Environmental advocates to stage Vancouver events

Nationally known author, activist to speak at Clark College

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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As controversy swirls around proposed coal and oil projects in the Northwest, turning the region into a new epicenter for environmental advocates, a pair of events this month will put Vancouver squarely in the spotlight.

Nationally known activist and author Bill McKibben will deliver a speech Wednesday at Clark College's Gaiser Hall. His focus will be climate change, what many call a growing climate movement, and the campaign against proposed fossil fuel export terminals in the region.

Ten days later, on July 27, hundreds of demonstrators are expected to turn out by land and water to protest the idea of sending large amounts of coal and oil through the Northwest on its way to be burned elsewhere. Organizers are urging as many people as possible to bring kayaks. They hope to form a floating human chain, hand in hand, across the Columbia River.

"We hope to use this event to open the eyes of people in the Northwest and the nation," said Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, a volunteer organizer with Rising Tide Portland who is helping coordinate the event. "Really, the Northwest is the new front line."

The debate has largely centered around plans to ship coal through the Northwest by train and barge on its way to energy-hungry markets in Asia. What was once six proposed terminals is now three, including a large facility in Longview.

More recently, a proposed crude oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver has added a new wrinkle to the controversy. Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies, already seeking a lease agreement with the port, want to build a facility that would handle as much as 380,000 barrels of oil per day, shipped in by train.

Environmental advocates and other opponents have said the plans create too many health and safety risks for the communities they would impact, and only compound the dangers of global climate change by burning more fossil fuels. Supporters have said the facilities would bring a much-needed economic boost and new jobs to the region.

The coal export issue is much more nuanced than opponents' arguments would suggest, said Lauri Hennessey of the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, an industry trade group that supports coal exports. Hennessey said many people have come to favor the idea once they learn more about it.

"This is a very complicated issue. A lot of people are responding emotionally," Hennessey said, arguing that "these projects are actually not going to contribute to climate change."

Hennessey said any coal sent from the Northwest to Asia would account for a small percentage of what's being consumed there. And passing up the opportunity for the Northwest only means those markets would import coal from elsewhere, she said.

"They're not going to stop using coal," Hennessey said.

McKibben's far-reaching advocacy group, 350.org, has identified the Northwest as just one of several battlefields in the debate over fossil fuels and climate change. The group's "Summer Heat" campaign will stage demonstrations in at least 11 different locations across the country, including one in Portland-Vancouver on July 27. In a call to action posted and signed by McKibben and four others, the group made it clear it means business.

"We need some of you to risk going to jail, and all of you to show up and speak out," the statement read.

It continued: "We'll have people there to train for the actions -- every case there will be options for people who don't want to risk arrest, but if you're ready to take it to the next level, there will be lawyers and such on hand to help. This will be peaceful, dignified, but firm. We're serious."

For this month's event on the Columbia River, however, organizers aren't looking for a confrontation, Zimmer-Stucky said. Demonstrators won't attempt to block a barge should one come down the river during the protest, she said.

"The safety of our participants is our No. 1 priority," Zimmer-Stucky said.

The event, coupled with McKibben's visit, gives the fossil fuel export issue an even higher profile in the region, said Laura Stevens, a field organizer with the Portland-based Sierra Club. She described McKibben as "the face of climate activism" today.

McKibben is the author of more than a dozen books on the environment and climate change. His first, "The End of Nature," was published in 1989. McKibben stages frequent appearances and events on the subject across the country.

McKibben's Gaiser Hall speech begins at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, with the doors opening at 7 p.m. Tickets are available on a sliding scale cost, with suggested donations of $5 to $50.

The July 27 350.org event will include workshops and speakers starting at 10 a.m., with the main protest beginning at 1:30 p.m.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; eric.florip@columbian.com.