Montana Governor’s Support for Oil Draws Protest

On Tuesday over one hundred environmental and climate justice activists marched into the Montana state capitol to protest Governor Brian Schweitzer’s support for some of the largest and most destructive new oil projects in North America.  Six members of the group chained themselves together with PVC pipe in the governor’s office, announcing their plans to remain there unless Governor Schweitzer publicly renounced his support for the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, and the transportation of massive pieces of tar sands mining equipment through Montana.

Participants in the protest, which was organized by the grassroots environmental groups Earth First! and Northern Rockies Rising Tide, criticized the governor’s support for the oil industry in light of a recent oil spill in Montana’s Yellowstone River.  The spill was caused by a rupture in ExxonMobil’s Silvertip pipeline that has leaked at least a thousand barrels of oil into the water. 

“If the Governor has his way, Montana will be transformed into what is essentially an energy extraction colony for Big Oil,” said Peter Dolan, a native of Great Falls, Montana who joined the occupation of Governor Schweitzer’s office.  “The Silvertip spill is simply a short preview of what this would mean for the lives and livelihood of all Montanans.”

Though Schweitzer has expressed public outrage at the Silvertip spill and criticized Exxon’s response to the accident, environmentalists say he is being hypocritical.  At a time when scientists are still struggle to determine the full impacts of the spill on the Yellowstone’s riverine ecosystems and nearby land used for farming, Schweitzer has continued to support new oil projects in and around the state—most notably mining and pipeline infrastructure connected with the tar sands oil project in the Canadian province of Alberta.

Tar sands oil is a particularly dirty form of petroleum that requires large amounts of energy and water to extract and refine it into gasoline.  The tar sands extraction zone in Alberta has become the world’s largest source of industrial carbon emissions, and is the main reason Canada will not meet goals for reducing climate change it committed to under the Kyoto Protocol.  Mining for tar sands oil has destroyed vast areas of old growth forest in Canada, while polluting streams used for drinking water with toxic chemicals. 

However while Canada is the main country mining tar sands deposits for petroleum, the major demand for tar sands oil comes from the United States.  Oil giant TransCanada has proposed building a 2,000 mile pipeline, known as Keystone XL, to transport tar sands oil from Alberta through Montana and other states, and eventually to Texas.  Meanwhile Exxon is using Montana roads to transport giant pieces of mining equipment to Alberta for use in the tar sands.  Schweitzer supports both projects.

“Governor Schweitzer is attempting to turn Montana into an extraction state, while at the same time publicly proclaiming his supposed support for clean energy, protecting the environment and building healthy communities,” said Bozeman resident Erica Dossa at Tuesday’s protest.  “It’s one or the other. You can’t be clean and dirty at the same time.” 

The protesters remained in the governor’s office for over four hours, until police arrested and removed five of the activists participating in the lockdown.  Before that happened, Schweitzer came out and agreed to talk to the activists but refused to withdraw his support for the oil industry.  Meanwhile outside, a few activists hung a banner from the capitol flagpole that read “Pipelines Spill, Tar Sands Kill, Big Oil Out of Montana.” 

Environmental activists have plans for further acts of civil disobedience to protest tar sands mining.  Later this summer hundreds of citizens will descend on Washington, DC to express dissatisfaction over the Obama administration’s support for the Keystone XL pipeline, with plans to get arrested if necessary.  Just as the Silvertip pipeline spill is a small glimpse of what could happen if a rupture ever occurred in the Keystone XL pipeline, Tuesday’s protest at the Montana capitol may be just a preview of what government officials will face as further tar sands development moves forward.  

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