A few months ago, I attended the book launch of Patagonia’s Tools for Grassroots Activists at Patagonia SoHo in New York City. The book launch fired me up and primed me to dig into the tools of the book to find out how they could help Riverkeeper’s campaigns.
I was gearing up for a campaign calling on the City of Albany to oppose a dangerous and dirty new fossil fuel project. The Pilgrim Pipelines are proposed to run underground from Albany, New York, to Linden, New Jersey, crossing the Hudson River twice and nearly every major tributary on the west side of the Hudson River for 178 miles. One pipeline would send crude oil south, the second would carry refined petroleum products back north. In total, the pipelines are proposed to carry 200,000 barrels of petroleum products in each direction for a total of 16.8 million gallons of product moving daily—about half the capacity of the existing Keystone Pipeline. Ultimately, the pipelines threaten to keep New York addicted to fossil fuels for the next half century, despite commitments from the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.
The crude oil portion of the pipelines could be supplied by trains coming from the Bakken shale oil fields in North Dakota and surrounding states and provinces. These oil trains end up in Albany’s south end, a community living in the shadows of these dangerous trains. The pipelines would significantly increase the number of oil trains entering Albany, nearly quadrupling the number of trains currently entering the port. The increase in trains brings greater air pollution, particularly for residents of Albany’s south end, and the risk of an explosion. This risk is highlighted by the recent crude oil train derailment and explosion on the Columbia River in Mosier, Oregon.
Our campaign—made up of groups and individuals in the Coalition Against Pilgrim Pipeline (NY)—is multifaceted, utilizing legal, communications and grassroots organizing tactics. Our strategy is to ultimately stop the pipelines by building local support and using the legal levers available to us. We found a New York law from the early 20th century that said no pipeline could be built in New York without the consent of two-thirds of the legislative bodies of the affected villages and cities. Thus far, seven out of the nine cities and villages with authority under this law have formally opposed the proposed pipelines and nearly 30 towns, cities and villages have passed non-binding resolutions in opposition to the pipelines.
Around the time I attended the release party for Tools for Grassroots Activists, opponents of the pipelines needed more support from the Albany Common Council. There were only two weeks to go until the scheduled vote on the opposition resolution. Our coalition knew something had to be done and done fast!
Reading the Tools book I was reminded of how Riverkeeper’s work is rooted in grassroots organizing and that nothing beats getting well-informed constituents to show up to a hearing.
The organizer takes the jargon-rich, and often alienating, technical language that a campaign’s expert provides and translates this into messages that volunteers can use and act on.
—Tools for Grassroots Activists, p. 60
I began putting together a toolkit with a color-coded guide to contacting Common Council members. It contained a map of the wards in Albany so people could easily find their council members. Working closely with others in the coalition, we were able to share the toolkit with a wide audience.
Then, reading the campaign strategy chapter, I realized how important our database of supporters would be in this fight.
Determine who has a vested interest in your cause, who is most likely to get involved to make change.
—Tools for Grassroots Activists, p. 100
I immediately sent our constituents in Albany an action alert with the toolkit attached and all the details they needed to show up to the hearing well informed and ready to advocate. Simultaneously, the global Break Free from Fossil Fuels movement was garnering international and regional attention on the weekend before the Albany City Council vote (scheduled for Monday). It drew thousands of activists from the region to Albany for direct action against crude-by-rail traffic coming into the Port of Albany.
Using this event as a catalyst for the hearing, we produced hundreds of flyers and petitions to hand out to City of Albany residents informing them of the pipeline hearing on Monday and containing a link to the toolkit I created. We collected hundreds of signatures to add to our constituent database and commitments for people to show up at the hearing Monday night.
When Monday night arrived, we headed into the hearing with two votes still lacking on the council. Some proponents of the pipelines urged the council to delay the vote. Our side, however, had the strength of superior grassroots organizing. The hearing room was overflowing with pipeline opponents waving “No Pilgrim Oil Pipelines” signs and cheering each time a pipeline fighter made public comment. The whole spectrum of Albany community members came out in a true reflection of the Tools book’s advice: Choose the right messenger. Opponents included faith leaders, community leaders, teachers, concerned residents from Albany’s south end and environmental activists.
The hearing went from 7 p.m. until around midnight. After an extensive debate from the council members, the vote came late at night. During the public comment period, constituents told fence-sitting council members that they would be held accountable for a no vote. Given the show of force by opponents in the room, not a single council member cast a vote against the opposition resolution. The Albany Common Council passed the resolution to oppose the Pilgrim Pipelines by a vote of nine to zero, with six members voting “present/abstention.” The victory galvanized the campaign in our region and was followed by a successful community forum in Albany with a standing room only crowd.
The vote in Albany to formally oppose the Pilgrim Pipelines was by no means the end of the campaign. The resolution against the pipelines is non-binding, but it sends a powerful message to state regulators and the governor who will ultimately approve or deny the project. We are currently calling on others to join our fight against this dangerous and dirty project. Lastly, Riverkeeper is gearing up for the state-required environmental review process to begin giving citizens the first chance to formally weigh in through public comments on the proposed project. The timing of the environmental review is unknown at the moment but we are expecting it to begin in the fall.
Riverkeeper will continue to fight this dangerous and dirty pipeline proposal until regulators or Governor Cuomo rejects it. We have recent precedent on our side.
New York’s governor recently took a huge leap and banned fracking in the state, ‘...until a health study can prove it is safe.’ However, don’t be fooled by his statement. It was strong public opinion that truly created the motivation for Governor Cuomo to leap as far as he did and ban fracking.
—Tools for Grassroots Activists, p. 118
Together with our allies, we have built strong public opposition to the Pilgrim Pipelines and we will prevail. Ultimately, New York has a bright future in renewable energy and energy efficiency, not in outdated 20th century energy infrastructure.