The end of March and the beginning of April saw a toxic mix of unrefined oil and heavy industrial chemicals bleed over lakes, wetlands, residential streets, and front yards in four separate spills across the United States and Canada.
The first major spill occurred on March 26, when a train derailed near Parkers Prairie, Minnesota. The spill released an estimated 20- to 30,000 gallons of highly toxic tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada. A Canadian Pacific Railway spokesperson told Reuters only a single tanker car had ruptured. However, video posted to YouTube by activists showed fourteen tanker cars derailed, several of which appeared to be damaged and at least two of which were wrapped in plastic sheeting.
The most dramatic and well-publicized spill took place just three days later in suburban Mayflower, Arkansas. Exxon’s Pegasus Pipeline sustained a 22-foot gash that leaked 137,000 gallons of noxious dilbit—tar sands bitumen diluted with heavy industrial chemicals like naphtha—across suburban streets, over well-manicured lawns, and into nearby Lake Conway. There have been numerous reports of local police and private security harassing journalists who try to document the spill, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that a Federal Aviation Administration no-fly zone above the spill was under the control of an Exxon employee, not government officials. Over twenty homes had to be evacuated as a result of the spill.
On April 3, another pipeline leaked outside Houston, Texas. Sensors on the West Columbia Pipeline, owned by Royal Dutch Shell, indicated the release of 30,000 gallons of crude oil, but Shell initially denied the leak. Days later, Coast Guard Petty Officer Steven Lehman confirmed to Dow Jones that at least 2,100 gallons of crude oil had leaked into a nearby bayou. “That’s a very early estimate,” Lehman said. “Things can change.”
At the same time, a second train derailment—this one in White River, Ontario, Canada—spilled even more Canadian tar sands oil. Canadian Pacific Railway initially claimed only 168 gallons of oil spilled during the accident, but later revised that estimate up to 16,642 gallons. “The source of the now-discovered release of product from the second car was initially hidden as it was buried under snow,” a Canadian Pacific spokesperson explained to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “The product then migrated a short distance under the snow.”
Micheal Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, summed up the fossil fuel industry’s nightmarish week in words fit for an Onion headline.
“In Ontario, the company said it spilled four barrels when it had actually spilled 400. In Arkansas, Exxon learned about the spill from a homeowner but kept pumping tar sands crude into the neighborhood for 45 minutes, and is bullying reporters who want to tell the public what’s going on. In Texas, a major oil spill came to light that Shell had been denying for days.”
Brune also explained what these spills mean for U.S. public policy. “Transporting toxic crude oil—and tar sands in particular—is inherently dangerous, more so because oil companies care about profit, not public safety. This is why Keystone XL, at nine times the size of the Arkansas Pegasus pipeline, must never be built.”
Indeed, as noxious crude spread out from ruptured pipelines and derailed trains across North America, a powerful and vibrant movement to resist the Keystone XL Pipeline and other forms of fossil fuel extraction spread out with it.
And Massachusetts is one of the centers of that movement. In fact, a network of student groups, nonprofits, and activists have turned Massachusetts’ climate change movement into one of the most vibrant in the country.
One hub in that network turns around 350 Mass, the state branch of Bill McKibben’s group 350.org. The Massachusetts group is one of the largest in the country, alongside 350 Vermont. In fact, they sent almost 700 people to Washington, D.C. in February for 350.org’s Forward on Climate Rally—the largest climate change rally in U.S. history, with around 50,000 people in attendance.
Meanwhile, the fossil fuel divestment movement has taken hold on at least 19 college campuses across the state—including Harvard, UMass Boston, UMass Amherst, and all of the Five Colleges. The student climate group Students for a Just and Stable Future (SJSF) has been working to form a loose-knit network of SJSF chapters, student divestment groups, and individual campus activists focused around climate activism.
As Allie Welton, SJSF’s process leader and a senior at Harvard College, told Spare Change News, “We’re not as concerned about whose name is on what group as we are about building relationships and a strong network.” That is precisely what it takes to sustain any serious social movement.
Holding this all together is the Better Future Project—a small nonprofit based in Cambridge that provides staffing and support for 350 Mass. Craig Altemose, the Better Future Project’s executive director and one of its co-founders, also co-founded SJSF, and the two organizations maintain deep connections. The Better Future Project also has strong ties with local community organizations and faith communities.
I spoke with Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. of the Hip Hop Caucus at last February’s Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C. He was adamant about the climate movement’s need to engage with faith communities in this way.
“I think we need more ministers to, not just preach the Gospel, but to bring a piece to the movement that’s missing, which is a faith component, kind of a deep yearning wisdom that I think the movement needs,” Lennox said. “Sometimes I think the movement can get hit. Like, say the [Keystone XL] Pipeline goes forward. They can get discouraged. But if we have those kind of people in the movement, they can say, ‘Listen, don’t get discouraged. Keep your faith. Hold on. Don’t give up. Keep pushing on toward justice.’”
The Better Future Project, 350 Mass, and SJSF aren’t the only activists in Boston who keep pushing for climate justice. For example, a group of about 20 activists who met at Occupy Boston, including myself, organized truckloads of supplies and volunteers from Boston to New York in support of Occupy Sandy. Boston-area street medic Austin Smith wrote about his experiences with this group for Spare Change News last December, and they have continued their support since, though the pace has slowed considerably.
In November of last year, 350.org founder and author Bill McKibben addressed a packed house at Boston’s Orpheum Theater alongside Canadian journalist and author Naomi Klein as part of 350.org’s Do the Math Tour. When I spoke with Klein afterwards, she was optimistic about the potential of movements like Occupy Sandy to challenge the larger economic and political forces behind climate change.
“The experience of shock, the experience of trauma, is the experience of helplessness,” Klein explained. “The best way to recover from an experience of helplessness is to be empowered, is to be able to help. So, the very way that Occupy Sandy is functioning—the spirit of mutual aid, of empowering people in their own relief—is the basis, the foundation, of that kind of empowerment later on to fight off disaster capitalism, and, if we’re really optimistic, to envision a kind of people’s reconstruction, a way of building back that is even better than it was before.”
Massachusetts has also become a center for the kinds of actions against climate change that empower communities to organize and resist.
Last January, eight young protesters chained and glued themselves together inside the Westborough, Massachusetts offices of TransCanada, the company behind the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline—a $7 billion project to bring oil sands from Canada to U.S. refineries that NASA climate scientist James Hansen has warned would be “game over” for the planet’s climate.
Two months later, 100 local students, activists, and supporters returned to TransCanada’s Westborough office for an event in which I was an active participant. Belting out a moving funeral dirge at the top of their lungs and carrying a fake coffin, they held a mock funeral for their futures—futures that are being killed by climate change. Twenty-five activists were arrested when they handcuffed themselves together and ignored an order to disperse.
And just last month, Rainforest Action Network held a rally at Bank of America’s downtown Boston office during which they delivered a letter signed by 50 investors, economists, faith leaders, academics, and activists asking Bank of America to phase out their investments in coal.
The massive oil spills across the country were a shocking reminder of how much work still needs to be done to pull our society back from the brink of climate crisis. But if the vibrancy and spirit of the climate movement in Massachusetts is any indication, there are still many reasons to keep the faith.
– Joshua Eaton