hungering for climate justice

September 12, 2015


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.

jane kendall at ferc

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.


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.”


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.


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.


    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.

    combo photo

    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.

    readin at ferc

    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.


    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.


    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.


    Faster Sean Glenn seeks shade across from the FERC office.

by elisabeth hoffman

the fracking rebellion

November 13, 2014

wendy lynne lee photo of trio

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.

blockadia by minister erik r mcgregor 2

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.”

swings by penn johnson

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


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 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

ferc face the families

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





Among those blocking the entrances at FERC are, starting at second from left, Mike Bagdes-Canning, Ann Bristow and Gina Angiola.//photo by elisabeth hoffman

Among the 25 arrested for civil disobedience at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in Washington this week was Ann Bristow, a member of Maryland’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission.

Also arrested was Gina Angiola of Olney, a retired doctor on the board of directors of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Another was a retired teacher and borough officer from Pennsylvania, Mike Bagdes-Canning, who last month traveled to Garrett County for the unveiling of the final progress report on Maryland’s health study on fracking. There, he issued a warning to Marylanders not to do what his state has done.

The civil disobedience came a day after Sunday’s spirited rally and march to FERC. The actions also followed a week of lunchtime picketing in front of FERC’s offices at the end of June.

“It is no longer business as usual,” said Steve Norris of North Carolina, who proposed the arrest action as a “punctuation mark” to the rally. He also dreamed up and helped organize the weeklong, 100-mile Walk for Our Grandchildren climate march last summer. “Usual will kill us all. It is time to be unreasonable.” (Of the 25 arrested, 15 had participated in the Walk for Our Grandchildren or in the related arrest action at ERM, the State Department contractor tied to TransCanada that concluded the Keystone XL pipeline was just fine for the climate.)

Steve Norris and Kendall Hale

Steve Norris, as Uncle Sam, and Kendall Hare, as Lady Liberty, block an entrance at FERC. //photo by e. hoffman

The trigger for the protests was FERC’s full-of-holes preliminary approval of the plan by energy giant Dominion to liquefy and export fracked gas from its Cove Point terminal in Lusby. But the protests united groups fighting every stage of shale gas extraction and production: the fracking with secret toxic chemicals, the truck traffic and diesel-fired equipment, the radioactive waste that has no safe disposal, the flaring, the methane that leaks into water wells and disrupts the climate, the forests fractured and the land taken by eminent domain for pipelines, the noise and pollutants from compressor stations, the unthinkable hazards from the export factory. Those protesting came for their children and all children, for grandchildren and future generations, for rivers, mountains and farms, for people trapped by encroaching destruction, for clean water and air, for wolves, turtles and hawks.

wake up, FERC!

Monday morning, as he headed out to be arrested at FERC, Bagdes-Canning got 36 phone messages from people in the shale fields. “They are with us,” he told the others.

“In Cove Point, the people are also counting on you,” said Ted Glick, the national campaign coordinator for Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), who helped organize the action. “And people around the world affected by climate change are counting on you.”

That morning, a few dozen people headed from Union Station to FERC’s offices, chanting “HERE WE COME, FERC” and “WAKE UP, FERC.” The pipelines and compressor stations FERC allows as a “public necessity and convenience” mean communities are gassed and fracked, they said. “As a public necessity and convenience, we are stopping FERC,” another protester from Pennsylvania shouted.

They sang, “No more frackers. We shall not be moved.” And “Stop the rubber-stamping. We shall not be moved.” And “Fighting for our future. We shall not be moved.”

alex and frack map

Alex Lotorto, blocking an entrance at FERC, shows a map of land leased for fracking in Bradford County, PA.//photo by e. hoffman

As he sat in front of FERC’s doors, Alex Lotorto spread out large maps covered with color-coded rectangles signifying drilling companies and land leased for fracking over much of Bradford County in northeast Pennsylvania. Shell, Chesapeake Energy, Talisman Energy, EOG Resources, Chief Oil & Gas, Southwestern Energy.

After a couple hours of constant maneuvering to try to block both entrances as well as driveways adjacent to the building, 25 activists were arrested. They were handcuffed, escorted a few hundred feet to an office for processing, fined $50 and allowed to leave.

Ann Bristow, the commissioner, said she took part in the arrest action because she has become increasingly alarmed about the threats to public health and the environment from fracking and the infrastructure required to produce and transport the gas headed for Cove Point. “I am protesting [the project] because its impact is being assessed without consideration of the negative health effects from the infrastructure that will supply it,” she said. “I am protesting FERC’s rubber-stamping of Cove Point because all aspects of [unconventional gas development] are connected when you consider public health and the health of our environment. I am protesting because I do not have confidence that the [Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or the Department of the Environment (MDE)] will strongly advocate for public health monitoring for toxic air emissions.”

ann hauled away

Ann Bristow, a member of Maryland’s Marcellus shale advisory commission, is escorted from FERC in handcuffs.//photo by e. hoffman

Bristow joined the shale commission late, replacing a resigning member. As a volunteer with the state Department of Natural Resource (DNR) Marcellus Monitoring Coalition, Bristow arrived with a background in monitoring water quality. During the past two years, though, research in states that have allowed fracking is showing that air contamination — from compressor stations and condensate tanks and particularly from “wet gas” — could pose an even greater hazard, she said. Already, she said, the compressor station in Accident in Garrett County is processing and storing Marcellus gas from Pennsylvania; another is being built in Myersville, with a portion of the gas eventually headed for Cove Point. The state should “measure toxic air emissions at existing facilities … and measure air quality at Myersville before and after completion of the compressor station,” she said.

In a few months, based on recommendations from the 15-member advisory commission, MDE and DNR will send a report to the governor with conclusions about whether or how fracking could be done safely in Garrett and Allegany counties. Only four commissioners, including Bristow, have expressed abundant concerns and pressed for caution.

Gina Angiola, the retired physician arrested at FERC, is on the steering committee of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility. If built, Cove Point would endanger thousands who live near the facility and increase fracking across the region, “further feeding our unsustainable fossil fuel addiction,” she said. “A few people will get wealthy, many more will be harmed.

gina in cuffs

Gina Angiola is arrested at FERC.//photo by e. hoffman

“It’s becoming ever more obvious that traditional channels of democratic participation simply aren’t working,” she said, “and we are running out of time. Although policymakers pretend that these issues are very complicated, they really are not. It’s all very simple at this stage. Climate change is happening NOW, people are dying or being displaced by the millions around the globe, regional conflicts are escalating, and the U.S. is failing to act rationally. Our scientists are telling us loudly and clearly that we must leave 75 to 80 percent of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we hope to avoid the most catastrophic climate alterations. Why on earth are we allowing massive new fossil fuel infrastructure projects to move forward? This is insanity.”

“If we would redirect our investments toward efficiency improvements and distributed renewable energy, we could lead a global transformation to an economy that serves everyone. I’m sick and tired of government agencies rubber-stamping bad ideas just to advance corporate profits. Those agencies are there to serve us, the people. If we can remind them of that mission, the Cove Point project will be stopped.”

fighting for existence

The day before the arrest action, nearly 2,000 people rallied at the U.S. Capitol and marched to FERC’s offices with the same message. They carried signs that said: “Don’t frack up our watershed,” “Don’t frack our towns for export profits.” On the stage, a group holding a giant cardboard yellow submarine with a giant rubber stamp sang, “We all know FERC’s a rubber-stamp machine” to the tune of “Yellow Submarine.”

The Rev. Lennox Yearwood looked to the future. We are on the way to stopping coal and the Keystone pipeline, he said, but if we export fracked gas, “then we are defeating our purpose.” He called the climate change battle this generation’s Birmingham and Montgomery. “Sometimes, you don’t see the transition,” he said. But in 2114, he said, “they will look back on this time. They will say, ‘Those are the ones who fought for us to exist.’ ”

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The marchers head for FERC. //photo by Beth Kemler at CCAN.

Biologist, author and fractivist Sandra Steingraber drew inspiration from past victories. Dryden, she said, was one of the first towns in New York to use zoning laws to ban fracking within its borders. “Lots of people warned the citizens of Dryden not to do it, pointing out that a local ban on fracking would only invite ruinous lawsuits by armies of industry lawyers,” she said. “All the citizens of Dryden had was sheer determination, a sense of their own righteousness and a willingness to do whatever it took,” Steingraber said. And on June 30, New York’s highest court ruled in the town’s favor. “Dryden beat Goliath with a slingshot made out of a zoning ordinance and so set a precedent that is now reverberating around the world.”

She said she spent the Fourth of July weekend with members of the Dryden Resource Awareness Council. There, they talked of tomatoes, grandchildren, recipes and arthritic knees and hips, she said. “Did you catch that? The people of Dryden, who brought the world’s largest industry to its knees, have arthritic knees. But they are motivated by love. Love for the place where they live and love for the people who will come after them. They feel a responsibility to protect what they love. Because that’s what love means,” she said.

More inspiration from the past: Forty years ago, residents in Rossville, NY, fought another seemingly long and impossible battle against storing liquefied natural gas (LNG) in tanks in their town. For 13 years, united as Bring Legal Action to Stop the Tanks (BLAST), Rossville residents “ignored the counsel of those who said that it couldn’t be done. That the tanks were already built. That of course they would be filled with LNG. That it was all inevitable. That you couldn’t fight the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But in the end, BLAST won,” Steingraber said. In part, it won because of an LNG explosion in 1973 that killed 40 people and led New York to ban LNG facilities. All the LNG hazards present in 1973 remain, Steingraber said, including that it will flash-freeze human skin and, if spilled, will disperse as a highly combustible vapor cloud and that an LNG fire is not extinguishable. Plus now we know about fracking and about climate change.

“We New Yorkers Against Fracking pledge our support, assistance and solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Maryland who are fighting the LNG terminal in Cove Point. Our destinies are intertwined. Our success depends on yours,” she said.

The present consumes Rachel Heinhorst, whose family’s front lawn faces Dominion’s front lawn in Lusby. “We do not deserve to live in fear of an explosion, of the water we drink, of the air we breathe,” she told the crowd. “FERC and President Obama, please hear my family and all the others living so close to this. Feel our worry, know that it is real, know that we are coming to you, not looking for a fight. We are coming to you looking for compassion.” Her family, though, is preparing to move. If they can sell the house.

Fred Tutman, Patuxent Riverkeeper, said the gas industry tries to divide people into those fighting climate change, compressor stations, fracking, export facilities. “We stand together,” he called out. “They have to fight all of us.”

Tim DeChristopher of Peaceful Uprising called FERC a lapdog to the president and the Democratic Party. “Being slightly better than Republicans on climate change is not enough,” he said. “We will not have that energy plan of ‘Frack here’ and ‘Frack there.’ ”

One prop for the rally and march was a large slingshot. “This has been a David and Goliath fight from the start,” said Mike Tidwell, director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “We have been throwing stone after stone. We have more stones to throw.”

–by elisabeth hoffman

gina and ann at ferc

Ann Bristow and Gina Angiola help block one of the entrances at FERC.//photo by e. hoffman


Ron Meservey and Diane Wittner, dressed as drill rigs, played a support role in the arrest action at FERC.//photo by e. hoffman

warning about arrests by tom jefferson

A Homeland Security officer warns protesters that they will be arrested if they don’t leave. //photo by Tom Jefferson
























mike cuffed

Mike Bagdes-Canning gets the cuffs, along with 24 others, for civil disobedience at FERC.//photo by Tom Jefferson

 Mike Bagdes-Canning is a husband, father, grandfather, retired teacher and vice president of Cherry Valley Borough in Butler County, PA. He was one of 25 people arrested Monday morning for blocking entrances at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or rather the Fracking Expansion Rubber-stamp Commission. He also attended the Stop Cove Point rally and march to FERC on Sunday. In this guest blog post, Mike explains that we are all living in frontline communities and that our struggles are the same. — elisabeth hoffman


As a frontline resident in the shalefields of Pennsylvania, the rally on Sunday and the action on Monday were as much about us in Pennsylvania as about the people at Cove Point.

Cove Point and the other export facilities are critically important to those of us in extraction communities because once the gas is available on a global scale, it will command a “global price.” Shale gas is very expensive to produce, and it is not profitable to extract at the moment. That will change if it hits the global market. The dire circumstances we find ourselves in now will be viewed as the good old days.

mike for blog post

“Extreme energy threatens us all.”//photo by Tom Jefferson.

In addition, though, we are all from frontline communities. Creating a world market for LNG would be devastating to humanity and much other life as we know it. That point was made at the rally. It wasn’t an accident that my friend Cherri Foytlin from the Gulf region was a speaker — we, all of us, need to be in this fight. Your fight is my fight, my fight is your fight.

This all became very personal for me today. I spent the entire morning with some of the folks I’ve been working with — trying to keep drilling away from a school campus that serves 3,200 kids. They had a hearing with our Department of Environmental Protection (DEP — we call it Don’t Expect Protection).  I was there as a member of the media: I document shale stories for the movement. I was kicked out of the meeting because our law does not serve the people. It serves the corporations. Then I had to deliver my friend, photographer Tom Jefferson, back home to Pittsburgh. Tom wasn’t allowed into the meeting either. Finally, after spending most of the day on the road, I was grateful to be heading home to my piece of heaven — Cherry Valley. At a little after 7 p.m., after being away from home for 11 hours, I turned onto my road, and about a half-mile south of my driveway, I came upon a crew doing seismic testing, one of the initial steps in the drilling process. There was a sign in the road that said, “Lane closed.”  I got out of my car and stormed past the flag-man, pulled out my camera and started to document. They told me that I had to leave; I told them I wasn’t going anywhere. THIS IS MY HOME!  They told me to back away, it wasn’t safe. I told them that I wasn’t going anywhere, they weren’t welcome here. They had to think I was a raving lunatic — and I was. Even now, hours later, I’m angry and already contemplating my next steps. The arrest in D.C. will not be my last.

Gabriel Echeverri, a young man I met at Shalefield Justice Spring Break, spoke to my heart when he told Maryland shale advisory commissioners, “I have an issue with you all debating for hours about the most publicly acceptable way of coming and destroying our homes and poisoning our waters while we have to sit here and listen to all of it.”

Karen’s and my home is surrounded by properties that have been leased. Some of our immediate neighbors have not leased, but the folks that adjoin them have. We are a small island in a vast sea of leased properties.

Both major political parties have betrayed us. Our government serves those who would destroy us. It’s up to us to draw a line in the sand.

Day in and day out, I deal with folks who have been harmed, folks who no longer feel at home in their homes. Today, I find myself joining their ranks. My peace has been yanked from me.

There is, however, a difference between me and those people I work with, the folks I’ve come to call friend, neighbor. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard: “What can we do? They’re so big, and we’re so small.” I know what I can do. I can fight within the broken system we’ve been given. I can put my body in front of machines.  I can turn to my network of frack-fighters. I can gain inspiration from my heroes on the frontlines — people like Janet, who despite being without water for over three years and in ill health, has single-handedly carried a water bank serving others without water. I can gain inspiration from folks willing to put themselves in harm’s way.

This fight is not mine any more than Cove Point is a fight for Marylanders. I don’t care where you’re from, your home is in danger. Extreme energy threatens us all.

I’m not asking you to come to fight fracking in Pennsylvania. I don’t care where you are, you’ve got a battle to fight where you are. If they aren’t extracting, they’re transporting, or processing, or burning, or disposing of the waste. I want you to fight your fight because you will then be supporting me in my fight. Your victories will be my victories. We’ve got to fight the extreme energy industry at every step of its death cycle. We’ve got to be prepared to meet them wherever they are. My thoughts turn to our friends on the Great March for Climate Action. I’ve followed their progress and know that they, more than I, are seeing just how our struggles are one. At the foot of West Virginia’s Blair Mountain, filmmaker Josh Fox (“Gasland”) said that mountaintop removal and fracking were just two heads of the same monster. I’ve come to realize that the monster has many heads.

And now I find, jarringly, that what I always knew but never really acknowledged has come to pass: My home is in danger. I’ve been there to support others, but now I feel very vulnerable, unsafe, fearful. It’s not a pleasant place to be and it’s uncomfortable to admit that I’m not ready for it. In my dealings with others, I’ve always assumed that I’d be ready, and now I find that working with others has not prepared me for what I’m facing.

My involvement in this movement has made me a better person (though I’m betting that seismic crew didn’t think so).  I am inspired by all my friends in this fight. Send me your energy, fight your fight.

mike with signs

As police helped FERC employees get around the blockade, Mike tried to cover as much ground as possible. //photo by elisabeth hoffman

sandra steingraber in baltimore

Before speaking at Loyola, Sandra Steingraber lent her support to health professionals and others in Maryland who are criticizing the state’s study of fracking’s health effects. From left: Rebecca Ruggles of Maryland Environment Health Network, Katie Huffling of Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, Steingraber of Concerned Health Professionals of New York, Ann Bristow, a member of the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission, and Jorge Aguilar of Food & Water Watch.

Environmental activist Sandra Steingraber says her first kindergarten art project was a tiled ashtray. Children often made this “infrastructure” for adults’ tobacco addiction, she said. Her parents didn’t even smoke, but everyone needed ashtrays, if not for themselves then for guests. Marketing campaigns made smoking glamorous, pervasive, normal.

During her lifetime, tobacco has largely been “de-normalized,” Steingraber said. “We don’t try to regulate it into safety.” Because smoking is inherently unsafe, the goal is to have no smoking, to abolish it. When her son, then 4, first saw someone smoking outside a cafe, his reaction was, “There’s a man out there trying to light his face on fire.”

Now Steingraber is asking what de-normalizing fossil fuels would look like. Perhaps children of the future will ask: “Really? When you were a kid, you shoveled these fossils into your car to make you go? And you shoveled them into your house to keep warm … [and got asthma] and almost tanked the climate system? That’s just bizarre.”

Steingraber has devoted the last few years to de-normalizing fossil fuels, particularly fracked gas. Last week, she spoke at Loyola University about “The fracking of America: Ethics and Impact.” A scholar-in-residence at Ithaca College with a PhD in biology, Steingraber has “emptied” her bank account, donating her writing awards to form Concerned Health Professionals of New York and New Yorkers Against Fracking. She has testified in Albany repeatedly, analyzed data, written articles and books. A year ago this month, she was jailed for 10 days — becoming a gangsta’ mama to her two children and their friends — for blocking access to an energy company’s compressor station near her town on Seneca Lake. That company wants to store the byproducts of fracking — butane, propane, methane — in salt caverns under the lake, the source of drinking water for 100,000 people. To keep the “overhead costs low,” her family lives in a small house with unmatched dishes from Goodwill. She frequently leaves her children and husband, who is recovering from strokes. “My children have to grow up sometimes without me because I need to be able to tell them: ‘It’s my job as your mother to fight for your future and to make sure you are safe, and if there’s not a stable climate and if there are no pollinators, I can’t be your mother. … So I’ll see you on Friday.”

She is proud to be an activist in this battle, trying “to close the door on fossil fuels and to open the door to renewable energy. To me that seems like a remarkable honor to devote my life to that.” It is, she said, “the moral crisis of our time.”

She also was diagnosed at age 20 with bladder cancer, which almost always is linked to environmental causes. Turns out being a patient, undergoing MRIs and dragging an I.V. pole down a hall while holding closed a backless hospital gown prepared her well for days in a 7-by-7-foot jail cell and for negotiating stairs while wearing an orange jailhouse jumpsuit and ankle chains. Getting arrested and going to jail, she said, is less terrifying than cancer.

She describes our environmental crisis as two connected crises, like a massive tree with two trunks but a common root. “One trunk … represents what’s happening to our planet through the accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.” That’s the climate crisis, discussed in dire detail in the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Follow the branches from this trunk and find drought, floods, unpredictable growing seasons, pollinators arriving at the wrong time, dissolving coral reefs and mass extinctions.

“The other trunk of the tree of crisis represents what’s happening to us through the accumulation of inherently toxic chemical pollutants in our bodies,” she said. Follow that trunk and find increasing asthma rates in children, pediatric cancers, learning disabilities, birth defects.

The common root, she said, is our dependence on fossil fuels. “In an age of extreme fossil fuels,” she said, “both crises are now getting worse.” We have moved from the easy-to-get fossil fuels, which are nearly gone, to mountaintop removal for coal, tar sands mining and massive pipelines, deep-sea drilling for oil, and fracking for natural gas. Maryland, like New York, is at the epicenter of the fracking controversy, she said. Neither state has permitted fracking. Yet.

Since the start of the industrial revolution, she said, we have burned fossilized or vaporized plants and animals for energy and, over time, altered the chemistry of the atmosphere. By lighting coal, oil and gas on fire (and leaking unburnt natural gas), we have tripled the amount of heat-trapping methane and increased by 30 to 40 percent the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere. Excess carbon dioxide warms the planet but also acidifies the oceans. The ocean is 30 percent more acidic than it was before the industrial revolution. “We are on track, if we don’t cease and desist, for dissolving everything with a shell,” she said. Which is alarming not only for those who eat clams, she said. Microscopic zooplankton, the larval form of everything with shells, are key to the ocean’s food web. In addition, the extra heat in the atmosphere also warms the oceans, damaging phytoplankton, which are the food stock for the zooplankton. And phytoplankton? “Phytoplankton provide us with one out of every two breaths that we breathe.”

At the same time, methane — or natural gas — and oil are the starting point for petrochemicals, for plastics, fertilizers, and other toxic substances that alter chromosomes and hormones, that “place cells on the pathway to tumor formation.” And the fossil-fuel-derived pesticides, dioxins and dry-cleaner fluid also show up in human breast milk, which is “still far better than inferior pretender formula.”

Those addressing these crises, she said, have often worked apart. Typically men — such as Bill McKibben, Tim DeChristopher and James Hansen — dominate the climate change group. They look to the future and see climate change as an intergenerational inequality issue. The human rights issue is that we are destroying the climate for those who come after us.

Meanwhile women — she mentioned Lois Gibbs and Rachel Carson but certainly could include herself — have been most concerned with the world of chemical reform and “toxic trespass,” where the human rights issue is the right to bodily integrity and informed consent. “This movement looks to the past,” she said, “as chemicals brought to market years ago without any advance testing or demonstration of safety are now being implicated in human harm.”

The crises are entwined, she said, because “the chemicals that we use to make stuff out of we have available to us because we have chosen to use fossils for our energy system,” she said, and both are creating public health crises. As an example, she mentioned an ethane cracker facility proposed in Allegheny County north of Pittsburgh. The facility would take ethane and process, or “crack,” it into ethylene for plastic bags. “Why do we want to make plastic bags? We are not clamoring for plastic bags,” she said. “But the fracking boom that has blasted molecules of methane out of the ground for our energy has also liberated all this ethane,” she said. And so the cracker facility will make plastic bags that will end up as tiny bits of plastic in the ocean, where they already outnumber plankton by weight in some areas.

Emerging studies show that fracking, like lead paint, asbestos and smoking, can’t be made safe, that many risks are unmanageable. “We shouldn’t spend time putting filters on the cigarette of fracking,” she said. Studies, for example, show fracking connected with smog in otherwise pristine areas, low birth weights, asthma, birth defects. “These are all terrible, expensive problems,” she said. Other research shows 5 percent of the casings around fracking drills fail immediately, with more failing with age. In Pennsylvania alone, fracking has led to 161 cases of water contamination. Yet most of the scientific research has been done in the last year; it has not kept up with the pace of fracking.

Earlier in the day, Steingraber lent her support to Maryland health professionals asking for a delay in the state’s health study on fracking because it is behind schedule, underfunded, and science is just beginning to emerge.

The lateness of the hour and magnitude of the problem can cause despair, she acknowledged. But the good news, she said, is that if we solve the root problem — our dependence on fossil fuels — we will solve both the climate crisis and our health crisis: “We could divorce ourselves from our ruinous dependency on fossil fuels and not only solve our energy problem but detoxify our own lives.”

She highlighted the work of the Solutions Project, the Stanford University research that outlines 50 plans for 50 states to switch to renewable energy. Maryland’s solution, for example, includes a lot of offshore wind and solar power plants.

She acknowledges what psychologists call the “well-informed utility syndrome,” which makes people turn away from more knowledge as well as action because of “unbearable grief, unbearable rage or unbearable guilt.” But “not knowing about the problem isn’t going to engage our ingenuity to help us solve it, and being in despair is the opposite of taking action.”

She said she is “interested in writing in ways that overcome despair.” For inspiration, she looks to the abolitionists who took huge risks and made huge sacrifices to abolish slavery, even though the economy was as linked to it as ours is to fossil fuels. She also looks to 1930s Germany, where her adoptive father, then 18, went off to fight global fascism and parents often made the hard choice to send their children away. Her father knew that “you can’t pretend you don’t see the signs of atrocity all around you. And you can’t sit back on the sidelines and ask, ‘Can I win this fight or not?’ You simply have to do the right thing and put one foot in front of the other and inspire other people to do the same.”

“I didn’t start off intending to be a gansta’ mama,” Steingraber said, but she is willing to do all that she can, including civil disobedience and going to jail, to “redirect the destiny of our nation.”

“That’s what is required of us at this moment,” she said. “We can’t solve this with half measures and more dithering.” She urged everyone to figure out a role to play. And the question, she says, is not “How am I going to fit this into my schedule?” but “How can I change my whole life to address this?”

–elisabeth hoffman

jailbird for justice

March 12, 2014

frederick four by ccan

The Frederick Four: me, Steve Bruns, Joanna LaFollette and Sweet Dee Frostbutter.
//photo by Chesapeake Climate Action Network

The police citation says I was charged with willfully obstructing and hindering free passage of others in a public place “against the peace, government, and dignity of the state.”

Along with three other activists, I blocked the doors to the Frederick County Courthouse last week as part of a peaceful protest against Dominion’s planned compressor station in Myersville, as well as its proposal to build a $3.8 billion giant facility on the Chesapeake Bay that would liquefy fracked gas and haul it off to Asia. We were the Frederick Four.

Dominion’s planned actions are far less peaceful and dignified than ours.

In Myersville, one division of Dominion wants to build an oversized, air-polluting compressor station for fracked gas against the wishes of the town’s residents and officials. In Cove Point in Calvert County, the scheme of another Dominion division involves a gas-fired power plant that would yield no power for Marylanders; storage tanks of toxic and combustible chemicals; a long list of air pollutants; and a six-story-tall-by-three-quarters-of-mile-long wall. The super-cooled gas in its liquid form would get to Asia on tanker ships fueled by the dirtiest of oils, bunker fuel, which coats and suffocates wildlife when it spills. This plan too has aroused resident fury, although Lusby officials seem happy to support and deal in secret with Dominion.

And the gas for both these facilities would come from fracking all over the Marcellus and other shales that lie under our homes, schools, businesses, farms, playgrounds, parks and rivers. Even though scientists and physicians are raising grave questions about the wisdom of allowing this industry to operate in our backyards, particularly because of the millions of gallons of water laced with toxic chemicals, the noise and countless diesel truck trips. And even though fracked gas is a bridge to a catastrophic 6 degrees F of warming on our planet.

But Dominion’s CEOs won’t be pondering their willful obstruction of our safe passage in our communities in a 7-by-11-foot dull yellow, concrete block cell anytime soon.

Our civil disobedience action was the second in as many weeks. Previously, four activists were arrested in Cumberland. We are making clear that — as much as Dominion denies it — Cove Point has everything to do with fracking and the connecting web of pipelines and compressor stations that would run through our communities. We are saying that rushing ahead with these plans without a thorough environmental review of health, environmental and climate effects puts us all at risk.

ann nau being interviewed photo by ccan

Ann Marie Nau being interviewed at the rally.//photo by CCAN

“We stand together,” Ann Marie Nau told a WFMD radio reporter at the rally. “We stand with Western Maryland. We stand with Lusby. We stand with Myersville. We stand with all the other communities that are impacted. Myersville matters, Lusby matters. Western Maryland matters. And we stand up for one another.”

At the rally before the arrests, we read our statements. Steve Bruns, who’s running for an at-large Frederick County commissioner seat, blasted the gas industry’s PR campaign to promote fracked gas as clean and safe, as well as Dominion’s lawsuit against Myersville and the Maryland Department of the Environment to force approval of the compressor station within a mile of the town’s elementary school and evacuation center. “This sort of contempt for the health and safety of the people of Maryland is unacceptable in a democratic society. If our government isn’t getting the message, then we’re just going to have to crank up the volume,” he said.

Sweet Dee Frostbutter, who grew up playing in the forests and fields of Calvert County and lives in Frederick, said: “This place and these people mean too much to me to stand by and just watch that happen. We have to resist, and I hope you’ll join us!” In June 2011, Sweet Dee was a cook on the weeklong, 50-mile March on Blair Mountain to stop another form of extreme energy extraction: the blasting away of that mountaintop to excavate the coal. The same mountain where, in the summer of 1921, 10,000 armed coal miners battled for the right to form a union against strikebreakers and lawmen hired by mine operators.

“Maryland could virtually turn into one large industrial zone and be sacrificed for energy being shipped overseas,” said Joanna LaFollette of Frederick. Joanna, who has asthma in a county that has a mortality rate from air pollution among the highest in the nation, was there in place of her son Dylan Petrohilos, whose arrest for civil disobedience at a frack-sand processing plant in Boone, N.C., was still being processed.

At a small rally in a plaza in front of the courthouse, we held signs and a banner, “Stop Cove Point.” We chanted, “Myersville is not for sale,” “Lusby is not for sale,” “Garrett County is not for sale” and “Allegany County is not for sale.” Sweet Dee made up the best chant, a syncopated “We gotta beat back, the frack attack, we gotta beat beat back, that frack attack.”

After about 30 minutes, one of the officers said we had to leave the plaza because we lacked a permit for a rally. Instead, the four of us risking arrest moved closer to the courthouse to block the doors. We chanted more and tried singing a verse of “This Land Is Your Land.”  Eventually, Sweet Dee and Joanna were given one more warning and then arrested. A few minutes later, police gave Steve and me our final warning. And then officers, who greatly outnumbered us, moved in and escorted us about 20 feet to the Frederick City police office, where we were quickly searched for weapons.

Sweet Dee and Joanna were booked first and never saw the inside of a jail cell. But Steve and I were put in adjacent concrete-block cells with sliding solid metal doors. Solitary confinement. The only opening on the door was a 4-by-6-inch window.

The cell had a metal bench with rings along the back wall, but I wasn’t handcuffed — or handcuffed to these rings. It also had a stainless steel toilet/sink combo on one side behind a partition. I was thirsty from all the yelling, but when I pushed the first of the three buttons on the sink, the toilet flushed. The only reading materials were the scratched messages on the bench from those who had gone before me under much more miserable circumstances. “Fox + Mel 4 Ever” was on someone’s mind. But so was “LSD” and “ebay.” And “This sux!”

My jail memoir will be short, as I was probably in the slammer about 35 minutes. Eventually, officers unlocked our cell doors and took us to an office for a mug shot and booking. They asked about our action. One officer had read a lot about global warming but said he hadn’t made up his mind about it yet. Another thought nuclear power was the answer.

post arrest by liz feighner

The Frederick Four, released from jail with our citations.//photo by Liz Feighner

And then we were free to leave.

My arrest was a small action. I was trying to help make the future come out differently from the way it’s headed, one small shove to help steer us from fossil fuels and their giant corporate pushers. The Frederick Four and the Cumberland Four are not alone. In August, more than 2,000 people participated in a days-long campaign against fracking in Balcombe in the United Kingdom, including 20 who blockaded the headquarters of energy company Cuadrilla and six who superglued themselves to the doors at the London headquarters of Cuadrilla’s PR firm, Bell Pottinger. Last June, in Zurawlow, a rural community in Poland, 150 farmers slept in fields and blockaded a drilling site with cars and trucks. In the fall, farmers in Pungest, Romania, cut cables laid for seismic testing, scooped them up and dragged them through the street to protest Chevron’s plans for fracking on their land. They also formed a human chain around the land where Chevron wanted to place test drills. “We have to do these kinds of things. It’s our duty,” one farmer said.

“We are Romania. We don’t want to sell our country,” they shouted, echoing our chants in Frederick. Or, here’s a new one: “Out you flea-ridden dirty dogs.”

They don’t want fracking for “schist.” Even though Chevron offered the Romanian farmers T-shirts and yogurt — a ploy wackily similar to the cheese pizza Chevron offered residents in Greene County, Pa., after a well pad explosion and fire that burned for days and killed one worker. Note to Chevron: Communities want clean water and a safe place to live, not free dairy products and clothing.

Also note: Schist and fracking. In any language, it sounds like a curse.

Sometimes, civil disobedience is our only currency. We don’t have millions to spend on disingenuous television, radio and Web ad campaigns about “clean” energy that really isn’t and “jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs” that are inflated and too often in the rescue, emergency and mopping-up industries. Sometimes all we can do is get in the way, slow the machinery, free our voices, give the science time to catch up and emerge.

maggies farm and pig

Fracking protesters locked themselves to a giant papier-mâché pig at a farm in western Pennsylvania. //photo from the shadbush environmental justice collective

Just yesterday, at least 30 people were arrested in Philadelphia to protest the Keystone XL pipeline for tar sands oil. As were 398 students who either chained themselves to the White House gate or engaged in a mock human oil spill on a black tarp in an XL Dissent a week ago. In 2012, several protesters chained themselves to a giant papier-mâché pig at Maggie Henry’s western Pennsylvania farm 4,000 feet from a proposed Shell fracking operation. In Youngstown, Ohio, a nonviolent protest blocked the gate to an injection well for fracking waste. Last year, Sandra Steingraber and 11 other citizen-turned-activists spent 10 days in jail for blocking the entrance to a planned gas storage facility in salt caverns under Seneca Lake in New York. “My small, nonviolent act of trespass,” Steingraber said at her sentencing, “is set against a larger, more violent one: the trespass of hazardous chemicals into water and air and thereby into our bodies. This is a form of toxic trespass.”

At a Seneca in the Balance forum last night, Steingraber said that we each have to figure out our role in this movement and that “we can spend our bodies if we need to.” But, be clear, “we are way beyond the ‘every little bit helps’ stage. … When you think about what it is you are going to do next, know that it has be really big and something really heroic.”

Civil disobedience has been key to many justice movements, from Alice Paul and Martin Luther King Jr. to the many anonymous protesters who sat in at factories, lunch counters, nuclear facilities and treetops. As folksinger Anne Feeney would say, I’ve now “been to jail for justice” with the Frederick Four. The battle against fracking and Cove Point is now part of the justice movement to save life on the planet from catastrophic warming and, along the way, create energy forms that don’t bring sickness and misery to others. And the window for acting is small, not unlike the one in my jail cell door.

–by elisabeth hoffman

group foto of arrests by ccan

our climate ‘madness’

November 19, 2013

Typhoon Haiyan aftermath in the Philippines

Images of Haiyan’s destruction (above) are dreadfully similar to those of Hiroshima (below).//Haiyan photo from european pressphoto agency

Today and every day, our burning of fossil fuels traps excess energy in our atmosphere equal to that of 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. Or 16,700 Hiroshimas every hour, 278 Hiroshimas every minute.

One of those energy bombs hit the Philippines this month in the form of Supertyphoon Haiyan.

Hiroshima atomic bomb damageNo wonder, then, that photos of Haiyan’s devastation look eerily similar to those from Hiroshima. No wonder the mayor of one town said, “It was like a nuclear bomb struck us.”

Our energy imbalance is the mismatch between the solar heat the Earth absorbs and what it radiates back to space, NASA scientist James Hansen has explained. The Earth’s atmosphere is out of balance, overloaded with heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels. So, global temperatures continue to rise and our climate continues to change, creating warmer and more acidic oceans, superstorms like Haiyan, “rare and violent” tornadoes, “freak torrential” rainstorms, persistent drought, melting glaciers, disrupted seasons. 

For a second year, a deadly typhoon shattered the Philippines just as U.N. talks on a global climate treaty were opening, this year in Warsaw. For a second year, Yeb Saño, now the chief climate negotiator for the Philippines, pleaded with the world to “stop this madness” of the climate crisis, of climate inaction. He also announced that he would start fasting: “[I]n solidarity with my countrymen who are struggling to find food back home and with my brother, who has not had food for the last three days, with all due respect, Mr. President, and I mean no disrespect for your kind hospitality, I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate. This means I will voluntarily refrain from eating food during this [meeting], until a meaningful outcome is in sight.”

Ted Glick, national campaign coordinator for Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said in an article published last week in that he has joined the fast. “I woke up on Tuesday to find my mind and heart focusing on the Philippines and on Yeb Saño’s action. I was pleased to learn that [Climate Action Network] International had taken this initiative in support, and I’ve decided to join their fast in solidarity with him, eating no solid food and consuming only liquids for as long as his fast continues. Others may want to join and fast for a day, a few days or until the end of the climate conference,” said Glick, who participated in the Walk for Our Grandchildren (WFOG) over the summer. (Glick also forwarded a YouTube video of Saño’s address edited with scenes from the Philippines.)

Soon other WFOG participants had joined, for a day or longer, including walk organizer Steve Norris, Deborah Woolley in Seattle, Jenny Lisak, whose organic farm lies near fracking operations in Pennsylvania, and Jerry Stewart, who will participate in the Great Climate March from Los Angeles to the nation’s capital starting in March.

The damage from this Category 5 “hellstorm,” the strongest to make landfall ever recorded, is “unprecedented, unthinkable and horrific,” Saño said last week. Bodies are rotting in the streets and people are desperate for food, water and shelter. He didn’t know the fate of some of his relatives, and his brother was weary, hungry and “picking up bodies with his own hands.” At times tearful, he urged swift action on climate change during the talks, which end Friday

Repeating his pleas from last year’s climate talks in Doha, he said: “ ‘If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?’ … What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. Mr. President, we can stop this madness right here in Warsaw. … We need an emergency climate pathway.”

He urged “drastic action” to “ensure that we prevent a future where supertyphoons become a way of life …  We refuse to accept that running away from storms, evacuating our families, suffering the devastation and misery, counting our dead become a way of life. We simply refuse to.”

He also said he feels drawn to join climate activists “who peacefully confront those historically responsible for the current state of our climate, these selfless people who fight coal, expose themselves to freezing temperatures or block oil pipelines. In fact, we are seeing increasing frustration, and thus more increased civil disobedience. … To the youth here who constantly remind us that their future is in peril, to the climate heroes who risk their life, reputation and personal liberties to stop drilling in polar regions and to those communities standing up to unsustainable and climate-disrupting sources of energy, we stand with them. … We cannot solve climate change when we seek to spew more emissions.”

Exactly. We can’t solve climate change if we raze old-growth forests and boil out the tar sands oil and pipe it around the world. We can’t solve climate change if we drill for oil deep under the ocean floor or in the Arctic. We can’t solve climate change if Dominion gets permission to spew more emissions from a facility at Cove Point and export liquefied fracked gas from the Marcellus Shale to Asia. We can’t solve climate change if we frack with freshwater mixed with toxic chemicals for gas under Maryland’s western counties. 

We have been dismal caretakers of our planet in countless ways. Climate change and its close cousins, pollution and habitat loss, along with overfishing, have us on the verge of the sixth mass extinction. (Already, 90 percent of large fish species are effectively extinct.) We are decimating our only home, our life-support system. Our oceans are filling up with bits of plastic, derived from natural gas, while oxygen-supplying phytoplankton has dropped 40 percent since 1950.  The World Meteorological Organization says 2013 is on track to become among the warmest since records began in 1850. “All of the warmest years have been since 1998, and this year once again continues the underlying, long-term trend,”  said Michel Jarraud, the group’s secretary-general. “The coldest years now are warmer than the hottest years before 1998.” Concentrations of greenhouse gases “reached new highs in 2012, and we expect them to reach unprecedented levels yet again in 2013. This means that we are committed to a warmer future,” he said. By warmer, he means disastrous.

As Saño says, time to stop the madness.

–elisabeth hoffman


typhoon haiyan

Super Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines as a Category 5 storm, killed thousands and caused widespread destruction, is not unrelated to fracking, the TPP, KXL, Cove Point, compressor statons and climate change.//NOAA photo

But wait. There’s more.

If the Myersville compressor station is connected to exporting LNG from Cove Point is connected to more fracking is connected to a poisoned planet is connected to climate change is connected to all of us having to take on the extra job of making governments do their job, then this whole fracking mess is connected to the Trans Pacific Partnership. At least, I think it is. Hard to know because the whole thing is top secret. top secret image

The Trans Pacific Partnership is a wide-ranging deal among the United States and 11 other nations bordering the Pacific that would break down the few remaining barriers to free trade, mostly by undermining environmental and health regulations and labor protections. President Obama missed recent talks in Asia about the TPP because of the government shutdown, but Secretary of State John Kerry went in his stead. The TPP is high on Obama’s agenda, and his goal is to have it completed by the end of the year.

“It’s not really about trade, it’s not really free or about freedom and there’s not much agreement about it … so it’s a misnomer,” Lacey Kohlmoos from Public Citizen said.  Over the summer, Kohlmoos, along with Leslie Morrison from Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Ilana Solomon from Sierra Club spoke at several town halls about the TPP. “It’s designed to break down all trade barriers, but what is a trade barrier has changed definition,” Kohlmoos said. The TPP is a “corporate tool of unprecedented power.”

What is known about the TPP has been leaked. Of its 29 chapters, only five are about trade. “The other 24 chapters either handcuff our domestic governments, limiting food safety, environmental standards, financial regulation, energy and climate policy, or [establish] new powers for corporations,” Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said on a recent Democracy Now! segment.

A few legislators who asked to review the treaty have been allowed to look at specific chapters but can’t take an aide, take notes, make copies, make a phone call or talk about it. The text is to be released four years after the agreement takes effect — or if talks collapse. Corporations, including Halliburton, Chevron, the Gas Technology Institute, General Electric, Monsanto and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, have a seat at the negotiating table, but environmental, labor and health groups do not. More than 600 corporate advisers have been working on the TPP for the last four years.

“It’s NAFTA on steroids,” Kohlmoos said.

halliburton rule image

The Halliburton loophole, corporate Wild West
on display.

It also sounds like the Halliburton loophole for the world, with corporations making all the rules. The Halliburton loophole, you will recall, was then-VP Dick Cheney’s escape hatch for drilling companies. In secret meetings with energy executives, he exempted fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The TPP could also be called capitalism on steroids. Or, in activist and commentator Dennis Trainor Jr.’s words, a corporate coup. Economist Dean Baker has said on Democracy Now! that the TPP would “create a regulatory structure that is much more favorable to corporate interests than they would be able to get through the domestic political process in the United States and in the other countries in the pact.”

For example, any corporation that thinks its “rights” have been violated  — meaning, its profits have been diminished — by a new environmental or health regulation could sue the country involved. The judges in these so-called courts would be corporate lawyers, making corporations the plaintiff and the judge. We know how that will turn out.

The TPP “empowers individual corporations to directly sue governments—not in our courts, but in extrajudicial tribunals where three corporate attorneys act as ‘judges,’ and these guys rotate between being the judge and being the guys suing the government for the corporation,” Wallach said. “They’re empowered to give unlimited cash damages from us, the taxpayers, to these corporations for any government action— a regulatory issue, environment, health, safety — that undermines the investor’s expected future profits.”

Similar rules in effect under NAFTA already have led to one lawsuit over fracking. Under NAFTA, Lone Pine Resources, based in Calgary but incorporated in Delaware, sued Canada in fall 2012, seeking $250 million in damages, after Quebec imposed a five-year moratorium on fracking in the St. Lawrence Valley until more studies could be completed. Lone Pine claimed Canada had violated its “right to mine” for oil and gas and expropriated its profits.

And now the connection to fracking is clear. If corporations can sue for lost profits whenever governments try to protect people and the environment, if corporations have a “right to frack” and a “right to export” liquefied natural gas (LNG), such as at Dominion’s Cove Point facility, decisions will never be made in the public interest. In fact, exports would automatically be deemed in the public interest, Solomon of Sierra Club said. It would become “illegal to put any limits on exports.”

“We’d be required to conform our domestic laws to terms in TPP,” Kohlmoos said. “It really undermines our democracy.”

The countries involved are the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan — and other nations have expressed interest, including China.

Note that Dominion, via its proposed export facility at Cove Point, has contracts to supply LNG to Japan, one of the countries in the agreement. The United States doesn’t already have free trade agreements with Japan or India, but if the agreement goes through, Dominion wouldn’t need additional permission to send LNG to Japan.

Once the TPP is finalized, President Obama plans to ask to fast-track this treaty through Congress, meaning lawmakers could not amend or filibuster and would have to vote up or down within 60 days.

“Fast Track is not in effect,” Wallach said. “Fast Track is an extraordinary delegation of Congress’s authority. … So, we have to make sure that Congress actually maintains its constitutional authority to make sure that before this agreement can be signed, it actually works for us. … President Obama has asked for Fast Track, but it only happens if Congress gives it to him.”

That’s where we come in. Ask your U.S. senators and congressional representatives for their position on the TPP and express your concerns. The following are excerpts of emails about the TPP from three area lawmakers. (Several of us at HoCo Climate Change have received the same emails.)

Sen. Ben Cardin wrote:

I will not support any multilateral trade agreement that does not have robust protections for workers, consumers, and the environment, both in the United States and for our trading partners.  … [A]s a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade agreements, I look forward to extensive hearings on the TPP once the agreement is transmitted to the Senate.

Rep. Elijah Cummings:

Please know that I share your concerns regarding the commitments contemplated in the TPP that may affect patent and copyright law, food safety practices, environmental stewardship, health care, telecommunications, and the Internet, among other issues. I am also concerned by the limited consultation with Congress that has occurred during the drafting of this agreement. Given these concerns, I have joined many of my colleagues in a letter to be sent to the President urging broader consideration.

Rep. John Sarbanes:

You will be pleased to know that I joined a number of my colleagues in sending a letter encouraging greater transparency and oversight in the TPP negotiation process.  I strongly believe that U. S. trade agreements should address labor rights, human rights, and environmental protection.  … Unfortunately, our trade policies have long assumed that ‘free trade’ is the same as ‘fair trade.’ That assumption has touched off a race to the bottom where American jobs are shipped overseas to countries with non-existent labor standards and thread-bare environmental protections. 

To borrow from John Muir, when we try to look at anything by itself — whether fracking, the Myersville compressor station, the Cove Point LNG export facility, the TPP, the KXL pipeline, climate change and devastating Super Typhoon Haiyan — we find it all hitched together and “hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

So, bumpy ride ahead.

For more info on the TPP, Bill Moyers has a great interview with Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism and Dean Baker of CEPR about the TPP.

Other websites opposing the secret TPP are here, here and here.

— elisabeth hoffman


whose job is it?

November 4, 2013


Certain fossil fuel companies’ view of our communities.
//Map of Marcellus Shale ‘play’ from U.S. Energy Information Administration

Ann Nau, Myersville mother and compressor station opponent, recently pleaded with state officials to deny the air quality permit needed to proceed with the project. “I live here. My daughter lives here,” she said, reaching over to the 11-year-old sitting with her at the fire station hall. She said she wanted to protect her daughter.

“You’re a parent. That’s your job,” said Bill Paul of the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), the agency charged with reviewing Dominion Transmission’s air quality permit application.

Wrong. That’s not her job.

The job description of parent can’t possibly be to cordon off a child from volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, formaldehyde, loud noises, blowdowns, explosions and climate change. That is the job of local, state and federal governments. Ann Nau’s job shouldn’t have to be — but has become — trying to make governments do their job. So far, governments are woefully underperforming.

MDE’s Paul, who took great pains to explain to anxious Myersville residents what is involved in an MDE review, nevertheless suggested strongly that the permit for the compressor station for fracked gas moving through the state would be approved. (Even though Myersville doesn’t even have natural gas piped into the town.) His “best guess,” he said, is “you’re not going to see a significant difference” in air quality from the compressor station. Which is less than comforting in light of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study released over the summer that found that Maryland has the highest rate of deaths from air pollution in the nation, and Frederick, right next to Myersville, is among the worst cities in the state.

benzedrine and webs

A spider on amphetamines built a wacky web like the one we would encounter.//New Scientist magazine

Turns out this compressor station is only one blot on our landscape. Zoom out, and the magnitude of the threat comes into focus. Politicians and industry seem united in heralding this age of gas in the name of “clean” energy, “energy independence” and jobs. But these claims don’t add up, and the byproduct will be poisoned water, dirty air, chewed-up land, risk of explosions, volatile prices and industrial zoning in a backyard near you. Over the horizon and waiting to ensnare us all is a spider’s web of pipelines and compressor stations for fracked gas, with a huge export plant for liquefied natural gas (LNG) at its hub. That maligns spiders, but this particular spider is on amphetamines.

Parents and non-parents alike, we are in the battle of our lives and our energy future. Here’s the industry plan:

Exporting LNG: Dominion Cove Point wants to transform its sleepy import facility in Lusby, Calvert County, into a $3.8 billion monster export plant for LNG that it would ship in large tankers to customers in India and Japan. Dominion wants to be able to export 1 billion cubic feet of LNG daily for 25 years. With global average temperatures warmer than in tens of thousands of years and ice caps already melting, we don’t have that kind of time.

The U.S. Department of Energy has given preliminary approval for the Cove Point plant and three other export facilities; 22 others await approval. But many other reviews are required, including from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and, in Maryland, the Public Service Commission.

At Cove Point, the gas would be turned into a bubbling liquid when supercooled to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit. This process requires a lot of energy, which is a tipoff to the first thing wrong with this idea. Dominion will need two natural gas-fueled, 65-watt generators just to transform the gas into a liquid. The gas consumed in this way won’t heat homes or fuel any businesses; it will just transform the gas from one state into another. As many as 220 huge tanker vessels that run on dirty, molasses-like bunker fuel (known for coating and killing seabirds and marine animals in accidents) will lumber into and out of Cove Point, taking the LNG to distant ports where it will have to be turned back into a gas, another energy-intensive process.

LNG, to remain a boiling liquid, periodically vents methane — the heat-trapping, greenhouse gas that is the main component of natural gas and that is 86 times more powerful than CO2 over 20 years (and 34 times more powerful over 100 years). So climate-disrupting methane leaks are normal, indeed necessary.

In the “unlikely event” that the pressure-relief systems fail, the resulting explosion has a name: BLEVE. FERC has asked Dominion to “provide mitigation to prevent a boiling-liquid-expanding-vapor explosion (BLEVE) or provide an analysis for distance to a potentially harmful radiant heat level from a fireball.” Because of the existing import facility, Lusby already is divided into evacuation Zones 1 through 4, and its high school is a mass care site.

Gas flaring, another typical procedure, killed 7,500 songbirds one foggy night at a New Brunswick, Canada, LNG facility.

In addition, chemicals would be stored on site, traffic would increase, wetlands would be lost, tankers would be terrorist targets and, perhaps most notably, wells would be fracked all over the Marcellus Shale.

Accelerated fracking: Natural gas is so cheap that drillers are walking away from leases. But if industry can get higher prices by exporting the gas, the pressure to frack will escalate, including in Maryland, where a moratorium is in place and health and economic studies are under way. I remember Iraq War protest signs that said: How did our oil get under their soil? Now, Asia’s gas will be under our soil. And our communities, our water and land are, in company parlance, the “overburden” in the way of this buried resource.

Despite a PR campaign designed to have us all “think about it,” fracked gas is not the solution to our energy or climate crisis. Shifting our economy to fracked gas benefits the fossil fuel industry while destroying communities and the climate that sustains all life.

To blast the gas from harder-than-marble shale requires explosive pressure and millions of gallons of fresh water laden with toxic and carcinogenic chemicals and silica sand. The gas emerges with the toxic wastewater plus radium, strontium and brine roused from inside the Earth. That radioactive waste, with the “fingerprint” of the Marcellus Shale, is showing up in streams – aka, homes of fish, turtles and other creatures — that provide drinking water for Pittsburgh.

And the fracking wastewater is impossible to clean. And the companies aren’t paying royalties or are subtracting the cost of business from royalties; and dangerous benzene levels are near drilling sites; and fissures filled with methane and the secret toxic chemicals can link with other fissures, eventually reaching aquifers. And leaks of climate-destroying methane at the drilling site continue at undetermined rates. Leakage rates are low (1 percent) in an industry-funded and controlled study but 6.2 to 11.7 percent in a study published in Geophysical Research Letters in August. Unless that leakage rate is under 2 percent, natural gas is worse for the climate than coal. Methane also leaks from pipelines and compressor stations. States so far are overlooking damage from collective pollution. And gathering lines are unregulated, and regulators are a dying breed.

More fracked gas means more of these pipelines, more explosions (such as this one in Oklahoma), more leaking methane, more gathering lines and more compressor stations, which brings us back to Myersville.

Dominion’s shiny maps on display in Myersville included a marker for Cove Point. Would the Myersville compressor station transport fracked gas to the LNG export facility, residents wanted to know? No, the Dominion salesmen said. Well, maybe, they corrected themselves. The gas, they said, is for Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) and Washington Gas Energy Services (WGE) customers. But BGE and WGE can do whatever they want with the gas.

Myersville is only the beginning. It is part of a next generation of fossil fuel extraction. When the easy fossil fuels dwindled, we should have shifted to renewables, but we didn’t. We opted instead for extremes to get another fossil fuels fix—from tar sands to mountaintop removal of coal to drilling under the oceans to fracking to incinerators. At every turn, we have left sacrificed communities, people and other species forced to live with poisoned land, air and water.

We have a chance to stop this machinery, to keep our communities safe and create many new jobs, but we will need all hands on deck. Here’s the plan:

  • Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) has a nine-city Crossroads Tour about Cove Point. The final event is in Columbia on Tuesday, Dec. 3, from 7:30 to 9 p.m., at the East Columbia branch of the library. Sign up here.
  • CCAN also is pressuring Gov. Martin O’Malley to insist on an Environmental Impact Statement, instead of the weaker Environmental Assessment. You can sign a petition here.

In the June 2012 issue of the journal Nature, researchers said the Earth was headed for calamitous changes and mass extinctions. At a recent forum in Howard County, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist talking about the effect on agriculture of climate change said, “I have a lot of colleagues who have been losing sleep for a lot of years.” While scientists are losing sleep, too many of the rest of us have been sleepwalking.

Naomi Klein recently wrote that scientists, recognizing our climate peril, see resistance movements as our only hope. Those movements are all around us, from Destiny Watford’s student-led Free Your Voice campaign to stop an incinerator in Curtis Bay in Maryland, to Marcellus Outreach Butler’s latest Protect Our Children campaign in Pennsylvania, to Myersville Citizens for a Rural Community‘s work on the compressor station, to CitizenShale’s efforts to look with eyes wide open at fracking in western Maryland, to CCAN’s leadership on Cove Point that has industry taking out full-page ads in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun. James Marriott, who wrote The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London, also senses a change. At a fall event in Baltimore to talk about his book, he said the pipelines laid in the 1960s met with no resistance but opposition is growing to pipelines, fracking, tar sands, LNG terminals. “We must retreat from the destruction of the biosphere,” he said, “retreat from carbon fuels and make a different future.”

We will have to make governments do their job, instead of letting corporations write the regulations and carry on business as usual. Or come up with another plan.

As 1960s activist Mario Salvio said: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.” (With thanks to Shireen Parsons, who has been handing out that versatile quote for 50 years. I met her on the Walk for Our Grandchildren and the action against Environmental Resource Management’s undue influence on review of the Keystone XL pipeline.)

Update on the compressor station: Myersville had another escape route blocked recently, when the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland said local zoning laws are preempted by the federal Natural Gas Act. Missing the point, Dan Donovan, Dominion’s project director for media relations, prattled on about ambience, according to a Frederick newspaper: “The design calls for a green roof and tan siding, and cupolas on the roof to make it appear more rural, or countryside, than industrial.” What the building looks like is the least of Myersville’s worries.

elisabeth hoffman

silenced in the courtroom

August 23, 2013


A joyous Neil and Linda Swanson were escorted in cuffs from the ERM office building.
// photo from

Steve Norris carried a copy of Gandhi the Man, but he knew he wouldn’t get to read a passage to the judge. Alex Hunter-Nickels sang a bit with a few others, but quietly while sitting on a bench outside the courtroom. We gathered in a chatty, hugging, even boisterous bunch near courtroom and were shushed several times. Once inside, we were admonished, and then reminded, not even to whisper. Steven Donkin was told to stop reading his book, a biography of black-listed Hollywood Ten screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. No reading in the courtroom.

For a time, the ERM-54 were muzzled.

Over the past two weeks, the 54 protesters arrested last month in a spirited sit-in at the office building of Keystone XL pipeline apologist Environmental Resources Management (ERM) were arraigned in DC Superior Court. Many, along with their supporters in the courtroom, had also participated in all or part of the 100-mile Walk for Our Grandchildren last month. The ERM protest came on the last day of the walk. Most of the men were arraigned last week, most of the women this week. As arranged by pro bono attorney Jeffrey Light, who also has represented Occupy participants, the protesters pleaded not guilty. The charge: unlawful entry.

Other cases were called first, mostly teens and 20-somethings charged with marijuana possession. While waiting outside the courtroom last week, an orange-jumpsuited prisoner manacled to a wheeled chair was pushed past us. He never appeared in court though. One defendant didn’t like his attorney, although we couldn’t hear the details because the judge switched on white noise when lawyers spoke with clients. One lucky man had all charges dropped and was freed. Another seemed to be the victim of a bait-and-switch. His marijuana charge was dropped, but he was served with a subpoena to appear before a grand jury.

And then the names were called, in bunches of 10 or so:

United States v. Neil Swanson

United States v. Joseph Firman

United States v. Michael Bagdes-Canning (misspelled)

United States v. Steven Donkin

United States v. Melinda Tuhus

United States v. Lillian Marotta (who turned 20 on her day in court)

United States v. Deborah Woolley

United States v. Mary Liepold

And on and on. The ERM-54 had a right to remain silent, which they did, stating their names or indicating they understood the terms of their plea only when asked.

The assistant U.S. attorney said “all the young ladies are diversion eligible,” as were the men. Everyone agreed to return, most on Sept. 9, to sign the “stet” agreement, which is not a simple or inexpensive matter for those coming from New York, Asheville, NC, Pennsylvania, even Seattle. Light said the stet agreement means the charges will be dismissed as long as the defendant isn’t arrested again in the next six months. Which might be hard for people like Norris and his wife, Kendall Hale, who are fighting on many fronts in what is becoming a backwater of a state: North Carolina.

Everyone probably will also be ordered to stay away from ERM’s offices at 1776 I St. NW in DC. Community service or a fine could be part of the terms, but Light said he doubted that. After two years, Light said, the arrest record could also be expunged.

Then everyone had to sign a form indicating the conditions of release. The court, I kid you not, makes carbon copies of this form. Are they taunting us? The ERM-54 had shouted to the world about the Keystone XL pipeline, ERM’s lies and “game over for the planet” from all this carbon we are digging up and spewing into the atmosphere. And now a form with carbon copies.

Then each defendant left the courtroom. Joseph Firman raised his fist and smiled on the way out. Others hugged or kissed friends there for support. Or brandished the court’s form like a badge of honor.

From there, everyone had to walk to a nearby room to provide proof of address (A driver’s license is not proof. Those without a piece of mail or a bill on hand have a letter sent to the address; when it arrives, they have to call to confirm receipt.)

And then, like every other defendant, they had to pee in a cup in the presence of an officer of the court to make sure no cheating was going on. They are trying to stop climate catastrophe, but the ERM-54 can’t be on drugs while they’re at it. Or poppy seeds. Bill Shauman wrote in an email that he “had a slice of Whole Foods (how bourgeois can a protester get?) black Russian rye loaded with them that morning. So I had forebodings.” When he returned the next day with proof of address, he learned “that sure enough I had tested positive for opiates. So now [I’ve] got to meet my case manager. No use explaining about the rye bread — they have heard all those excuses before. And this is a no-bullshit environment. I dare say I’ll pass the next two tests, but it’s nice to know that if by chance I didn’t, DC would refer me to a free treatment program.”

Turns out getting arrested for the sake of future generations is not hassle-free. “We have to be willing to be inconvenienced,” said Woolley, who took a red-eye flight from Seattle to arrive in time for the arraignment and arranged to return in October when fares are reduced. We might have to get arrested, pee in a cup, walk instead of drive. “We might have to live a more inconvenient lifestyle. Convenience has gotten us into this fix,” she said.

The ERM-54 and their supporters certainly got a taste of the criminal justice system.

Jerry Stewart found it “a bit jarring to see all of our names up on screens, listed with the crimes we were accused of committing. Seeing criminals in handcuffs shuffling around with lawyers really impressed upon me the realities of the American prison system and what being in jail actually means.”

Shauman said, “Court personnel treated us all, black and white, quite respectfully — I am not used to being addressed as ‘mister’ — instructions were easy to understand, and you had to walk only a little way to get to the next processing point. All in all, a fleeting glimpse of a world that all too many residents of the city know well.”

Discussion before and after the hearing highlighted some bewilderment or perhaps frustration at having to plead “not guilty” for an action we all deemed imperative. 

The day before the first arraignment, Valerie Serrels — mother of the iMatter teens Grant and Garrett, who participated in the Walk and the ERM protest but didn’t risk arrest because they had to speak at a climate rally the next day — emailed an article by Jeremy Brecher in Waging Nonviolence. He lays out the iMatter “public trust” argument that governments should protect the commons: “Governments will no doubt continue to treat protesters who block pipelines, coal mines and power plants as criminals. But such governments come into court with dirty hands, stained by their dereliction of the duty to protect the common inheritance of their own people,” he wrote. “Those who blockade coal-fired power plants or sit down at the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline can — and should — insist that they are simply exercising their right and responsibility to protect the atmospheric commons they own along with all of present and future humankind.

Before the second day of arraignments, Shireen Parsons handed out a 1964 quote by Mario Savio printed on a little slip of paper: “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.” 

The ERM-54 and its supporters wanted to expose corporate collusion and government complicity and coverup in the rush to extract and transport the tar sands carbon bomb. And days after the arrests, the State Department announced it would investigate ERM’s conduct in preparing the pipeline environmental impact statement. Couldn’t these cases be put on hold until the State Department investigation is complete? Or couldn’t the group plead the action was a “necessity” because of climate change? But Light said those would not be winning defenses. 

“Our civil disobedience involved regular folks pointing to criminal behavior perpetrated by a large corporation acting with impunity,” Bagdes-Canning said. “We do a perp walk, and even though many of these conflicts and ties were revealed years ago, ERM to date has not been charged with anything and no one is put in cuffs but us. … In Pennsylvania, we call our Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Don’t Expect Protection because the health and safety of the citizens of Pennsylvania are secondary to the bottom line of industry. Apparently, things in Washington, D.C., are not much different.” 

Parsons wrote in an email: “I found the whole experience Kafkaesque, particularly when I compared the ‘crimes’ of all those people and us, a bunch of old farts who care about the Earth and all of Earth’s creatures, (including everyone’s children and grandchildren) — against the crimes of our government and the corporations that own it.”

Yes, we were muzzled, Norris said. “The court wants it that way. It’s not set up to give us a voice. Geniuses like the Berrigans figured out ways to do that, turning the courtroom into a theater with a performance that they controlled. I hope someday we can do that. But that takes creativity, courage and planning.”

So, the ERM-54 was silenced for a day. But they and their supporters emerged united and looking for the next step. 

Steven Yoder found a “sense of connection” he had not anticipated and deeply appreciates. “As we witnessed several other persons going through the arraignment process, I felt bad for them not having anyone to support them and share in their distress. It strikes me that a part of what we were protesting is the breakdown of community that allows dangerous and destructive things like building pipelines to transport more dirty oil to happen,” he wrote in an email. “It takes communities to stand up to evil, and in our action we have created a new community. Witness the flurry of email communication since the action! We can’t stop talking with each other, encouraging each other, helping each other!”

In an email, Norris wrote: “I get a sense that this struggle is escalating. 2000 climate activists or maybe more have been arrested in the last year. We are approaching the energy & power we had in the 60s when we ended Jim Crow, challenged the War machine so the US had to get out of Vietnam, started the women’s movement, gay rights movement, & environmental movement. These eventually brought nuclear power to its knees & ended the nuclear arms race, and enabled Latin American countries to throw off some if their chains.” He said the Walk for our Grandchildren started as a “political project” to stop the KXL pipeline and end our dependence on fossil fuels. “ But as we walked it morphed as well into a pilgrimage. I did not expect that at all. And what to do with the pilgrims and the sacred moving place we arrived at and the energy we created … that’s our challenge.”

–elisabeth hoffman