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“The Other Keystone”: Seattle Gears Up for Direct Action Against Coal Export Plan

A showdown over fossil fuel projects that would exacerbate climate change is brewing in the Emerald City.

Myrtle Edwards Park in Seattle is an ideal place for a symbolic action about the danger of climate change: on one side is the silvery water of Puget Sound; on the other is the rail line slated to carry millions of tons of coal bound for export to Asia.

On September 21, residents concerned about climate change exploited that geography in the Seattle version of a national day of action billed as “Draw the Line.” The national event was organized by, an environmental group focused on climate change. According to the group’s website, more than 200 actions took place in 49 states. The event was intended to show President Barack Obama that communities are committed to defending the climate and to stopping the development of the Keystone XL pipeline. The president’s decision on the pipeline is still pending.

In a move intended to demonstrate their commitment visually, participants in the Seattle event formed a human chain between the water and the rails. The event also included workshops and speakers, among them author Bill McKibben, the founder of and a well-known climate change activist.

The rally’s participants seemed ready for more confrontational approaches in the future. After the speakers, in a call-and-response with organizer Adam Gaya, the crowd waved red scarves and cheered in agreement when he asked if they were ready for civil disobedience against the Keystone XL pipeline and other fossil fuel projects. The rally’s workshop on nonviolent direct action drew a sizeable and diverse crowd.

The rally demonstrated a growing commitment to direct action in Seattle. One example is residents’ participation in the “Pledge of Resistance to Keystone XL” organized by progressive mobile company CREDO. More than 75,000 people across the country have signed the online pledge, committing themselves to civil disobedience against Keystone XL if the pipeline is approved. Of those signatures, about 1,500 belong to Seattle residents. Organizers for the pledge were at the rally, signing people up for direct action trainings taking place every weekend for the next month.

According to the organizers, if President Obama decides that the pipeline is in the national interest and approves the northern leg, they will stage a sit-in at the Jackson Federal Building in downtown Seattle.

Activists are also amping up the fight against coal trains in Washington state, which pits ordinary citizens against multibillion-dollar companies such as Peabody Energy. Since 2010, communities in Washington have mobilized against the development of two large coal terminals: Gateway Pacific Terminal in Cherry Point, near Bellingham, and Millennium Bulk Terminals in Longview. Gateway Pacific is currently under environmental review, and Millennium Bulk has entered the public hearings process.

Organizers with 350 Seattle claim that the total emissions from fuel delivered by the coal terminals and several additional planned projects would be three times that of Keystone XL.

At the rally, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who is up for re-election, told the crowd that Bill McKibben had convinced him to divest the city’s money from fossil fuels. Back in December 2012, McGinn reported on his blog that the daily operations fund, the only part of the city’s finances he directly controls, is not invested in fossil fuels and will remain that way. In the same report, he added that the city was exploring divestment options for employee deferred compensation plans and the pension system, which he does not control.

“We will go down the path to divest ourselves from fossil fuels with City of Seattle money,” he said at the rally, reaffirming those plans.

The climate movement is focused on Keystone XL, but the outcome of events in Seattle, where multiple fights converge, also holds implications for the movement’s future and strategy. With the Millennium Bulk Terminal hearings happening through October, the Keystone XL pipeline decision imminent, and the incumbent mayor making big climate promises, Seattle could emerge as the center of a climate showdown between the residents of Washington state and powerful, moneyed, fossil-fuel interests.

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