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Mackinac Oil Pipeline Rally Marks TC350’s RevivalPrint

Clean Energy | August 27, 2013 | By Jim Dulzo

February's "Forward on Climate" rally in Washington attracted 50,000 people, including these northern Michigan citizens, and inspired some of them to restart TC350 and stage July's Oil and Water Don't Mix rally at the Mackinac Bridge.

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.—Last month, a surprisingly large number of people showed up at a remote northern Michigan park to rally against something that, weeks earlier, few of them had ever heard about: the twin, 60-year-old pipelines that transport 22 million gallons of oil a day beneath the Straits of Mackinac.

The "Oil and Water Don't Mix" rally at the north end of the Mackinac Bridge generated strong media attention about the pipes and their operator—Canadian-owned Enbridge Energy Partners. Speakers warned of Enbridge’s history of oil spills, particularly its record-setting release of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River three years ago, a mess still not completely cleaned up despite a $1 billion-plus effort by the company.

The rally also launched an online petition urging Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to press federal officials to make the aging pipeline far more spill-proof and ban it from carrying tar sands oil.

Attracting a crowd to a distant location for a rally about a largely unknown pipeline is impressive; so is reviving a moribund organization to produce the event in just six weeks.

But that is what Traverse City-area residents Bill Latka, Kelly Lively and their partners did last month when they revived TC350, a local anti-global warming organization. Launched in 2008 after climate crusader Bill McKibben gave a speech here, the group, which included both Latka and Lively, faded away after some sporadic activity. 

The two began thinking about reviving TC350 after riding an MLUI-sponsored bus to McKibben’s big “Forward on Climate” rally in Washington last February. But they wanted to tie their global concerns to something local.

Then the National Wildlife Federation released two reports—one about Enbridge’s disastrous Kalamazoo pipeline tar sands oil spill and its safety record; the other about the effects a similar spill would have on the Straits and Great Lakes. The reports galvanized them.

They liked the idea of producing a rally that neatly paralleled 350.org’s top priority: stopping the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry the same tar-sand oil that still fouls the Kalamazoo River. Tar-sand is oil produced by using extraordinarily land-scarring, carbon-intensive techniques: flattening boreal forests, steaming sandy oil out of their soil, and refining it into liquid fuels and solid petroleum coke, a dirty, cheap substitute for coal for power plants.

Latka, a local native, heads Rivet Entertainment, a video production company; he spent 20 years on the West Coast before moving back home with his family five years ago. He discovered his passion about climate change while out west developing a Discovery Channel show that included McKibben, founder of the international anti-global warming group 350.org.

His cameras were rolling during the rally; the video is here.

Kelly Lively, a Michigan native who moved to the region after enjoying many Up North summers here (and who is married to MLUI Program Director Jim Lively), managed her own flower farm before working at local distributor Cherry Capital Foods.

In separate phone interviews, Latka and Lively talked about how the Oil & Water rally took shape, what it’s taught them about organizing to stop climate change, and TC350’s possible next moves. We edited those interviews into one conversation:

Michigan Land Use Institute: How did you come to attend the climate change rally in Washington last February, and how did it affect you?

Latka: When 350.org took off, I followed them closely. Then, when the Washington rally was announced, someone said, ‘Let’s take that bus.’ The rally was incredibly inspiring to me because, up here in northern Michigan, you get a lot of people who don’t even believe in climate change or don’t think it’s humans causing it.

So when you are with 50,000 people who understand it, that makes you feel like you are not alone. Jim Lively suggested forming an official 350.org chapter here, so we did. We contacted the people who were on the bus and had our first meeting in May.

Kelly Lively: We were all completely energized by the bus trip. My daughter was always into it; her concern gave us the push we needed to get involved.

So, we are all looking at each other at the first meeting, asking, ‘What is our group going to do? We should have some kind of an event to get people energized.’

We had Summer Heat [350.org’s current project] in mind, and wanted to focus on kids. We talked about the pipeline and said ‘Let’s do an action at the bridge.’ Everybody jumped on board.

MLUI: Tell us what you wanted to accomplish and how you felt it went.

Latka: The idea was to present what the problem was and bring in a wide range of groups and opinions. We thought, ‘Here we are in the middle of nowhere, and we need to spread the word.’ The bridge was an iconic location; we had a lot of momentum because of that.

Lively: We wanted to make sure people across the state and region know that the pipeline risk is there, beneath the Straits. We were planning a rally two hours away from where we all lived, kind of a remote location, but still got close to 500 people, so that’s pretty successful.

The other thing we had as an underlying mission was to start bringing activists together on common ground and supporting each other. So Clean Water Action from Milwaukee, Detroit Citizens against Tar Sands, Michigan Citizens Against Tar Sands, National Wildlife Federation, FLOW and other groups now know that if they take further action against that pipeline, they have us standing behind them. 

MLUI: What is TC350’s biggest challenge? And are there signs of progress?

Latka: The toughest thing is to reach beyond the people who already know climate change is a big issue. It is a matter, unfortunately, that will take a disaster for a majority of people to get behind it.

But I think the general populace is starting to be much more open to the fact that climate change is actually happening. They still don’t know what they can do about it, though. That is part of what we want to do: get people the tools to actually do something about it.

Lively: The overarching goal is to have decision-makers make better decisions. So we need to educate people to keep putting pressure on the people in government who have the ability to make big changes. It won’t happen unless they hear from us.

I’m also a member of Citizens Climate Lobby, and that’s really helpful for me. I’m applying a lot of their principles to TC350, because we need to have good dialogue with decision makers—as people. On a recent CCL call we talked about face-to-face action, how to humanize that, understand where the decision-makers are coming from. You have to understand how many times you have to do that before it starts to stick.

MLUI: How do you feel TC350 is shaping up? Did the rally teach you anything?

Latka: Right now we have a very loose structure, about 75 people on Facebook. At our biggest meeting, we had maybe 30 people. We want to do that again. But summertime is kinda tough to do that.

The thing we realize now is that when you talk about climate change as a big, boogieman issue, you lose people because it is so nebulous and hard to know what to do. But we found that if you talk about a pipeline that could wreck the Great Lakes and also link the pipe to climate change, you see a much stronger response.

When you just get together and talk about the climate, you leave feeling overwhelmed.

MLUI: We noticed quite a few younger folks at the rally.

Lively: There is a group of students trying to pull together an anti-idling campaign. My daughter Jane goes ballistic when she sees people just sitting there in a parking lot with their engines running.

We’re working with an AmeriCorps Vista group, which does a lot of afterschool stuff. It brings groups of kids together, sees what interest them, then supports them, usually around civic engagement. But that’s hard to do in the summer.

Latka: We all really want to get young kids involved, and we think that’s a way to break through that barrier if we can get kids educated and maybe take it home. So we made a conscious effort to get as many kids as possible; half the bus to DC was kids.

There were not as many for the pipeline rally; even they face tremendous resistance; their friends could care less because they don’t see the importance and urgency. That is something we are trying to break through. The national 350.org group is definitely reaching out to colleges; we are trying to go to high schoolers.

MLUI: What’s next for TC350?

Latka: We’re thinking about a next meeting near the end of August. We would like to organize a local Oil & Water rally and invite some of the speakers back and bring the message home to Traverse City. Because we all live right here, it is possible to get more people involved.

Lively: We are focusing on the petition. We want to have has many signatures as we can and follow it up with a presentation to the governor. It’s written in such a way to try to affect realistic change, rather than just demanding that they take the pipeline out, which is not going to happen at this point.

The signing has been good so far, although I don’t really know what the numbers would be for a highly successful petition. We need to regroup and get more people into the group. A lot of folks signed up at the rally, and now we need to see what they want to do. The people in our group are interested in the issue of fossil fuel disinvestments. We will also support the student group.

Latka: I know there are a lot of people here who are really concerned; it’s a matter of putting their talents to use. It feels good to do something positive. We want it to be positive, not negative. We want it to be fun. It’s a great time to be alive.

MLUI: And how has your work with TC350 affected you?

Lively: There is so much on the Internet coming at you all the time. It can put you in despair. I’m finding that I have to turn that despair into action. You can’t make change if we all just sit around waiting for it to happen. It’s been a great experience finding my own voice. There are so many things you can choose to be involved in, but if we don’t solve this, the rest doesn’t really matter.

Latka: It’s been good to find people that are interested in doing something. When we lived in L.A., these issues were a constant discussion. When we moved here, nobody was talking about it. To be able to get with people who get it and are willing to put in the work and see the benefit—that’s been great. It’s made it an even better place to live.

Lively: The other thing about personal growth: It is so easy to say ‘they’ and ‘them.’ We are all complicit; we’ve all been living this way. So it’s changed my language. We have to do this, not blame somebody else. I tell my kids: If you always say it’s somebody else’s fault, you are saying you have no control over your life.

For more information on TC350, including joining the group, visit their Facebook page.

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org.