Letter from Portland

Orion’s intrepid outreach coordinator, Erik Hoffner, made the trip to Portland, Maine, last weekend to take part in the Tar Sands Free Northeast rally, held in the city’s Monument Square. After warming up his fingers and toes, he sent this report on the action.

“Activism is the rent we pay to live on this planet!” hollered one of the speakers at Saturday’s Tar Sands Free Northeast rally on the big public pier in Portland, Maine. I think it was the Greenpeace Canada representative, whose homeland allegedly seeks to send heavy crude from the sprawling tar sands of Alberta to the port city via the sixty-two-year-old Exxon/Enbridge pipeline, a conduit that normally ships foreign oil in the opposite direction. It’s the latest energy debate in New England based on proposed imports of Canadian energy (see New Hampshire’s contentious Northern Pass fracas for more).

The other Canadian export challenging the mettle of the outdoor assembly was a punishing body of frigid air sent into the lower forty-eight in recent days, likely due to blocking of the jet stream by a warmed climate. But the thousand-plus folks from all over the Northeast were undeterred—including some who crunched through fresh snow at dawn, and caught carpools and buses to march and chant on the antique cobbled streets—cheering on speaker after speaker, and brandishing an array of signs that said no in many ways.

Support for no is widespread in Maine, including from Portland’s mayor, from Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and from some less political types. When I told the middle-aged man preparing my breakfast sandwich about the ruckus, he put down the knife and also said no. He explained that he had worked on the pipeline’s maintenance for years, and that leaks are routine, and knowing what he knows about tar sand oil’s greater likelihood to cause bursts in pipe, it’d be a disaster for Maine. So there you have it, I thought.

Back in the cold, drummers from the nearby indigenous Penobscot community thrummed a rhythm behind the march-leading banner’s block letters, “NO TAR SANDS IN CASCO BAY.” A plastic oiled goose, attached to a makeshift mortarboard, bobbed above the fray, alongside some signs that said yes, too: “Young farmers for clean energy,” said one; “Go solar,” read another. Idle No More, the uprising against the Harper government’s recent bid to grab rights and natural resources from Canadian First Nations, also adorned numerous signboards. Curious heads popped out of tourist t-shirt shops and sports bars as the march chanted and bumped along.

Saturday’s easy mayhem in Portland capped a week of rallies in the area, and warmed the way for next month’s massive demonstration in Washington, DC, led by Orion columnist Bill McKibben’s 350.org and others. Most importantly, though, it set the tone for New England’s newest energy debate—while helping many local merchants, who probably ran out of coffee and hot chocolate by 2 p.m.

Photographs by Erik Hoffner.