As Shell Oil prepares to put delicate ecosystems and human communities at risk as it increases its exports to Asia, activists are also escalating their efforts to put the brakes on their business.
ANACORTES, Washington — After years of marches and land-based blockades, environmental activists are now taking to the seas to stop the growth of the fossil fuel industry and protest the environmental threats facing them.
Inspired by actions last year against Shell Oil Co.’s plans to drill in the Arctic Circle, which included a kayak-based blockade, activists in the Pacific Northwest are forming a new “Mosquito Fleet” — a swarm of tiny boats that they hope will have a big impact by acting together.
Lois Canright, a fleet member who recently completed her first action, told MintPress News, “To me, the most important thing that I can do for me and everyone on this planet is to try and lower emissions down and to try to throw some wrenches into the fossil fuel infrastructure, especially because they’re trying to expand it in our region.”
The fleet took to the waters earlier this month, joining an effort by Break Free PNW to halt traffic from major fossil fuel export terminals operated by Shell Oil and Tesoro, another fossil fuel giant, at March Point in Anacortes, Washington, on the Puget Sound in the Salish Sea.
Starting May 13, activists on land spent three days blocking the BNSF tracks used to ship Bakken crude from the fields in the Midwest to the terminals where it is exported to Asia. Because March Point is ancestral land, Native American activists from the Snohomish and other tribes also took part.
“All the fossil fuels they can’t sell here, they’re trying to sell to developing markets overseas,” explained Penny Dex, a Mosquito Fleet organizer, in an interview with MintPress.
There were 52 arrests from the railroad blockade, and although no members of the fleet went to jail, Shell and Tesoro halted shipments through the Puget Sound for three days.
“We cost Shell $3 million by not having their tankers there,” Dex estimated.
Watch “Direct Action Gets The Goods” from Break Free PNW:
‘First responders’ against climate change
The activists hope the Anacortes action is just the beginning. Canright said the fleet plans to become “first responders” for climate change, able to quickly mobilize anywhere Shell is using the waters to make a profit.
Ultimately, the plan is to create a decentralized network of Mosquito Fleet teams throughout the region. “We’re trying to make it to where we can have [boats] all along the I-5 corridor, basically from Coos Bay, Oregon, all the way up to Vancouver, British Columbia,” Dex said.
“In the fall, in September, we’re hoping to do a ‘kayak-tion’ camp, once again sharing the skills we’ve learned, with an emphasis on safety and training,” she continued. “We want to make sure that whatever happens you feel safe enough to take care of yourself and others.”
She predicted, “You’re going to see more of us and Shell is our target and we’re not going to stop until they stop.”
The fleet takes its name from the original Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet, a team of hundreds of small vessels that provided vital transportation between the mainland and island communities from the 1870s until the 1930s. The U.S. Navy also formed mosquito fleets, one of which famously included President John F. Kennedy.
Dex is also a veteran, but from modern conflicts in the Middle East. She participated in Iraq Veterans Against the War before joining the environmental movement last year at a Greenpeace action against arctic drilling. She said she believes the two movements are closely linked:
“There’s veterans in this movement now, there’s veterans in the Mosquito Fleet. They’ll all tell you Iraq was fought for oil, it was a war of resources. A lot of our friends died so that everybody else can have cheap oil. But that cheap oil comes at a very high price for people and the planet.”
Canright lamented, “The status quo and business as usual is so addicted to oil that they basically say, ‘No I won’t be alive, I won’t have to worry about it.’” But as temperatures continue to rise worldwide, she said the time has come for activists to escalate their actions against the fossil fuel industry.
Although a lifelong activist and policy lobbyist, Canright said she joined the Mosquito Fleet because it’s a highly focused group that is ready to act decisively.
“I love the way life on earth is existing right now, and I believe climate change is going to twist it radically out of balance,” she explained.
Dex said she knows the stakes are high, but the risk to the planet is even higher. “Yes I’m going against the overwhelming behemoth of the oil-industrial complex,” she said, “but I’m going to go out swinging.”
Watch “Anti-oil protesters with kayaks leaving Anacortes, WA” from OverSkagit.com:
Saving Seattle and the Salish Sea
Climate activists are alarmed by a dramatic increase in oil train traffic and oil train explosions. There were a total of 10 oil train explosions between 2013 and 2015, including the devastating Lac-Megantic explosion which killed 47 people in a small town in Quebec.
After losing billions on their failed efforts to drill in the Arctic Circle, a failure due in part to the bad publicity generated by climate activists, Shell and other fossil fuel companies are seeking to expand exports of the highly unstable Bakken crude to Asia. That means expanding Shell export terminals throughout the Pacific Northwest, including at March Point.
“We’ve become the export hotspot to Asia,” Canright said.
The increased rail traffic means any community between the oil fields and the terminals could be the next Lac-Megantic, and Seattle itself could face an especially high risk of a devastating accident.
“These Bakken oil trains go right through all the towns, including underneath the city of Seattle,” said Canright. “It goes right under downtown.”
Seattle officials, including members of the fire department and City Council, raised the alarm last year about BNSF railway’s use of a poorly maintained, 105-year-old tunnel beneath the city, KOMO News reported in November 2014.
“A train carrying up to three million gallons of highly flammable Bakken crude oil runs one- to three-times every day right under downtown Seattle through a century-old tunnel that does not meet modern safety standards, according to BNSF Railway and Seattle fire officials,” wrote Jeff Burnside.
A Nov. 24, 2014 letter from the Seattle City Council to the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Spill Prevention, Preparedness and Response Program warned that the tunnels pose “great risk to public safety” in the city.
“Residents of Seattle and Washington are demanding that their elected leaders protect them from the dangers of transporting fossil fuels running through Seattle and other Washington communities every day,” the council members concluded.
Watch “Anti-Oil Protesters Block Railway in Washington State” from OverSkagit.com:
The toxic cargo carried by the oil trains also pollutes the air, land, and water in their immediate surroundings.
“It’s a toxic energy form, and living close to it you really get to know it. You smell it, you breathe it,” Canright, who lives near March Point, said.
The delicate ecosystems of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea are especially vulnerable, she said, adding, “It is such a stellar and amazing marine environment.”
March Point is home to one of the largest blue heron populations in North America and a colony of harbor porpoises. Tesoro plans to break ground on a xylene extraction facility this year, and opponents warn that it will only increase the environmental risk.
“One leak will trash our whole ecosystem here,” said Canright.
A climate justice movement for everybody, even oil workers
Without any oil tankers to block, the Mosquito Fleet chose instead to target the oil workers at Anacortes. The group supports the Just Transition movement, which aims to build solidarity between the labor and climate movements.
Unfortunately, Dex described local workers creating a hostile environment, and recalled being called an “ecoterrorist” in a local grocery store. Hoping to reach the refinery workers, the fleet landed on the beaches outside the Shell terminal property with signs and banners. She explained:
“We were there to talk to the workers. We’re not here to take their jobs and make them not able to support their families. We want them to be able to support their families on a planet that’s surviving.”
The group was careful to avoid the actual piers used by tankers, where activists would have faced more serious charges.
“We ended up doing a landing and a banner raise on the property of the terminals,” said Canright.
About 100 activists took part in the landing, including Jill Stein, the Green Party’s presumptive nominee for in the 2016 presidential election. Stein’s platform includes a plan to radically redirect resources from the fossil fuel industry into renewable energy.
— Alex Garland (@AGarlandPhoto) May 14, 2016
Like Stein, Dex wants to see a new national focus for the fossil fuel industry. She explained:
“Instead of dumping all this money into arctic drilling and things that don’t work, Shell should be putting its money into research and development to find greener energy that’s actually going to last.”
Canright told MintPress she also appreciates the Mosquito Fleet’s emphasis on building localized movements, and sharing protest skills with the people most affected by climate change.
“Climate change is a really frightening, almost paralyzingly frightening thing to face by myself. I kind of believe we all need to be in a group of like-minded people who are working to sustain our individual momentum,” she said.
Dex said the old forms of protest have lost their relevancy, and activists must directly block oil and gas industry development.
“This is where we make our stand,” she said. “This is life or death. … We can’t fight on a dead planet.”
Watch “Jill Stein at Break Free PNW Indigenous Day of Action” from Todd Boyle: