President Obama last month delivered a groundbreaking speech on climate change, promising to bypass a gridlocked Congress and direct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue regulations to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from power plants.
You might think such a speech would earn praise from environmentalists, and it did. But it also sparked protests and marches -- including a weeklong march from Camp David, in Maryland, to the White House that is scheduled to conclude tomorrow (photo above). Why the shouting at the President's home? Because of his speech's ambiguity about the controversial Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline project, which critics say could trigger the release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide.
More on that in a minute. But first, here is the part of the President's speech that won applause from climate activists:
“Today, about 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution comes from our power plants,” the President told an audience at Georgetown University on June 25. “But here’s the thing: Right now, there are no federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution that those plants can pump into our air. None. Zero. We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury and sulfur and arsenic in our air or our water. But power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That’s not right. That’s not safe. And it needs to stop.”
The president also addressed the proposed pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico that would make it easier to extract oil from high-pollution Canadian tar sands.
“The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward,” Obama said.
But notice the wording: He said the pipeline’s “net” effects.
“It definitely was a cryptic statement, and I think both sides could take it either way,” said Chip Knappenberger, an assistant director at Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. His said believes the Keystone XL pipeline will cause no net –- or additional total –- damage to the climate, because the tar sands oil could be pumped out anyway through existing pipelines.
“The president was basically saying that he would approve the pipeline, because it was not a significant interference with the climate,” Knappenberger said.
That may or may not have been what President Obama intended to convey. In fact, the President said the State Department continues to studying the issue. But the ambiguous wording set off alarms among climate activists.
“We say no to Keystone XL!” activists recently chanted outside the Presidential retreat, at Camp David, in Frederick County, Maryland. “We say no to Keystone XL!”
On July 19, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and allied groups began an eight-day, 100-mile march from Camp David to the White House. About 75 protesters camped in the rain and ignored heat advisories as they marched along the C & O Canal trail, with some duct taping their blistered feet to keep walking.
As they marched, they carried signs and banners and sang: “We’re going to roll. We’re going to roll, we’re going to roll this movement on! And if coal gets in the way, we’re going to roll right over them.”
Kendall Hale is one of about two dozen grandparents who marched to deliver a message to the president’s door step.
“I think that climate change is the greatest moral dilemma and issue of our times,” Hale said as she walked through Frederick County. “And as I am 63 and heading into the latter part of life, I feel strongly about leaving a planet that is habitable and sustainable for my descendants.”
The march is one of several protests taking place across the country in what is called the “Summer Heat” campaign to pressure the President to follow through with promises in his speech. In Nebraska, protesters said they plan to erect a wind turbine to block the path of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
In both Ohio and Maryland, protesters also are raising their voices against hydraulic fracturing for natural gas -– which the President favors as part of a diverse energy strategy.
“The bottom line is, we need to figure out a way in this country, because of climate change, to keep the lights on without lighting things on fire,” said Mike Tidwell, founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action network. “You know, without torching, exploding, and combusting things. And so a lot more natural gas, through fracking, is not the answer. In fact, it could be part of the problem.”
These activists believe the march of history must be away from fossil fuels, and toward renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar. They see their march as part of another civil rights movement: for humanity’s right to a planet we can live with.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation