Climate activists arrested at behest of Warren Buffett's BNSF Railway over coal blockade
Thirteen activists, including a Nobel Peace Prize winning economist, have been arrested in a coal train blockade, after Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) was granted a pre-emptive court order.
BNSF, owned by billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett, served roughly 40 anti-coal blockaders in White Rock with pre-emptive injunctions this morning from the BC Supreme Court, backed up by a dozen RCMP officers who appeared to be helping them serve court orders by identifying leaders of the group.
The climate change activists -- including 100 Mile Diet author James MacKinnon, former COPE city councillor Fred Bass, and Nobel Peace Prize-winning economist Dr. Mark Jaccard with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- stopped railway coal shipments in a symbolic attempt to oppose shipments set for export overseas.
At 9 a.m., a southbound train, carrying mostly timber, was allowed to pass, and soon afterwards BNSF employees arrived with a dozen RCMP officers, who helped the company identify spokespeople and serve their court order directly to protesters.
"So I'm thinking there's a guy talking on his phone over there," a female RCMP officer told BNSF representative Ken Davis, pointing into the crowd standing to the side of the railway tracks by White Rock Pier, before addressing the group herself. "Good morning everybody. Do you have a spokesman?"
When no spokesperson stepped forward, Davis weaved through the group serving the court order one-by-one. Today's blockade -- which includes "spotters" on the US side of the border to alert of approaching coal trains -- is part of a global day of action against climate change declared by the international group 350.org.
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Activists said they are targeting coal shipments of BNSF Railway, which are arriving from the US, to be exported from Vancouver to Asian markets. Organizers said the coal should not be burned, as it will contribute to “irreversible” climate change.
An "extremely dangerous" protest
“Trespassing on live railroad property is extremely dangerous and can lead to serious injury or death,” BNSF spokesperson Suann Lundsberg told the Vancouver Observer. “It is not the proper forum for any discussion.
“There are other ways for people to express their views that do not endanger the safety of themselves and others. Rail carriers are required to provide rail service on reasonable request by shippers of commodities like coal.”
But one of the railway blockaders said that burning coal – like the Alberta oil sands and other fossil fuels – is an integral cause of climate change and must be stopped.
Former Vancouver City Councillor Fred Bass, participating in the protest, told the Vancouver Observer that he first got involved in the climate change issue on the city's Clouds of Change Task Force in 1989, when he became alarmed about the increase in carbon dioxide emissions. 22 years later, Bass said those early warnings have not been heeded by governments, and time is running out.
"The rise in CO2 in the last 200 years is steeper than anything scientists have seen in hundreds of thousands of years," Bass said. "I lived in a time when gasoline was rationed, when meat was rationed, when sugar was rationed. It was the Second World War.
"In fact, the threat we're under is much greater. It's going to be worse for our children, and even worse for our grandchildren. It's time for people who can put two-and-two together, to stand up and say, 'Government, get on the right track.'"
Another participant told the Vancouver Observer the blockade is a symbolic call for action on climate change -- action which he said is more urgent than ever.
“We're putting ourselves on the line . . . as a symbolic statement,” Vancouver's Kevin Washbrook told the Vancouver Observer. “Most scientists say we have 10 years or less to get emissions down or else face runaway, irreversible climate change.
“Some say five years. Some say it's already too late. I hope not, because I want my kids to have a future.”
Washbrook said that the message is aimed squarely at the government and the fossil fuel industry.
“Governments are in the service of the fossil fuel industry and they will collectively drive us past the point of no return if we don't stop them,” he said.
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Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org – the global organization which put out the call for actions around the world under the banner "Connect the Dots" – said that BNSF coal shipments were chosen because the company is owned by billionaire investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett, who they hope will cease coal shipments and set an example.
“There’s a chance, I think, that their actions might work,” he wrote on Grist. “Thanks to brave activists on a lonely stretch of Canadian track, Warren Buffett will get the chance to face squarely the role he might play in solving our worst problem, not with future philanthropy but with present-day courage.
Though Buffett is merely “a single human being,” McKibben argued, as the owner of BNSF since 2009 he is a person “with power enough to make an immediate difference in the fight against climate change.”
But the company said that a blockade is not the proper channel for protest – not only is the action trespassing, but BNSF's operations are, in fact, environmentally sustainable. The firm is not able to choose which products are shipped on its lines, the spokesperson added.
“Rail is recognized around the world as the most environmentally preferred mode of transportation for all the products we are obligated to carry,” Lundsberg said. “A vibrant rail system creates a healthy flow of commerce, decreases carbon emissions and reduces highway congestion and improves passenger vehicle safety.”
Amongst the blockaders is economist Dr. Mark Jaccard, who teaches at Simon Fraser University's School of Resource and Environmental Management. Jaccard, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which won the Nobel peace prize in 2007. He said this is his first-ever civil disobedience action but the issue was too urgent to ignore.
“Within this decade we will either have steered away from disaster, or have locked ourselves onto a dangerous course,” Jaccard said. “We are putting ourselves on the line because our future is at risk and we have to stand up for it.
“I'm willing to engage in civil disobedience and risk arrest . . . to emphasize how important it is that we take urgent action to stop the actions that cause climate change. The window of opportunity for avoiding a high risk of runaway, irreversible climate change is closing quickly.”
At 9 a.m., police spokesperson Sgt. Peter Thiessen told the Vancouver Observer that so far, no law has been broken by the demonstrators -- who said they will not block the tracks until a coal train approaches -- but added that police are on hand to ensure no criminal acts are committed and there are no safety risks.
The court order, obtained yesterday in the BC Supreme Court by BNSF, had already been taped prominently to the railway crossing sign next to the pier, and several other places in the planned blockade site, by 6 a.m. when the Vancouver Observer arrived on scene. As dawn broke, demonstrators began gathering at the Pier railway crossing, and police shortly thereafter.
One event organizer suggested that it is unusual for a court order to pre-emptively cover both an injunction and enforcement order in advance of an event. The injunction -- which lasts until May 14 -- bans "physically obstructing, interrupting, restricting or otherwise impeding the rail operations . . . on or over the intersection of Martin Street and the White Rock Pier," and authorizes police to "arrest and remove" anyone who violates the injunction.