About “Choke Point: An Archival History of Pacific Northwest Fossil Fuel Resistance’”
This project was forged out of a commitment to preserve the history of the unfolding struggle to keep the Pacific Northwest from being transformed into a toxic fossil fuel transport corridor. Inspired by the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project at the University of Washington, the project seeks to add to the existing—and ever-growing body of research—on the unfolding movement to hold what the Seattle-based Sightline Institute has dubbed “the thin green line.” We hope, in particular, that the website can serve as a resource for educators in high schools and universities, and that these documents can help educate and inspire new generations of “climate warriors.”
Videotaped testimony, transcripts, and minutes of public hearings, city council meetings and public gatherings archived on the site provide critical insights into the range and breadth of concerns that are informing the Pacific Northwest struggle. Among the hundreds of thousands of people who have submitted written comments and testified at public hearings from Bellingham, Washington to the Powder River Basin, are Native elders, city council members, port commissioners, nurses, physicians, oncologists and experts in public health, policy analysts for environmental NGOs, union leaders, firefighters, poets, writers, professors, teachers, and school children.
The testimony provides critical insights into the anticipated impacts of fossil fuels on salmon spawning grounds, treaty-protected fishing rights, human cognition, and prenatal development, and a host of other issues. These records—together with videotaped interviews conducted by a research team at Washington State University Vancouver– provide insights into organizing/movement strategies and tactics, and into the motivations and experiences of activists who are integrally involved in fossil fuel resistance in the Pacific Northwest. The hearing testimony preserves the voices of ordinary people stepping up to protect the planet and to try to ensure a future for generations to come. Media coverage is included to help provide relevant context for public hearings and watershed moments in the struggle.
Start up funding for the project—and for a full-length documentary that will include footage of some of the interviews featured on the website—has been provided by the Washington State University Vancouver Diversity Council. To offer comments, suggestions, and contributions of content, including links to relevant public records, etc., email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Stakes in the Pacific Northwest Fossil Fuel Struggle
While national headlines were focused for much of the past decade on the fate of the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Pacific Northwest struggle to hold off the fossil fuel industry has garnered significantly less attention nationally. In 2011, NASA climate scientist James Hansen famously observed that the impact of Keystone XL Pipeline would be devastating. “Essentially, it’s game over for the planet, he observed” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/11/28/taking-it-to-the-streets. And yet, in 2014, researchers with the Seattle-based Sightline Institute estimated that the annual cumulative carbon impacts of the coal, oil and gas terminals proposed for the Pacific Northwest would be five times that of the Keystone XL Pipeline http://www.sightline.org/research_item/northwest-fossil-fuel-exports-2/.
As Bill McKibben, author of the End of Nature, the first book on climate change, made explicit in a talk at Clark College in Vancouver, WA, during the 2013 “Summer Heat” campaign, the stakes in the Northwest struggle are both local and global.
McKibben’s talk followed close on the heels of the July 6, 2013 oil train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec that left 47 dead, destroyed half of the downtown core, and contaminated both land and waterways. Speaking a mere two weeks after the explosion, McKibben noted that concerns about the safety of local communities and waterways were only one piece of a much larger global picture, one in which “Geography is destiny” and in which the Pacific Northwest “has emerged as [a] great chokepoint” in the struggle for the survival of the planet as we know it.
From the standpoint of the fossil fuel industry, Pacific Northwest ports constitute a strategic and necessary asset. They afford the most direct–and cost effective–point of exit for fossil fuels headed variously for west coast refineries and domestic markets, and increasingly for sale and consumption in Asia, where climate activists are also pressing for conversion to more sustainable forms of energy. We have the choice, then, as McKibben framed it, to “open the flood gates” to fossil fuels –from the Alberta Tar Sands in Canada, to the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, to the increasingly lunar landscape of the Bakken formation in North Dakota. Or we can say “No, that’s not going to happen here.” And, as McKibben noted, “if it doesn’t happen here [in Vancouver, Washington] and a few other places along the coast, it really can’t happen anywhere” in the U.S.
Over the past decade, the Pacific Northwest has been remarkably effective in holding fossil fuel companies at bay, but even as we witness the unfolding effects of climate chaos, we recognize that the critical work of “holding the thin green line” is likely to be a decades-long struggle. In the Northwest, we can draw courage from the struggles of front line climate justice communities–from Papua New Guinea, Puerto Rico, the Maldives and the Marshall Islands to the Arctic Circle—that are contending with unfolding climate chaos and displacement. In fact, closer to home, right here in Washington state, coastal tribal nations like the Hoh and the Quinault are dealing with the threats posed by rising sea levels, tsunamis, and ocean acidification. Over the past several years, the Quinault have been formulating plans to move their lower village of Taholah to higher ground. Taholah is home to some 660 people, a hundred of whom are tribal elders http://www.quinaultindiannation.com/planning/projectinfo.html. The voices and testimony of Quinault leaders like tribal Chair Fawn Sharpe, preserved in both hearing testimony and videotaped interviews archived on this site provide critical insights into the challenges and threats that climate change already poses to Pacific Northwest tribal nations.
And if the decades long struggle ahead of us seems like a daunting task, non-Native people might take strength and inspiration from voices like Celilo Wyam activist Lana Jack, who is among the activists we interviewed for the website—and for a full- length documentary in process. For Jack, like so many Native elders and activists—from the Kwakiutl, Nuu chah nulth, and Salish of British Columbia, to the Lummi and Swinomish at the northern most tip of Washington state, to the Northern Cheyenne in the Powder River Basin—the unfolding struggle is part of a far longer history of resistance, one that dates back to 1492. “The torch was handed to me by my mothers….I come from a long line of maternal ancestors at Celilo. I was borne into the activism. They are water protectors from the get, trying to save Celilo Falls and keep it from being flooded and at the same time trying not to be exterminated as a people.” The 1957 drowning of the Celilo Falls—now the site of the Dalles Dam– serves as a critical reminder that Native communities and lands have too long been treated as disposable commodities, as acceptable collateral damage of a windigo fossil fuel economy.
As Naomi Klein observes in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,in recent years, “the sacrifice zones have gotten a great deal larger, swallowing ever more territory, putting many people who thought they were safe at risk,” and “several of the largest zones are located in some of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world” (311). In the Pacific Northwest, as in so many places around the world, much of that wealth has been accumulated at the expense of Indigenous communities and the lands they depend upon, and at the disproportionate expense of exploited Black, Latino and Asian American workers.
If explosive mile long bomb trains, coal dust, diesel particulate and oil spills stand to impact all of us, the impacts will be disproportionately felt by Native communities and other low-income communities in the region. The videotaped interviews with area activists, then, focus particular attention on the experiences, concerns and strategic observations of activists from environmental justice communities that are most at risk from these projects. To varying degrees, however, all of the interviews illuminate the challenges of preserving and continuing to build diverse and broad-based coalitions to hold the “thin green line” for decades to come.