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Patrick Mazza

How we can turn railroads into a climate solution

By Patrick Mazza - Grist, March 7, 2017

Railroads have become a nexus of controversy in recent years due to their role in transporting climate-twisting fossil fuels. But they could become a locomotive driving the growth of clean energy. That is the aim of a new proposal to electrify railroads, run them on renewable energy, and use rail corridors as electricity superhighways to carry power from remote solar and wind installations to population centers.

The proposal, called Solutionary Rail, has been developed by a team of rail experts, economists, and public interest advocates assembled by the Washington state–based Backbone Campaign. Bill McKibben writes in the foreword to the recently released Solutionary Rail book that he has “been following the debate over energy, transportation, and climate change since the late 1980s … So it’s hard to come up with an idea I haven’t come across before. Rail electrification, as proposed in this remarkable book, is that rarest of things: a genuinely new idea, and one that makes immediate gut sense.”

An activist movement, sometimes known as the “thin green line,” has grown up in the Northwest in recent years to resist coal and oil shipments through the region, between the rich fossil resources east of the Rockies and the growing markets of Asia. The Backbone Campaign, a group that develops innovative strategies and tactics to build grassroots democratic movements, has been enmeshed in this movement.

The movement has been successful in stopping many fossil fuel export facilities from being built along the Pacific Coast. But it’s largely been a defensive campaign rather than a proactive one. In 2013, a rail labor leader challenged Backbone Executive Director Bill Moyer to green a labor concept for modernizing rail lines in the northern states, a “yes” to accompany the “no.” Moyer took up the challenge, and the result is Solutionary Rail.

Rail electrification is common in other parts of the world. Around the globe, electricity serves nearly a quarter of railroad track miles and supplies over one-third of the energy that powers trains. But in the U.S., under 1 percent of tracks are electrified. That’s due to high upfront capitalization costs, an obstacle that publicly owned railroads in other nations do not face. Railroads in other countries also do not have to pay property taxes on electrification infrastructure, which U.S. railroads do.

Few industries are as well positioned as railroads to lead a transition to a clean economy. Unlike other heavy, long-haul transportation vehicles such as ships, planes, and semitrucks, trains can be easily electrified, and electricity is increasingly coming from clean sources such as sun and wind. Rail is already the most efficient form of ground transportation, and it has an unparalleled capacity to provide clean freight and passenger mobility.

Under the Solutionary Rail plan, electrification would be accomplished in conjunction with track modernization. Together, these would allow express freight service running above 80 miles per hour and high-speed passenger service up to 125 mph. Very high-speed passenger rail operates above 180 mph in Europe and Asia, and is being developed in California and the U.S. Northeast, but it generally requires dedicated tracks. Solutionary Rail’s more modest increase in speed is the economically practical option for most U.S. lines. Existing tracks can be upgraded, and freight and passenger trains can be accommodated on the same lines.

The proposal also includes running power transmission lines through the rail corridors. It’s currently difficult to get the rights-of-way needed to build new long-distance, high-capacity transmission lines, which means that some renewable energy, like wind power produced in the Great Plains, is stranded and can’t get to where it’s needed. But rail corridors are already being put to industrial use, so they could easily accommodate new power infrastructure, connecting renewable-energy-rich rural areas to big metropolitan areas.

To pay for all this, the Solutionary Rail team developed the concept of Steel Interstate Development Authorities, public agencies that would be able to raise low-cost capital from financial markets and take advantage of federal transportation dollars. SIDAs for different rail corridors would be created by interstate compacts and work in public-private partnerships with railroads. The electrification would remain under public ownership, managed by the SIDA, alleviating the property tax issue. Backbone is initially pushing a SIDA in the Northern Corridor, which has rail lines stretching from Chicago to the Northwest, to demonstrate the feasibility of electrification on lines mostly owned by BNSF, a property of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

Rail in the U.S. is not a huge contributor to climate disruption — it’s responsible for only 2 percent of greenhouse gases from the nation’s transportation sector. But it could be a huge part of the climate solution. A cleaner, more robust railroad system could replace substantial amounts of truck traffic, while making intercity passenger service more reliable and competitive with highways and aviation. This could help railroads thrive without being reliant on transporting bulk shipments of fossil fuels. The Solutionary Rail strategy still relies on resistance movements to stop those shipments, but offers the “yes” to strengthen the “no.” That is why the proposal has drawn support from labor leaders: It would help railroad workers make a “just transition” away from fossil fuels.

The huge, public benefits of rail electrification justify a public expenditure. But electrification would also greatly benefit privately owned railroads, and so they must offer public benefits in return. One is labor justice. Solutionary Rail has adopted the justice agenda of Railroad Workers United, a group that unites rail labor across union lines. It includes good working and safety conditions. The Solutionary Rail plan also calls for right-of-way justice for native tribes, renegotiating easements where tribes have historic grievances.

With Solutionary Rail, the oldest form of mass mechanized transportation can create a track to 21st century clean transportation and become an engine for sustainably and broadly realized prosperity.

Breaking free from fossil fuels in Cascadia: The solutions path forward

By Patrick Mazza - Cascadia Planet, May 18, 2016

Over the first half of May climate warriors put their bodies in the way of fossil fueled business as usual around the world. Break Free civil disobedience events targeted major carbon bombs on six continents.

Here in Cascadia a tent city held a rail line leading into the region’s largest oil refinery complex at Anacortes, Washington for 36 hours. In Newcastle, Australia people power disrupted the world’s largest coal port by land and sea. Some of the largest coal plants in Brazil and Germany, and the world’s largest open-pit coal mine in Britain, were just some of the 20 sites around the world where around 30,000 people stood up to say now is time to break free from coal, oil and gas, and the carbon pollution disrupting weather patterns across the planet. An off-the-charts April temperature spike underscored the urgency of rapid transition to clean, renewable energy.

The Break Free actions were always intended to focus this necessity, to put forward a powerful solutions “yes" to complement the fossil fuels “no.” Now the real work begins.

Fortunately, the solutions are with us, and already working in many places. We can move beyond an economy based on energy from coal, oil and gas. We can make a just transition to a world run on 100% renewable energy, create millions of new jobs, and build stronger communities. Following are eight solutions that we can forward to break free from fossil fuels in Cascadia:

  • Four Solutions for Clean Energy show how we can move to 100% renewables in electrical power, transportation and buildings.
  • Four Solutions for a Socially Just Transition line out how to move our communities beyond fossil fuels while improving the quality of life, especially for lower-income people, and providing new opportunities for displaced workers.

The solutions are given in an order, but it does not indicate a ranking. All are important and necessary. We need to pursue all eight to meet the huge climate and energy challenges facing us. We can unite a broad movement around these solutions, and create a better world for ourselves and our children. It’s up to us, and the solutions are at hand.

Out of time on Planet Earth: Climate "World War II" needed

By Patrick Mazza - Cascadia Planet, April 17, 2016

We are out of time on Planet Earth.

In the three months since the Paris climate summit declared a 1.5° C global warming target to hold climate disruption dangers in check, rapidly escalating world temperatures came within a hair’s breadth. The average for the January-March timeframe was 1.47°C above the 1890s, the baseline before mass fossil fuel burning began to significantly heat the planet, the Japan Meteorological Agency reported. For the first time in the historical record the planet has neared or crossed the agreed danger threshold for three months in a row.

Never has radical climate disruption caused by fossil fuel pollution been so visible. Besides the temperature spike, the Arctic is raising red flags. An Arctic Ocean ice pack at record lows could be setting up a record melt season. The Greenland ice melt season started around a week ago, nearly a month ahead the previously recorded start and two months before normal.

Whether this is a temporary spike or a jump to a new climate state, the message is clear. We have used up all time or space for anything but the most urgent actions to eliminate the carbon pollution that is twisting the climate. We need a people power upsurge to demand immediate, deep reductions in fossil fuel burning and pollution. That is the goal of Break Free, a worldwide popular mobilization in May aiming for the greatest wave of direct actions against the fossil fuel industry in history. The Pacific Northwest action targets refineries in Anacortes, Washington, source of nearly half the vehicle fuels used in the region.

100% renewables or climate chaos? People power needed

By Patrick Mazza - Cascadia Planet, April 14, 2016

We now know we can run the world 100% on clean, renewable energy. The question is whether we can do it in time to prevent the world from plunging into full-blown climate chaos. 

An avalanche of studies points the way to a 100% world largely based on wind and solar energy. They illuminate how to reach 100% in all sectors – electricity, transportation, and heating/cooling – by 2050.  Most prominent are roadmaps for 139 countries and 50 U.S. states done by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson and his team, and the Energy Revolution series done by Greenpeace.  There are many others.

This is more than an academic exercise. Nations are acting. Costa Rica plans to reach 100% renewable electricity this year, and Scotland by 2020.  Denmark has targeted 100% in electricity, heating and cooling by 2030, and to end all fossil fuel burning by 2050. Sri Lanka aims for 100% renewable electricity by 2030.  Hawaii is the first U.S. state to enact a 100% renewable electricity standard, with a 2045 goal.  Some 50 cities including 15 in the U.S. have made a 100% commitment including San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Copenhagen, Sydney, Frankfurt, Munich and Vancouver, B.C.  Some cover only electricity, while others sweep in all sectors.  Four U.S. cities now draw 100% of their electricity from renewables, as do 74 German localities. Companies aiming at 100% renewable electricity include Google, Facebook, Apple, Nike, Starbucks and Proctor & Gamble.

A 100% renewable world is possible. The big question is - Can we achieve it fast enough to avert a complete climate meltdown?  Because oil companies systematically monkeywrenched the political system to prevent significant carbon regulation for over 25 years, we are very late in the game.  With carbon pollution growing at a record rate, the world is on track for the worst-case climate havoc, a nature-wracking, civilization-destroying 4-5° C heat upsurge this century.

How fast do we need to drop carbon pollution to get off this dead-end track? Almost unimaginably fast.  Some would say at a rate that is impossible. Nonetheless, we must let the best climate science set the goalpost and work backwards from there to make the scientifically necessary the politically feasible.  That means we must break through the political deadlock that has stalemated real progress.  And that calls for a people power revolution.  The upcoming Break Free actions, aiming at the largest wave of civil disobedience against the fossil fuel industry in history, are an opening salvo.  Northwest actions are slated for the Anacortes, Washington oil refineries May 13-15. 

Apocalypse on Trial

By Stephyn Quirke - Street Roots News, January 21, 2016

Video: Delta5 Defendents and supporters sing a version of I've Been Working on the Railroad by Railroad Workers United organizer and IWW member, J.P. Wright in honor of the links of solidarity they forged with railroad workers during their struggle.

On Jan. 15, Snohomish County Judge Anthony E. Howard handed down sentences to five people who say our political system is rigged to destroy the planet.

The trial was the latest in a series of protests against the increasing volumes of fossil fuels traveling through the Pacific Northwest, bound for Asian markets, despite the considerable damage to regional eco-systems already resulting from climate change, including ocean acidification, loss of snowpack in the Cascades, rising stream temperatures and summer deadzones along the coast.

In September 2014, Abby Brockway, Patrick Mazza, Jackie Minchew, Mike LaPointe and Liz Spoerri locked themselves to a 20-foot tripod at the BNSF railroad’s Delta yard in downtown Seattle. Dubbed the Delta 5, their protest was designed to draw attention to the danger of crude oil on rail lines in the Pacific Northwest, and to their contribution to irreversible climate change.

In a historic and highly anticipated trial that lasted four days, the Delta 5 were allowed to argue that their action was the lesser of two evils when compared to the status quo. In court shorthand, it’s called the necessity defense. Specifically, the Delta 5 presented evidence and legal arguments showing that their occupation of BNSF property was necessary to protect the public’s safety, calling numerous expert witnesses who testified to the public health risks of oil trains, both in their immediate risks to neighborhoods and to the damages climate change is bringing to Washington state. They included Richard Gammon, professor of chemistry and oceanography at the University of Washington, and Fred Milar, a hazardous-materials expert and former consultant to the railroad industry.

In another groundbreaking lawsuit concluded in November, King County Superior Judge Hollis Hill ruled that the state of Washington had a constitutional duty to uphold the public trust in natural resources and that this created a binding obligation for the state to protect the atmosphere for future generations. In an unusually dire ruling, Hill said, “Survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming … before doing so becomes first too costly and then too late.”

One of the elders in that room was Abby Brockway. Reflecting on the trial, she recalled, “Everybody wants to kick the can down the road. … They said, ‘Well, the Legislature’s supposed to do it,’ and they’re saying ‘No, ecology’s supposed to do it,’ so nobody wants to try.”

Andrea Rodgers, who represented eight youth plaintiffs in the November climate lawsuit, who in turn brought the lawsuit on behalf of future generations, explained: “What Judge Hill said in our case is really important for the world to know: that the climate crisis is real, it’s happening now, and the government in Washington state is not doing anything to address it. And they need to step up and protect the fundamental rights of these people. … People are starting to speak out and defend their own rights in a variety of ways, and hopefully the judges of the justice system will catch up with that.”

Eco Wobbles: the Lesser Known Story about the Delta 5 Case

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, January 22, 2016

By now, dear readers, you may have heard about the victory of the Delta 5, but in case you hadn't, here's a short review: In September 2014 five activists, Patrick Mazza, Mike LaPoint, Abby Brockway, Liz Spoerri and Jackie Minchew, entered the BNSF Delta railyard in Everett, Washington, and blocked an oil train with a tripod of steel rods to which they locked themselves. Motivated by frustration about the climate, workers safety and public health from the recklessness of the oil and railroad industries, they stayed on the tracks for eight hours before BNSF police arrested and charged them with trespassing and obstructing a train.

At their trial, during the first half of January 2016, they introduced the "necessity defense." They argued that their actions were not a crime because they were necessary to prevent a much greater harm, climate disruption and the immediate threat of oil train derailments, spills, and explosions.

To establish the necessity of their action the defense brought in expert witnesses to testify about the urgency of climate disruption, the danger from oil trains, railroad industry’s disregard for worker safety and the fact that pollution from trains is already killing people. Their testimony went largely unchallenged by the prosecution. Judge Anthony E Howard, who presided over the case, even expressed some sympathy for the activists, but at the end of the trial ruled that the jury would have to disregard these arguments because the defense had not sufficiently demonstrated that there was no other legal alternative to achieve the same ends. "Frankly the court is convinced that the defendants are far from the problem and are part of the solution to the problem of climate change," Howard said from the bench. But, he added: "I am bound by legal precedent, no matter what my personal beliefs might be." With those very narrow set of instructions, the jury returned with their verdict -- finding the Delta 5 guilty of trespassing, but not guilty of obstructing a train. The obstructing a train charge carried a potentially much more serious penalty.

After the trial was over and the Delta 5 and jury were released three of the six jurors came back into the courthouse, hugged the defendants, and sat with them and their supporters while they were sentenced by the judge.

While the ruling can still be appealed by BNSF, for now climate justice activists are celebrating the ruling as a partial victory, though not a resounding victory, because Judge Howard ruled out the possibility of using the "Neccessity Defense".

What's less talked about, however, is that this case represents another small victory, in this case (no pun intended) a victory for Green Unionism. During the blockade, Abby Brockway (shown in the accompanying image) sat atop a tripod which bore a sign which read: "Cut Oil Trains, Not Conductors - #Greens4Rails" which was in reference to a concurrent rank and file BNSF railroad workers' struggle (aided in large part by the organizers of Railroad Workers United (RWU)) to beat-back a concessionary contract proposal (detailed on ecology.iww.org) which would have allowed for the reduction in train-crew size from two to one employee. This was directly relevant to the Delta 5's blockade, because the latter were concerned about stopping any future disasters like the crude-by-rail train derailment which killed 47 people and devastated the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, in which an overworked and poorly trained Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway engineer, Tom Harding, had been the single employee on the train in question.

The rank and file railroad workers' fight against concessions succeeded. The Delta 5's soldiarity with railroad workers (in addition to support from many other enviornmental activists) sent a clear message that these climate justice activists do not blame railroad workers for the careless profiteering of the fossil fuel corporations or the railroad bosses, and see the workers as potential allies. Indeed, partly as a result of such overtures, BNSF whistleblower and railroad worker, Mike Elliot, testified at the trial of the Delta 5 on behalf of the defendants, and though his testimony was ultimately not allowed by the judge to be used as evidence, it still offers a glimpse of the potential strength that both the labor and environmental movements can bring to each other.

There's still much to be worked out in the case of railroad workers and climate justice activists opposed to crude-by-rail, including matters of railroad workers' working conditions and just transition. And far too many railroad workers believe the lies their bosses tell them about environmentalists being responsible for the current downturn in railroad work (which is primarily due to the crash of the shale oil boom and the economic meltdown currently unfolding in China, both of which are typical busts in the boom-bust cycle of the capitalist market). Some initial groundwork took place during three conferences organized by RWU and others last year, called "Railroad Safety: Workers, Community & the Environment". On the heels of the Delta 5 victory, there's no better time to think about continuing that work. An Injury to One is an Injury to All!

Climate Justice in Collision with Revenue-Neutral Carbon Policies?

By Patrick Mazza - Cascadia Planet, November 25, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Plotting options for carbon policy in Washington state, Governor Jay Inslee’s Carbon Emissions Reduction Taskforce just issued its recommendations.  The report sets up a political collision between advocates for neutral carbon pricing systems and climate justice proponents.

The CERT sagely concluded that carbon reduction goals are not going be met by market-based solutions alone.It is not enough to put a price on carbon, or set a legal cap.It will take a “harmonized, comprehensive policy approach. ”By increasing the price of fossil fuel energy, market mechanisms provide an “economic infrastructure” that sends “a common price signal across all emissions sources and emissions reductions opportunities.” This signal must be accompanied by “a well harmonized set of complementary policies” and “targeted use” of carbon revenues.

“Particular attention needs to be given to the transportation sector as the largest source of carbon emissions in the state,” CERT noted. Complementary policies are needed to promote transit and transit-oriented development, and alternative fuels such as electricity.

This emphasis on transportation alternatives is spot on.  It is partly aimed at reducing the impact of increased fuel costs on economically stressed populations.  That’s smart because it is exactly among those populations where fossil fuel interests will seek to drive a political wedge into the unified progressive coalition needed to pass carbon policy. 

Climate politics at a dead end – How to build a new road

By Patrick Mazza - Cascadia Planet, November 13, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Climate politics is dead-ended. 

It may seem strange to make such a statement in the wake of the much-heralded U.S.-China climate deal announced November 12.  So let me clarify.

President Obama did announce the intent to reduce U.S. carbon emissions 26-28% by 2025, while China said it would peak carbon emissions and generate at least 20% of its energy from non-fossil sources by 2030. 

All well and good, but far from the 6% annual emissions cuts required to hold overall global warming under 2° Celsius, the minimal borderline between climate disruption that is merely severe and that which is utterly catastrophic (though many scientists believe the cutoff is more like 1.5°C). In other words, the U.S.-China agreement represents only a slower road to climate hell.

Okay, but it’s a start, right?

“The agreement with China is a good first step. But we hope it is but a first step because it is not enough to prevent significant climate change,” noted Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Unfortunately, it may be the last step possible in the current political environment.  Republican election victories in the U.S. Senate and states around the country have put legislative progress on global warming into a deep freeze.

An Arresting Experience: Doing direct action at BNSF Delta Yard

By Patrick Mazza - Cascadia Planet, September 8, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Following is the story of why I and four others engaged in an act of civil resistance at BNSF Delta Yard in Everett, Washington September 2.  The act was intended to draw attention to a Petition for Redress of Grievances Inflicted by Fossil Fuels.  Please sign our petition here

I am a veteran climate activist.  I have written about the climate crisis for over 25 years and for most of the last 15 worked full-time to advance climate solutions.  I have spent a lot of time trying to stop global warming sitting in front of a computer.  On September 2, 2014 it was time to sit in front of a train. 

Five of us attached ourselves to a tripod made of three 18-foot steel poles erected across a train track at Delta Junction, the north end of BNSF’s Everett Delta staging yard.  I locked myself at the foot of one of the poles.  School teachers Liz Spoerri and Jackie Minshew and coffee shop owner Mike Lapointe fastened themselves to the others. Abby Brockway, a house painter and artist, ascended to perch at the top.

Our banner, “Cut Oil Trains, Not Conductors,” expressed solidarity with railroad workers fighting against dangerous, single-person train crews.  During the day the action drew numerous supporting honks from truckers driving across the bridge above.

Around 150 yards to the south an orange BNSF engine was linked at the head of a black mile-long snake of tanker cars filled with North Dakota Bakken shale oil.  This is the same extraordinarily unstable crude that on July 6, 2013 leveled several city blocks and incinerated 47 people at Lac-Megantic on the Quebec-Maine border.  That exploded in fireballs after derailments October 19, 2013 in Edmonton, Alberta and November 8, 2013 in Aliceville, Alabama. A derailment and fire December 30, 2013 in Casselton, North Dakota erupted in a toxic plume that forced evacuations in a five-mile radius.  Another Bakken train derailed and was engulfed in flames January 7, 2014 in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick.

Every week oil trains each carrying up to three million gallons of volatile Bakken crude trundle through Seattle 8 to 13 times and Washington up to 19 times, according to BNSF’s own figures. Sightline's Eric de Place reports that oil unit train traffic through Washington has risen from essentially zero in August 2012 to an average of 2.6 trains a day. They run past stadiums and heavily populated neighborhoods, and through tunnels underneath Seattle and Everett.  Just this July 24 a nearly 100-tanker train derailed beneath the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle.  Fortunately no toxic fireball . . . this time.