A boisterous, multi-lingual, angry crowd of about 500 — including a sizeable contingent from Maine — gathered in Burlington, Vermont on Sunday to "converge" on the Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers, an inter-regional, bi-national organization established in 1973 to facilitate communication and collaboration between the six New England states and the five Eastern Canadian provinces.
Many interests were represented: there were union organizers and environmental activists, Occupiers and Québécoise students, Veterans for Peace and Abenakis. There was singing and chanting and a "human oil spill." Environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben, who founded the grassroots climate change campaign 350.org, also made an appearance.
The protesters goals were as varied as their backgrounds; they wanted their elected officals to hear messages about energy transmission, Native American rights, high university tuition rates in Canada, universal healthcare, the "Fukushima-style" nuclear plant in Vernon, Vermont, and more. Alicia Maddox, of the Vermont Workers Center, perhaps summed up the overriding sentiment when she directed this statement toward corporate executives and the politicians who cater to them: "We will no longer settle for the crumbs that fall from the table at which corporations feast."
I rode the bus to Burlington with about 50 Mainers (plus a handful from New Hampshire and Massachusetts) who are particularly distressed about tar sands. Specifically, they fear that Canadian energy giants are scheming to eventually pipe this heavy, corrosive, viscous, and generally hazardous material through pipelines that cross Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, all the way to Casco Bay.
They carried signs ("Tar sands kill, pipelines spill, we won't pay big oil's bill") and sang songs ("Saying yes to the earth, we say no to tar sands"). "If this pipeline is built, New England and Eastern Canada could be next for a tar sands catastrophe," said Becky Bartovics, co-chair of the Sierra Club's executive committee. (The Sierra Club chartered the bus from Portland to Burlington.)
Unfortunately, especially for the Mainers, Governor Paul LePage didn't even attend the 36th annual conference; he sent Kenneth Fletcher, director of the governor's energy office, in his stead.
"The meetings and discussions Ken is participating in will be crucial to advancing our energy agenda next legislative session," LePage said in a release. "My administration is going to continue to work tirelessly to lower Maine's energy costs and make the state more business-friendly."
What type of business remains unclear.
McKibben, in a galvanizing speech, vowed that "we are really going to stop this in its tracks."
"Against all odds, at least for a little while, we managed to win," he said, referring to last year's policy brawl over the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. "These guys will have no idea what they've bitten off if they try to build this across New England."
See videos from Sunday's demonstration at thephoenix.com/abouttown.