by Maura Cowley, Executive Director, Energy Action Coalition
Last week, thirty-five of the best and brightest young leaders descended upon the nation’s capitol to deliver the grassroots demands and action that we’ve been organizing for months. From leading campaigns to move campuses beyond coal, to mobilizing against the Keystone XL pipeline, and hosting training and strategy sessions at our regional Power Shift conferences, these young people are leading in the grassroots, but last week they came to DC to be heard. And heard they were.
The first stop was a meeting with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to thank her for her leadership, and show our support for her continuing to lead on critical matters of the mercury ruling and the Keystone XL pipeline. In a packed room on Howard University’s campus, we had a frank discussion on the state of public health, and the challenges we face in protecting it. Tayla Tavor from Michigan shared how she was diagnosed with asthma when she was 3-years old, and now finds herself at Michigan State University fighting to retire the largest on-campus coal plant in the country, which continues to threaten her and her peers’ health.
Administrator Jackson shared our concerns about the impacts of dirty energy. "It's so important that your voices are heard, that campuses that are supposed to be teaching people aren't meanwhile polluting the surrounding community with mercury and costing the children a few IQ points because of the need to generate power. It's simply not fair," Jackson said. And she didn’t mince words about some of the challenges she faces in protecting the American people from big polluters. She slammed the GOP for putting the interests of the coal industry ahead of those of the American people.
Despite it all, when Maura Friedman, a student at University of Georgia, spoke about how Georgia has 13 coal plants (including one on UGA’s campus) and her concern for her reproductive health, Administrator Jackson confirmed that new public health precautions were in the pipeline, and in particular that her administration was committed to finalizing the new mercury ruling by December 16th (currently there are no limits to how much mercury a coal plant can emit).
And on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, we confirmed a major development; Administrator Jackson confirmed that her EPA would be weighing in on the contentious Keystone XL pipeline and it’s faulty Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). When asked about it, she said they would definitely make a statement, because after all, in her words “the pipeline will literally cut our country in half.”
After this very productive meeting with Administrator Jackson, it was time to take our demands and plans to another very important place: the White House. For the last couple of months we’ve been making our voices heard and our power felt across the country. More than 1200 people partook in civil disobedience at the White House, rallies are greeting President Obama at campaign stops across the country, and hundreds are visiting OFA offices (last weekend in Cleveland, 400 people from Midwest Power Shift paid them a visit). But now we had an opportunity to bring our voices and power directly into the White House.
So once again we filed through the gates of the White House for a very serious sit-down with White House staff. The Keystone XL pipeline decision is in President Obama’s hands, and his hands alone, so we weren’t there expecting to hear a “Yes” or “No” on the pipeline from his staff. We were there to talk about our organizing efforts, make sure they knew that there was an unprecedented wave of energy sweeping the country on this issue, and that our movement is committed to stopping the pipeline.
Jarymar Arana, a young woman from Texas kicked-off the discussion on Keystone XL with the White House. In 2008 she helped turn out the youth vote for Obama on her campus, but now she’s fighting to make sure he doesn’t approve the pipeline that would rip through her community and threaten her family. She shared how, after waiting in line for 12 hours to testify at a State Department hearing on Keystone XL a month ago, she’s afraid that her comments might not matter due to the massive conflict of interests and corruption beyond the pipeline proceedings. So she’s committed to keep organizing until her voice is heard, until this pipeline is stopped.
Going around the big oval table, we continued to hear incredible stories of struggle and organizing. Students sitting-in at MSU to demand the largest on-campus coal plant closes, young people and community members in Mossville, LA taking environmental crimes to international criminal court, students in Virginia building a statewide movement for clean energy solutions. What more could we do? From my vantage point, we’re doing a lot right. We heard from the folks we were meeting with that our stories and organizing would be “taken directly to the top.”
One piece of feedback that we heard that we were receptive to is that our senators and representatives need to hear from us too. And I totally agree. But Sasha from Pittsburgh said it best: “we’ve organized lobby visits, we’ve organized townhalls, and we’ve built big coalitions. When we put pressure on Congress on the climate bill, we needed President Obama to be with us and he wasn’t there. And in this case with Keystone XL we don’t need Congress, it is President Obama’s decision.”
Last week we went inside the White House to make it clear that we’re not going away, that we’re going to keep organizing from the grassroots to bring in a clean energy economy and stop Keystone XL. And this weekend we’ll surround the White House to show President Obama that right now he has the support to stand up to big polluters and reject the pipeline - Will he seize it?