Students protest to presidential official

by Beacon Staff • September 29, 2011

strongJamie Emmerman, Beacon Staff/strong

CAMBRIDGE—Sophomore Erin Moriarty stayed silent as she waited for presidential advisor David Axelrod, an Obama administration official, to walk through Harvard University Monday afternoon.

The co-president of Earth Emerson, the college’s student environmental group, joined about 35 others to protest the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, a transport system to move crude oil from Alberta, Canada down to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The event, spurred by presidential adviser David Axelrod’s visit to Harvard for a discussion series, drew students from colleges in the Boston area. Moriarty said she attended the protest anticipating other Earth Emerson members to give their support, but she was the only Emersonian she knew of at the event.

“We are trying to make [Axelrod] know that we are the people and we are not for this plan,” said Moriarty, a sophomore marketing communication major. “We should be focusing on clean energy instead of continuing to drill, especially in this day and age when we know how bad oil is.”

While President Obama will not be making a decision on the pipeline until December, Harvard University’s Environmental Action Committee, the group behind the protest, said they believe making this controversy known to the president’s staff beforehand will allow the pipeline to be a campaign issue in 2012.

“I’ve heard that Obama’s administration is changing its tone on things,” said Alli Welton, a member of the Environmental Action Committee and freshman at Harvard University. “They’ve gone from quietly agreeing on it to saying no one really knows where the decision will go at this point.”

Tensions rose as the group of students and Boston-area residents awaited the arrival of Axelrod in the September afternoon sun. The controversial pipeline was originally proposed by the TransCanada Corporation Feb. 9, 2005.

If built, the pipeline could spark disastrous environmental problems, such as the release of carbon and the pollution of the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides water to almost 20 million people, the Environmental Action Committee said in a press release.

“It is crucial that [Obama] rejects this pipeline,” said Serena Zhao, Co-chair of the Environmental Action Committee and senior at Harvard University.  “It is not so much that we want to chastise him, we know that he believes in these issues and we just want to give him the strength to carry through.”

This protest was inspired by a similar event held when Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, visited Harvard earlier this month. Like the protest Monday, the Environmental Action Committee tried to convey their anti-pipeline message to Messina.

However, many protesters said this event went better than the last, as Axelrod unexpectedly stopped to address the crowd.

“These are important issues and one that will be a robust debate into 2012,” said Axelrod. “I want you all to know that although you are silent today, your voices are being heard loud and clear.”

For some, the fact that Axelrod stopped to address the crowd was positive enough within itself. However, for protesters like Dorian Williams, a junior at Brandeis University, his words were hollow.

“He was expecting us, which means he has senior advisers who are aware of the issue which is very good,” said Williams. “We can’t rely on the sentiment of what he said, but the significance is very good.”