Twenty-two Greenpeace USA activists closed part of the Houston Ship Channel Thursday to protest the use of fossil fuels on the same day of the Democratic debate.
A portion of the largest oil export channel in the U.S. closed after 11 activists suspended themselves by cables from the Fred Hartman Bridge, with brightly-colored flags flying in the wind, pledging a 24-hour stay.
“A carbon-free future is what we want to see,” Valentina Stackl, Greenpeace spokeswoman said. “I think here specifically, the Houston Ship Channel that has an average of 700,000 barrels of oil come through here per day, which is looking to expand to 2 million barrels of oil a day, is going in the wrong direction. We have to put an end to the era of fossil fuels, and we have to do it so in a way so that the workers employed by the fossil fuel industry can have well-paying union jobs in the new green economy.”
The immediate future brought arrests. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office began arresting the spotters Thursday afternoon. The Houston and Baytown Fire Department were preparing personnel to repel down to those suspended below the bridge with hopes of lowering the protesters to boats waiting below in the channel. Those boats did not have too much company during the day.
The Houston Ship Channel is responsible for supplying nearly 40% of petrochemical product to the nation and generates $802 billion in U.S. economic value, supporting more than 1.35 million Texas jobs, according to Lisa Ashley, director of media relations for Port Houston.
According to the Coast Guard, one ship was waiting to enter the Houston Ship Channel while two ships were waiting to exit Thursday afternoon.
Despite protests, ExxonMobil said it was business as usual.
“Operations are normal at ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery,” Jeremy Eikenberry, ExxonMobil spokesman, said. “We expect to meet contractual commitments.”
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office allowed the demonstration to continue as planned to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
“Our main focus is to try and resolve this as peacefully as we can,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said during a press conference Thursday. “We are working through a number of different contingencies while this protest goes on. Again, our goal is to resolve it safely because we are concerned for everyone’s safety.”
Congressman Brian Babin, however, disagreed with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office allowing the protesters to stay for so long.
“They should remove these protesters immediately. When law enforcement refuses to enforce the law there it’s anarchy, the very definition of lawlessness,” Babin said. “In addition to the danger they pose to themselves and others by blocking ship traffic on the ship channel and severely restricting vehicle traffic on the bridge, they are costing Texas job creators millions of dollars as long as this goes on. Allowing this dangerous stunt to continue under the auspice of free speech will only encourage more illegal activity in the future.”
“If the HCSO will not uphold the law and put a stop to this right now, I call on the Governor and other state officials to bring in the Texas Rangers to put an end to this and resume commerce on the ship channel,” he added.
In addition to closing a portion of the ship channel, two lanes were closed as a result of the protest, causing traffic delays on the northbound side.
When asked why disrupt local people who are going about their day with this kind of protest, Stackl said it’s important to realize everyone will be impacted by climate change very soon.
“Many people are already impacted by climate change and your day won’t be the same,” Stackl said. “This might be a minor hindrance now, but climate change and climate chaos is going to be a major hindrance on everyone. And so we’re trying to stop it now, stop the path that we’re on, which is putting us into certain doom, and trying to get our leaders to act, act now and act boldly so that we can have a better tomorrow.”
Law enforcement was first made aware of the protest after a report of a vehicle accident on the bridge around 6:30 a.m. Thursday.
Jason Finnen, Harris County Precinct 8 Constable’s Office chief deputy, said a van carrying the protesters was partially parked in a lane of traffic on the bridge.
“A vehicle that was headed northbound as it crested the bridge slammed on their breaks to avoid colliding with the van, and that car was then rear-ended by another motorist,” Finnen said.
Activists could face charges for causing the three-vehicle crash. They could also face multiple charges once they conclude their protest, including obstructing the roadway and obstructing the waterway.