system to fight for pollution victims. These protesters — many of them young people — don’t think that Mother Earth can even wait that long anymore. I greatly applaud their efforts.

Read more about so-called “kayaktivists” taking to the sea to protest oil spills off Santa Barbara:

Check out ThinkProgress’ report on the protests at Secretary of State John Kerry’s house this week:

Read more about a lifetime of fighting Big Oil in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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