In a dramatic but symbolic statement, hundreds of demonstrators converged on the Columbia River on Saturday to protest fossil fuel exports.
As marchers walked along a pedestrian path on the Interstate 5 Bridge — stretching nearly the length of the entire span at one point — dozens of boats, mostly small kayaks, formed a symbolic blockade on the water below. Many held signs and shouted chants on the way.
Their message: proposed oil, coal and natural gas facilities in the Northwest won’t go through without a fight.
“If they can’t ship it, then they can’t burn it, and they can’t extract it,” said Trip Jennings of Portland Rising Tide, the advocacy group that organized the event.
The protest remained peaceful, with no intervention by the law enforcement officers on hand. But three demonstrators who used rope to illegally rappel off the I-5 Bridge and display a banner under the bridge deck may face trespassing charges, said Sgt. Tim Huberty of the Vancouver Police Department.
The banner read “COAL OIL GAS/NONE SHALL PASS.” The three who put it in place hung below the bridge for much of the protest.
The stunt caught the attention of several law enforcement agencies as authorities sorted out just whose jurisdiction it fell to. The three rappelled off the bridge toward the south end — in Portland — on an interstate highway. Sheriff’s deputies from Clark and Multnomah counties watched from the water. The U.S. Coast Guard also looked on, as the banner unfurled within one of the main shipping channels under the bridge.
Ultimately, officers decided not to engage the three when they finally climbed back onto the bridge, Huberty said. But Vancouver police will send surveillance photos to Portland and Multnomah County authorities to determine possible charges, he said.
Saturday’s protest was part of a series of events planned by environmental advocates across the country this summer. The campaign, dubbed “Summer Heat,” aims to increase pressure against fossil fuels in an effort to reduce or reverse the effects of climate change.
The Northwest has become a focal point in that debate. Three proposed coal export terminals, including one in Longview, would send millions of tons of coal through the Northwest en route to energy-hungry markets in Asia.
Just last week, Port of Vancouver commissioners approved a lease agreement with two companies that want to build an oil terminal at the port that could handle as much as 380,000 barrels of crude oil per day before shipping it to U.S. refineries. Activists have also turned their attention to new natural gas infrastructure in the region.
“It seems like we are in a high-stakes game of whack-a-mole,” said Vancouver resident Don Steinke, who is involved with the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign.
Proponents of those plans tout the economic benefit and jobs they would bring to the region. The oil terminal, for example, would create an estimated 250 temporary construction jobs and 120 full-time positions, most of them hired locally, according to the companies proposing it. Coal backers say the three export terminals still on the table could generate thousands of jobs in Washington and Oregon.
Among the larger groups fighting against fossil fuels is 350.org, founded by nationally known activist and author Bill McKibben. McKibben spoke to a capacity crowd at Clark College’s Gaiser Hall earlier this month.
McKibben didn’t attend Saturday’s protest. But several people invoked McKibben’s words, including his description of the Northwest as a crucial “choke point” in the fight against fossil fuels. The region is uniquely positioned between coal and oil resources to the east, and large markets to the west. Stopping the facilities here would be a major tipping point in the fight against climate change, opponents said.
The event drew people from well outside of the Portland-Vancouver area. Visitors made the trip from Seattle, Bellingham — near the site of another proposed coal export terminal — even Vancouver, B.C. At one point, a singing group of older women known as the “Raging Grannies” shared a few songs about fossil fuels.
Protesters on the I-5 Bridge drew frequent honks from vehicles passing by. The demonstration also backed up freeway traffic for much of the afternoon.
Organizer Mia Reback called the event a major success overall. An estimated 700 people turned out, she said, including about 150 people who took boats out on the water.
“I think it speaks to how powerful these issues are,” Reback said.