Students attend Washington rally

Posted on March 06, 2013 in News
By Sidney Dritz

Thousands of people from across the country gathered in front of the White House in an environmental protest on Feb. 17.
Courtesy of Shaun Carland
Thousands of people from across the country gathered in front of the White House in an environmental protest on Feb. 17.

Glen Brand, director of the Maine branch of the Sierra Club, said the message the nearly 50,000 protestors at 350.org’s Forward On Climate rally in Washington D.C. this Presidents Day were hoping to send to the president “was to let him know we have his back.”

The Feb. 17 rally was attended by protesters from all over the country. According to Brand, the Maine branch of the Sierra Club alone sent down four busses full of people. Some of the momentum of the Maine contingent of the rally can be traced back to January’s protests in Portland against the pumping of tar sands oil through the Portland Montreal Pipeline. If this plan were put into action, Brand said, “It would be catastrophic, environmentally and financially.”

Tar sands oil, Brand said, has a higher rate for spills than conventional oil and can be almost impossible to clean up in the event of a spill. He cited the tar sands oil spill of July 2010 in Michigan’s Kalamazoo river, on which $750 million has been spent to clean up so far.

When asked to comment on the protest, the Portland Pipeline Corporation sent inquiries to Edward S. O’Meara, Jr. of Garrand, the company’s public relations firm, who shared a statement with the press that was released after January’s initial protests. The statement assured that the pipeline company has no immediate plans in the works to transport any tar sands oil, and fully intends to scrupulously follow government regulations, should they choose to do so in the future.

According to Brand, though, it is precisely government regulations that need to change. Brand is a firm supporter of Rep. Chellie Pingree’s recent letter to the Obama administration asking that any plans to reverse the flow of the Portland Montreal Pipeline to carry tar sands be subject to additional environmental review and a permitting process. When asked to respond to Pingree’s letter, which was sent Feb. 20, O’Meara said that Garrand is currently in the process of composing a response.

Brand advocated for stricter environmental changes across the board. “What we really need is for the president to start setting some real limits on carbon,” he said, explaining that the president has already set carbon limits on power plants that have yet to be built and that what he needs to do now is set limits on the existing ones. Such a decision, he said, is within the president’s power. He understands that the president’s power is limited by Congress, but he hopes the president will do what he can.

When asked what impact he felt the rally had had, Brand mentioned Pingree’s letter and a meeting concerning the divestment movement at Bowdoin that took place Feb. 23 and 24. He also mentioned the galvanization of those who participated.

Among those in attendance were a handful of University of Southern Maine students, including junior geography and anthropology major Patrick Raph. “It’s good to see that many like-minded, aware people,” Raph said.

Raph is a member of Students for Environmental Awareness and Sustainability, a relatively new student group at USM, which was founded by its current president, junior math and computer science major Shaun Carland this past December. Carland, who also attended the rally, was similarly inspired by the scope of the attendees. “The question,” Carland said, “is where do we go from here?”

Carland further emphasized the importance of working to oppose the pumping of tar sands oil through the Portland Montreal pipeline. He mentioned the South Portland city council’s scheduled workshop on March 11 to discuss the city’s position on tar sands oil. Carland’s own group will not be sitting idle, either. SEAS will be hosting Carbon Fest on March 13. The event will be held in the Woodbury Campus Center as a way to ensure that the USM student body is aware of climate change.

Raph, too, was hopeful about the momentum set in motion by the rally, although when asked about whether or not he felt the rally had been a success, he answered, “yes and no.” While he expressed no complaints about the rally itself, when it came to the rally’s impact, he said, “It came out a few days later that Obama was on a golfing trip with the oil executives.”