hungering for climate justice

September 12, 2015

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Fasters in front of FERC say they are tired but steady and strong.

All along, fasters with Beyond Extreme Energy have had two questions: How will this feel, and how will I pass the time? Of course, that’s in addition to the broader concern about how to ensure their actions help bring change.

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Faster Jane Kendall takes her message to FERC.

From the day after Labor Day until Sept. 25 — 18 days — a dozen people are on a water-only fast on the sidewalk in front of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, on First Street NE in Washington, just down the street from Union Station. Some have stayed overnight on the sidewalk as well, although most head for Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ to sleep.

Other people are fasting for a shorter time, at FERC or in their communities. They are calling on FERC to stop issuing permits for pipelines, compressor stations, storage and export facilities, the machinery of a fracked-gas-powered economy. They want to end the revolving door for employees between FERC and the industry it regulates. They have the support of more than 80 health professionals who have signed an open letter to FERC asking it to stop its “unethical experiment” on communities. They are fasting to show their “unwavering commitment,” as one faster’s sign says, to people and places in the way of fracking. And to a climate overheated by our insatiable appetites that require ever more fossil fuels to be extracted and burned.

The fast ends Sept. 25, the day Pope Francis speaks at the United Nations and the day after his address to Congress, when he is expected to call for climate, economic and environmental justice, topics from his encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.  Because the “earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” — as the pope phrased it.

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A film crew interviews faster Mackenzie McDonald Wilkins.

Beyond Extreme Energy activists have been at FERC before, blocking its entrances in nonviolent disobedience actions or speaking out at its meetings. They are always hauled out, sometimes to jail. They and affected residents have written letters, testified, lobbied. So far, FERC has not slowed the pace of permits. It has called BXE activists a “situation,” which it has handled with new rules intended to silence dissent and isolate FERC commissioners. FERC members are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate but have no oversight other than the courts.

As the days pass, the fasters, ages 19 to 72, remain optimistic, sometimes tired, sometimes lightheaded and dizzy, particularly if they forget to get up slowly. Many say they feel weaker. Food comes only in dreams. One dreamed of a trolley of teacakes rolling by, another of eating a cookie in front of the others. One said he dreamed he had eaten a sandwich and woke up feeling shame and fearing the dream was real. One evening, Steve Norris, a retired history professor and, at 72, the oldest faster, took his son to dinner: “It was very interesting, because I was not tempted by the food. … It’s not that food doesn’t appeal to me. It does a lot. But there’s something about this mysterious journey being more important now than anything else.”

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Clarke Herbert explains the fast to seniors in town for Elders Climate Action events, including lobbying and two flash mobs.

Faster Clarke Herbert, a former teacher, says one key benefit is that those fasting are getting outside their routine. “And that is what we are asking others to do” to solve our environmental and climate crisis. “We will have to move into a new world, to change from compulsive consumption. That makes fasting really beautiful,” he said.

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Steve Norris rides the bicycle generator.

In an email on Day 5, Norris of Asheville, NC, wrote that “the experience so far is one of both joy and sorrow: There is the great exuberation and learning that comes from working and fasting daily alongside people with rock-solid determination to challenge climate change and its attendant economic, social and racial injustices. And the exhilaration each time I see a stranger’s eyes light up and they say something like: ‘thank you for being so bold. Please keep it up.’ Then too there is the sadness of dealing daily with the reality that millions of people (the victims of Hurricane Katrina and emigrants from Syria, for example) are already dealing with the impacts of climate change, and that nothing in the short term is going to stop their uprooting and pain, and that ultimately my own grandchildren and great-grandchildren may be similarly impacted.”

Faster Lee Stewart posted on Facebook Saturday: “Today is day 5 of the 18 day water-only hunger strike at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) — an agency that fuels community destruction and climate pollution. My energy and spirits ebb and flow. Sadness, joy. Fogginess, clarity. Breathlessness, stability. Can hardly walk, ready to stand strong. Much love to those who stand up to FERC all over the country. Much love to those who act for justice in the face of bleakness.”

Among the youngest fasters, at 23, Sean Glenn says she is feeling mostly “sleepy and grateful to be doing this with such amazing support.” After the fast, she heads to Rome, where she will join a 500-mile pilgrimage with former Filipino diplomat Yeb Saño, among others, to the Paris climate talks.

With no need to shop, cook or wash dishes or be much of anywhere but FERC, how do fasters fill the time?

  • They offer a glossy card with information about the fast to passersby, often FERC employees. Some accept it, others walk by stony-faced. A few offer words of support. On Day 1, someone driving into the FERC parking lot accepted a flier and said FERC employees had been instructed not to talk to the fasters.

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    Charlie Strickler passes out information about the fast to passersby at FERC.

  • They take a turn on the bicycle generator, which is used to power phones and laptops during the day. No passersby have taken them up on offers to try out the bike.
  • They put dots on a United States map to show the locations of communities fighting fossil-fuel projects.
  • They use fabric paints or markers to design fast T-shirts.

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    Charles Chandler, aka boxturtle, worked for days on his T-shirt.

  • They design and will be making quilt squares showing the harm to communities from FERC-approved projects. During the summer, faster Jimmy Betts traveled across the country with the United States of Fracking banner, which was made for an earlier BXE action at FERC. He talked to people fighting fracking and other fossil-fueled projects and now is connecting them with the fasters. Each faster will call one or more of the contacts and design a quilt square based on the conversation. BXE is also spreading the directions for the quilt squares through social media.
  • They read. Some read Pope Francis’ encyclical, which was part of the inspiration and timing for the fast. Or newspapers. Or Rivera Sun’s new novel, The Billionaire Buddha, a story of love, connection, healing and awakening. “Imagine that one generation could change the course of all the generations of humanity yet to come. Imagine that the human story does not end in the chapter of today,” Rivera writes in the novel. The fasters can imagine that. Day 1 of the fast happened to coincide with International Literacy Day, which was celebrated with a read-in.

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    International Literacy Day did not go uncelebrated in front of FERC.

  • They get interviewed by alternative media. CNN, just steps from FERC, hasn’t even poked its head out the door to ask what’s going on.
  • Every few days, one of two nurse volunteers checks their blood pressure and pulse.

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    Thomas Parker, who is 19 and the youngest faster, gets his blood pressure checked.

  • They know the sun’s cycle, which beats down on the sidewalk in front of FERC from about 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., before slipping behind the building. During the first three days, the fierce sun and humidity had them crossing the street to the shade for meetings and respite. In the sun, they mostly sit on camping or beach chairs under rain umbrellas. They apply sunblock.
  • One day, some fasters joined Elders Climate Action for a flash mob at Union Station and in the cafeteria of the Longworth House Office Building. In the evenings, some attend #BlackLivesMatter and environmental justice meetings in DC, because all these struggles are intertwined in a system built on inequality and sacrificed communities.
  • On Day 1, Doug Hendren, the Musical Scalpel, entertained the group with his guitar-playing and anti-fracking and social justice songs — “The Ballad of Pope Francis” and “Fracking’s Just a Bad Dream,” for starters.

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    Faster Charlie Strickler holds song lyrics for musician Doug Hendren, a retired orthopedic surgeon.

  • They hold morning and afternoon meetings to check in with each other and plan activities, including the Sept. 25 action to end the fast. That day, starting at noon, the program will include music, speakers, a procession and an attempt to deliver five copies of the pope’s encyclical to the FERC commissioners. BXE is inviting passersby who have seen the fasters daily, as well as people who have rallied in DC during the pope’s remarks to Congress the day before, to join in the ceremony to break the fast and deliver the encyclical.
  • They nap.
  • And they fill and refill and refill again their water bottles from jugs of spring water that faster Debbie Wagner brings from her home. Periodically, they add a bit of salt or potassium. And they hunger for climate justice.

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    Faster Sean Glenn seeks shade across from the FERC office.

by elisabeth hoffman

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the fracking rebellion

November 13, 2014

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Penni Laine, Maggie Henry, and Alex Lotorto from Pennsylvania help block FERC entrances to protest the agency’s approval of infrastructure for fracked gas. //photo by Wendy Lynne Lee

In Western Maryland last week, the Marcellus Shale advisory commission and state officials scrambled to finish reviewing three years of studies on whether to proceed with fracking in Maryland.

The election the night before, though, shifted the landscape utterly. The few commissioners who have consistently raised concerns about fracking in Maryland recognized that whatever safeguards were in the works, insufficient though they might be, could be dismissed by the newly elected governor, Republican Larry Hogan. What the science was starting to show about the health, economic and environmental hazards for the many could be ignored for quick profit for a few.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the state and in Washington, DC, a week of peaceful and bold protests was under way, showing what people will resort to when their fears are ignored, their lives disrupted, their communities shattered, and their remaining choices few.

As part of a week of actions called Beyond Extreme Energy (BXE), determined protesters headed for Cove Point and briefly took over a dirt hill where Dominion is building a pier for a fracked-gas export facility. Another protester locked herself to Dominion equipment at a predawn sit-in. In Washington, BXE activists blocked entrances at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the mostly invisible and always intractable agency that rubberstamps pipelines, compressor stations and export facilities and is therefore the chief patron of the fracked-gas industry. The industry — and industry-bought politicians — have promoted fracked gas as clean energy and a solution to climate change when science and experience shows it is neither.

In all, about 80 people were arrested over five days in Washington and Cove Point. Some protesters had just finished walking across the country as part of the Great March for Climate Action. In addition, 15 people were arrested blocking a FERC-approved gas storage facility in salt caverns on Seneca Lake, NY.

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Protesters used huge portraits of harmed families and a miniature town to block the front entrance to FERC’s offices.//photo by Erik R. McGregor

On Monday, protesters blocked the main entrance with giant photographs of Rachel Heinhorst and her family, who live across the street from Dominion’s Cove Point front gate, and the Baum family, who live near a giant compressor station for fracked gas in Minisink, NY. In front of the portraits was a small town of shops and homes, schools and parks. Homeland Security officers guarding FERC offices eventually pulled apart this little village, much as FERC destroys communities with its rulings.

On Friday, the final day of the protests, residents of the Pennsylvania shalefields told tearful yet angry stories to FERC staff who were blocked from their offices and who had gathered on the sidewalk to watch police cut out five activists linked by lockboxes. “You have no right to poison people,” said 61-year-old Maggie Henry, who was labeled an ecoterrorist in an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force report. Her family’s 88-acre organic farm, mentioned in a 2009 New York Times article, is surrounded by the fracking industry. A mile away is a cryogenics plant; 4,100 feet away is a frack pad; a fracked-gas pipeline skirts the land, a gas-fired power plant is being built a few miles away. Four homes three miles away have replacement water tanks: “Water buffaloes dot the Pennsylvania landscape like lawn ornaments,” she said. An earthquake in March from nearby fracking damaged her home’s foundation and cracked the drywall. That farmhouse, which has been in her husband’s family for 100 years, sits empty and she is searching for land elsewhere. “I don’t have the nerve to tell people [the food] is organic,” she said, because of the nearby emissions of carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine-disrupters such as toluene, ethylene, butylethylene.

Penni Laine of Summit Township told a similar story: Her tap water can ignite, and she has an air monitor in her house. On a good day, she said, her daughter can say, “Yay, Mom, the air is ‘unhealthy’ today. It’s not ‘hazardous.’ ”

“We are living now in a war zone,” said Wendy Lynne Lee, a philosophy professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania who writes the impatient and scathing blog, The Wrench, about the fracking industry’s devastating occupation of her state. Trooper Mike Hutson with the Pennsylvania State Police/FBI Joint Ecoterrorism Task Force once showed up uninvited at her door. “FERC does not listen. FERC does not care. FERC needs to be disbanded. FERC needs to be dissolved,” she told the FERC crowd. “FERC exists to broker permits [for Chevron, Anadarko, Exco, Williams Partners and others]. FERC does not do anything but the bidding of big industry.”

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Protesters hold a photo of an empty swing with three frack towers nearby. //photo by Penn Johnson @ Spencerhjohnson.com

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A protester holds up a poster with the abbreviated list of demands for FERC.//by John Abbe

A giant poster at the FERC action shows an empty swing with three frack towers rising in the background. Another showed a map of schools and frack sites and asked: “Our children are at risk. Would you send you kids to these schools?”

BXE protesters called on FERC to repeal permits for the Cove Point export plant, the Myersville and Minisink compressor stations, and the Seneca Lake salt-cavern storage facility; to halt future permits for fracked-gas infrastructure; and to consider as a priority the rights of human beings and all life on Earth.

Back at the Eastern Garrett Volunteer fire hall in Finzel, members of the shale advisory commission were reviewing the last three studies, all done by the staff at the state Departments of the Environment (MDE) and Natural Resources: a 241-page risk analysis, a 7-page traffic study and a climate study that barely runs over onto a fourth page.

Notable about the risk study is what it doesn’t cover: risks from downstream infrastructure (such as export plants and gas lines). The risk study doesn’t say one way or the other whether fracking can be done without “unacceptable” risks, the benchmark Gov. Martin O’Malley set in the executive order that put the commission and studies in motion. And the study says more monitoring and modeling would be needed to understand the cumulative and synergistic effects of fracking on air quality in Garrett County and the rest of the state. The overall probability of air emissions is high, the report says, while the “consequences cannot be determined at this time” because of a lot of unknowns. (Appendix B, p. 44) (Comments on the risk study, due Nov. 17, should be sent to marcellus.advisory@maryland.gov with the words “Risk Assessment” in the subject line.)

The greatest risks to humans, the report concludes, would be from truck traffic and accidents, noise, and methane migration to water wells. The last of those perils, the report says, could be reduced to a low risk if fracking operations are at least 1 kilometer (3,280 feet) from drinking water sources. (The state’s best practices propose a 2,000-foot setback from drinking water sources, with reductions allowed under some circumstances.) The greatest threats to the environment are from fragmenting forests and farms, and “subsurface releases or migration” — underground leaks — of frack fluid and frack waste. All the risk levels assigned assume that the state’s best management practices will be in place and enforced.

“We don’t know what the level of enforcement is going to be, we don’t know how many staff are going to be hired,” said Matthew Rowe, the MDE deputy director of the Science Services Administration who led the study.

“There’s no way you can verify and enforce some of these [best practices],” Commissioner Ann Bristow said, “but you use them to reduce the risk.” She called this one of the Catch-22s of the study.

The other, she said, is that the study ranks risks as lower only because few people in any one location would be affected. “You are studying risk analysis in an area that you know is sparsely populated and now you are using sparse population as a reason not to assess risk as severe.”

She held up a paper titled “LOCALIZED, AND DISENFRANCHISED: Who Endures Fracking Risks?” that lists numerous occasions when the study reduced the risk from high to moderate or moderate to low because the risks were “localized.” She had worked on the paper with Nadine Grabania, who co-owns a winery and farm outside Friendsville with her husband, Paul Roberts, the citizen representative on the shale advisory panel. For example: “The consequence of the release of drilling fluid is classified as moderate because, although it could cause considerable adverse impact on people or the environment, the damage would be localized.” (Appendix, p. 15)

“What I hear you saying is that because it’s occurring to a very small number of people, the risk isn’t that great,” Roberts said.

“We are talking about human beings who are living close to these facilities … where there is going to be considerable adverse effect,” Bristow said. Then ensued a brief discussion about how many people harmed is too many. Three? 500? Bristow said they would be “sacrificed.” Commissioner Harry Weiss objected, but Bristow said, “I am going to use some superlative language here” when so much is a stake.

Also troubling was that the risk study labeled many threats as “moderate,” which at first glance sounds downright reasonable and benign. All things in moderation, as they say. But, Bristow and Roberts said, the study defines moderate as: “Considerable adverse impact on people or the environment. Could affect the health of persons in the immediate vicinity; localized or temporary environmental damage.” Suddenly, moderate is sounding rather grim. And keep in mind that all but four counties in Maryland lie on top of shale basins.

Commissioner George Edwards, re-elected state senator in the Republican rout of the night before, was getting impatient. Worried about trucking? A distribution center brings traffic, too, but no one would ask for a risk study on that, he said. Forest fragmentation? Wildlife and hunters like it, he said. You can’t get 100 percent guarantee on anything, he also said. And, mocking Trout Unlimited’s push for a ban on fracking in the Savage River watershed, Edwards said, “Maybe we need to do a study on the fishermen to see if they might get hurt if they slip on a rock.” One of the commissioners, Nick Weber, who had long pushed for the risk study, is a past chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Council of Trout Unlimited.

“You are going to see a big change in Annapolis this year,” Edwards said. “We had an election. … People went and voted, and they elected people that publicly said they supported drilling but they want it done right.” He also mentioned that he had not read the risk analysis.

And on Friday, the day Pennsylvanians told their stories of despair outside FERC’s offices, the day protesters were shouting “The people are rising. No more compromising,” and signs said “Protect Our Children. Stop Drilling Near Our Schools,” and “Climate Can’t Wait,” The Cumberland Times-News published reactions from Edwards and Del. Wendell Beitzel about the election. Beitzel called the election a “game-changer.” The commission’s onerous proposals would squash drilling in Maryland, he said, and he hoped the new administration would moderate regulations, “more like what other states have done.”

Indeed, during the campaign, Hogan accused the state of “studying [fracking] to death.” As an “all-of-the-above kind of guy” on energy, Hogan called natural gas a “clean energy” and fracking “critical to our state economy.”

Protests continued Monday at Cove Point, where Lusby resident Leslie Garcia was arrested while trying to deliver an eviction notice to Dominion. About 50 residents and other supporters picketed at the entrance of the construction site. “I have nothing to lose by protesting, because I have everything to lose if this project continues,” Garcia said.

–elisabeth hoffman

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FERC: Face families you hurt.//photo by Erik R. McGregor