Anti-tar sands march draws 5,000 to protest extraction projects

Midwest the new ‘ground zero’ for environmental movement, organizers say

Protesters march through the streets of St. Paul Credit: Jill Bachelder

Organizers estimate more than 5,000 protesters took to the streets on Saturday to protest tar sands extraction and oil pipeline projects.

Sponsored by the Indigenous Environmental Network, Interfaith Power & Light, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, 350 and Energy Action coalition, the protest included people from across the Midwest who convened at the Union Depot in St. Paul and marched to the State Capitol. Holding banners and signs, they chanted slogans as they walked such as “Love water, not oil!” and “Pipelines spill, tar sands kill!”

The protest was meant to send a message that people in the Midwest are in favor of environmentally friendly alternatives to fossil fuels, such as solar and wind technology, Sierra Club National President Aaron Mair said.

“We’re reminding the president and reminding America that we’re heading in the wrong direction,” Mair explained.

The march was structured to highlight how different communities are affected by pipeline projects, Catherine Collentine, the Sierra Club’s tar sands campaign representative, said. At the front of the march were indigenous groups.

“They are the folks that started this fight, and we are here to support them,” Collentine said. “We know that our indigenous block up at the front are the folks that are going to continue to lead us every step of the way.”

Following the indigenous groups were young people, to demonstrate that it is this generation and younger generations to come that will be affected most by ongoing extraction, Collentine said.

Next were people from communities whose lands have been directly impacted by pipelines, such as local farmers. The last two groups were religious organizations, followed by the community as a whole.

Dawnita Blackhawk, an indigenous woman from Winnebego, Nebraska, said that she felt it was her duty to protect the environment.

“I’m here with my relatives and that’s what we all come together for, is to take care of these lands,” Blackhawk said. “You know, they take care of us, provide for us and the water and the air and the creatures that we eat, the fruit and trees. We need to do that too.

“I am right in the area where those kinds of things are happening, and I don’t want my home destroyed.”

Andrea, an indigenous woman attending the march, said she has seen the detrimental effects oil extraction had at Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota and came to prevent anything like that from happening to her own reservation.

“We see how much it has affected the other reservations up north, and we don’t want that,” she said.

Kristina Femal, a hydrogeology student at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, explained the march was very personal to her because benzene, a naturally occurring component of crude oil, sickened her mother.

“I really want to help the environment and stop more people dying of leukemia like my mom because of these toxic chemicals,” Femal said.

She noted that other attempts to stop fracking and drilling have succeeded when communities unite in protest.

“This isn’t in vain,” Femal said. “These things actually work which is why we need to keep doing this and hopefully we can just get more juice behind it and get more people involved.”

In the student portion of the march, Emily Anger, a speech-language-hearing sciences student at the University of Minnesota, noted people should think more about the effects of environmentally damaging projects on young people.

“I feel like a lot of people […] don’t really think about how much harm this could do in the future,” Anger said.

Dave Logsdon, president of Minnesota’s chapter of Veterans for Peace, highlighted the connection between extraction projects and violence.

“All these wars that we fight are all about oil aren’t they? And so the militarization,” Logsdon said. “The military is the greatest polluter in the world, we need to stop this in every way we can.”

The new ‘ground zero’

Organizers are focusing more and more on pipelines proposed by Enbridge Energy, based in Alberta, Canada, which would run through the Midwest. One of these is the Sandpiper pipeline will transport crude oil from North Dakota, which this month passed a key hurdle when the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission granted Enbridge a certificate of need for the project.

Collentine said organizers of the march chose to have it in St. Paul due to Minnesota’s key location for transporting oil and natural gas from Alberta.

“We knew we needed to have [the march] in a place where this hit close to home, and Minneapolis was the place for that,” she said. “Not only are they impacted by those tar sands pipelines, but we also have a lot of the trains that are carrying different types of oil going through the Twin Cities, going through Wisconsin, going through a lot of these other places.

“So this was the heart of the fight. This area is ground zero for what we are doing in the Midwest.”