February 2, 2013

Alarm over climate 'tipping point' fueled Portland rally

Hoping to restrict pipelines and quash the pursuit of tar sands oil, activists make their global fight local.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

It is a scientific measurement: 350 parts per million.

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On Jan. 26, 1,400 protesters made Portland a regional focal point against the extraction and transportation of Canada’s tar sands oil. For environmentalists, the rally was about more than just a pipeline.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Now 350 has become the organizing symbol for a global social movement, and its power was on display a week ago in Portland.

Despite bitter cold, more than 1,400 people converged on the city from across New England and eastern Canada. They came to protest the threat of a spill from a thick form of petroleum that might someday be pumped through a pipeline that runs from Portland to Montreal.

But this rally wasn't just about a pipeline. At its root is a scientific calculation that the world must lower the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, or suffer stronger storms, droughts and other extreme weather events associated with climate change. The rally was orchestrated by the people behind 350.org, a website devoted to climate change.

In North America, public attention is focused on tar sands deposits in the province of Alberta. These deposits give Canada the world's second-largest petroleum reserves, behind Saudi Arabia. But environmentalists say full development will release enough CO2 to push the Earth's atmosphere past a "tipping point," making 350 parts per million an impossible goal.

To keep tar sands oil in the ground, activists have launched a coordinated, two-nation effort to block three primary routes in which energy companies want to build or repurpose pipelines. No pipelines, the activists reason, no tar sands oil. One of the routes runs through Ontario to Montreal, and potentially to Portland -- the end of the pipeline.

That's why Portland became a New England focal point Jan. 26, with a rally that drew the largest turnout during a "Day of Action" in communities including Toronto, Montreal and Burlington, Vt.

Portland also served as a preview to what's being billed as the biggest climate rally in history, on Feb. 17, in Washington, D.C.

Over the next two weeks, using the telephone, email, social media and personal contacts, organizers of the 350 movement in Maine and their allies will work to get as many Mainers as they can to the Forward on Climate rally at the nation's capital.

But John Quinn, the executive director of the Boston-based New England Petroleum Council, said these events don't signal to him that momentum is building in the United States to oppose tar sands development. Quinn was in Maine last week along with a representative of Canada's consul general to New England, to attend meetings in Windham and Bethel, where environmental activists are seeking local resolutions to oppose tar-sands oil.

Policymakers, Quinn said, should be aware that Canada already supplies a quarter of U.S. crude oil and is a crucial partner in a shared goal of North American energy independence.

"If we have a choice between oil from Iraq or Canada," he said, "I hope we come down on Canada."

Quinn also noted that up to 70 percent of Maine's gasoline supply comes from the Irving Oil refinery in New Brunswick. A "significant," although unspecified, amount of the crude now is shipped by rail from Alberta's tar sands, he added.

Quinn declined to comment on the 350-parts-per-million benchmark, saying he doesn't understand the science well enough to have an informed opinion.

"I accept the fact that that's what they believe," he said.


The 350 figure stems from an estimate by climate scientists, including NASA's James Hansen. They say that two centuries ago, before the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide was roughly 277 parts per million. Now it's 392 parts per million and rising. To get back to 350, the world needs to burn less coal and oil, and not dig up Canada's tar sands, which Hansen considers one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuels on Earth.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Environmental activist Bill McKibben speaks to the Vermont Legislature last week in Montpelier. The author’s speaking engagement at the State Theatre in November helped build interest in the Jan. 26 tar-sands protest in Portland.

The Associated Press


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