UMass students protest Keystone pipeline in capital

By Patrick Hoff

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Flickr/Emma Cassidy

Over 40,000 protesters flooded the United States capital on Feb.17 in an effort to alert President Barack Obama to the potential repercussions that approving the Keystone XL pipeline could have on the future of the country and climate change.

“It felt like something was happening, something of meaning was happening there that day,” said Ariel Walcutt, an earth systems major and one of the almost 30 protesters from the University of Massachusetts. “People were really taking a stand against the fossil fuel industry, especially in regards to the Keystone XL pipeline. I was really amazed by the diversity of groups and interests represented, since there were many universities. All five colleges were represented.”

According to the TransCanada Corporation website, the Keystone XL pipeline would run from Alberta to Nebraska transporting tar sands. It would be an addition to the already existing Keystone pipeline, which transports crude oil from Alberta to Illinois and Oklahoma. (SOURCE: http://www.transcanada.com/keystone.html)

Walcutt said that there were people from all over the United States and Canada, including indigenous peoples who would be affected by the pipeline. She added that some people had traveled for two days just for the opportunity to protest the pipeline.

“I think that it would have been nice to see a lot more students,” Natasha Blayney, a junior natural resource conservation major, said. “I guess there were only six buses from western Mass. and six buses from Boston, and Boston has a huge student population, so that in itself is pretty depressing if there’s the same amount of buses going from western Massachusetts as a metropolitan area.”

“I think in terms of having the same number of people who protested, say, the Vietnam War, I mean, that would be amazing,” she added. “But with the Vietnam War, you had the students being directly affected … and until that happens, unfortunately people just aren’t going to wake up to the fact that this is happening. The environmental movement has a long way to go. But the crowd was good.”

The protest began around 11 a.m. at the Washington Hotel where protesters met and prepared to march to the National Mall where a stage had been set up for speakers who kicked off the rally. Speakers included Bill McKibben, founder of the environmentalist website 350.org, Van Jones, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and indigenous people of the United States and Canada.

After about an hour of speeches, protesters lined up along Constitution Avenue and marched to the White House, which they circled while holding signs and chanting.

“The energy was just so intense,” Jim Sowell, Vice President of the Sustainable UMass Action Coalition (SUMAC), said. “Everyone was there for the same reason. Everyone was there because they realized how important this was.”

The UMass contingent of the protest created a sign that read, “We Must Rise Faster Than the Seas,” a slogan invented by Aaron Karp, a UMass alumnus who has been working closely with SUMAC to create a divestment campaign on campus. Karp said that the slogan was inspired by the minutemen of the American Revolution who had to be ready at a moment’s notice to fight, similar to the way environmentalists rise up to fight oil companies. He added that the slogan was especially fitting for a UMass banner considering the mascot of UMass is Sam the Minuteman.

“Something that really shocked me about the Keystone XL pipeline is that even with land ownership, if people own the land, companies are allowed to drill under,” Walcutt said. “Companies can buy subsurface rights, which I thought was really scary. When you own a piece of land, you think you have power over it, but the undermining of that ownership was really shocking to me.”

Walcutt, Sowell and Karp all agreed that the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would devastate the climate. It would open the door to continual fossil fuel usage across the country and throughout the world – a problem that they believe has already gotten too large. Walcutt said that currently the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is about 400 parts per million but the goal is 350 parts per million, meaning that the atmosphere is already too contaminated.

“If the Keystone pipeline goes through, what’s to stop another pipeline?” Blayney said. “I feel like once you pass these things, it just gives more leeway for others to do the same. They think that it’s okay when it’s not.”

While the protesters marched in the wind and cold, President Obama was in Florida playing golf with oil executives, a fact that some protesters took offense to, according to the Huffington Post.

“I just think he’s a little hypocritical when he says that he wants to do all these great things for climate policy, but we have yet to see if he actually does them,” Sowell said. “The State of the Union was great when he was talking about combating climate change, but in the same speech he was talking about coal and drilling for oil at home. Those contradict each other.”

He added, “Obama talks the talk, but he needs to start walking the walk.”

Blayney also said that she feels many people on the left are turning against Obama for his lack of action regarding climate change despite voting for him for a second term. She showed some sympathy for the president, however, admitting that he probably has to please the oil executives in order to get certain types of funding for the country.

“[Obama] going down to Florida, it says a lot, but there is the potential for change,” Blayney added. “I have faith in him. I probably shouldn’t have faith in him, but I do.”

Patrick Hoff can be reached at [email protected]