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Q&A: Climate activists put Northampton TD Bank branch in spotlight

MICHAEL GODBE
Protesters gather Monday outside the TD Bank branch on Main Street in Northampton to appeal for the institution to end its financial involvement with tar sands oil extraction in Canada.

MICHAEL GODBE Protesters gather Monday outside the TD Bank branch on Main Street in Northampton to appeal for the institution to end its financial involvement with tar sands oil extraction in Canada. Purchase photo reprints »

On Monday, about three dozen people gathered in the rain outside the TD Bank branch on Main Street in Northampton to highlight the bank’s involvement in tar sands oil development. They carried a letter to the branch manager asking that the bank divest its holdings and loans to TransCanada, the energy company targeting fields in Alberta.

The rally was organized by John Berkowitz of Northampton, the former executive director of Vermonters for a Fair Economy and Environmental Protection. Also among those participating were John and Maureen Sheehan of Southampton. John Sheehan was president of the United Way of Hampshire County for 23 years; Maureen Sheehan is a retired teacher in the Williamsburg schools.

Berkowitz and John Sheehan fielded the following questions about the drive to bring attention to the bank’s investments. They conferred and Berkowitz responded.

— LARRY PARNASS

What makes you think a major U.S. bank — one of the nation’s 10th largest, in fact — will respond to local sidewalk protests?

Because like us, TD bankers also care deeply about their children and grandchildren, whose future is threatened by climate change and its increasing economic and environmental costs.

And because TD Bank will also respond to a growing groundswell of public opposition to tar sands oil development and pipelines, including the support of such top climate experts as NASA’s Dr. James Hansen, who said: “It’s ‘game over’ for stopping climate change if we keep burning tar sands oil.”

You and three dozen people stood in the rain Monday to make this point. What for you was the high point of the Northampton rally?

That so many people cared so much about this issue to come out despite the heavy rain. In the words of one Belchertown teen whose summer job kept her from coming: “I don’t see why everyone doesn’t realize how important it is to save the planet from climate change.”

Isn’t the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline project in the hands of political leaders in Washington, D.C., rather than financial institutions?

A: Yes, President Obama will decide later this year whether to allow the Keystone XL pipeline to carry tar sands oil from northern Alberta in Canada to Texas refineries. Over a million Americans have contacted him expressing their opposition, and nearly 2,000 have been arrested in non-violent protest at the White House and elsewhere.

But even if he rejects this pipeline, the Canadian energy giant TransCanada will seek other routes, and to stop those as well, TD Bank’s investments in tar sands oil must end.

Do you know of another environmental campaign that succeeded through pressure tactics on banks?

No, but our nation’s history is filled with protest against government and business policies — such as women’s, labor and civil rights and environmental campaigns for clean air and water, protecting the ozone layer and ending use of DDT and other toxic chemicals.

Recently, 10 Nobel Peace Prize winners, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, wrote a joint letter to President Obama urging him to reject the tar sands pipelines and take other action to stop climate change.

TD Bank has won accolades from the federal Environmental Protection Agency as one of its “Green Power Partners” for its voluntary purchase of green power. It received the EPA’s Green Power Leadership Award in 2012. Shouldn’t the bank get some credit for that?

They deserve credit for many “green” policies, from conserving energy use in their buildings to recently preserving 107 acres of Florida forest. But these programs are dwarfed by their support for tar sands oil development, which will ultimately destroy millions of acres of forest and wetlands, an area the size of Florida. And burning tar sands oil could render the whole planet uninhabitable.

Doesn’t TD Bank in fact aid the New England economy through its commercial and residential lending?

Yes, but that doesn’t make it OK for them to damage the environment, increase climate change and jeopardize our and our children’s lives, now and in the future. There are many other locally owned banks whose investments don’t include tar sands oil.

What other financial institutions in our lives are connected to projects that adversely affect the climate?

In the past year, students and alumni at hundreds of universities, including many of those in western Massachusetts, have begun campaigns to divest from fossil fuel companies. The state Senate and the Northampton City Council will also be considering similar action.

Retired Rev. Peter Ives of Northampton’s First Churches attended the Monday protest at TD Bank and said that his denomination of over 600 churches, the United Church of Christ, has decided to phase out its investments in fossil-fuel companies over the next five years.

How is Climate Action Now of Western Massachusetts orchestrating public action on this issue?

I am a member of Climate Action Now of Western Mass. and with others took the initiative to begin this boycott TD Bank campaign. CAN is planning a Valley-wide conference in September in Springfield.

What others actions are planned?

Protests to boycott TD Bank are also planned for July 29 at noon at the TD Bank branch in Amherst and on Sept. 9 at noon at TD Bank branches in Springfield, Westfield, Holyoke, Northampton, Amherst and Greenfield.

If by Sept. 9 the CEO and board of TD Bank have not agreed to divest from tar sands oil development and pipelines, the protests will continue and include some participants engaging in non-violent acts of civil disobedience. This is part of a national campaign called “The Pledge of Resistance,” sponsored by the phone company Credo Mobile, in which over 62,000 people have committed to risking arrest in order to stop tar sands oil use.

For more information on the campaign, contact Berkowitz by phone at 413-325-4533, by email at johnpberk@gmail.com or visit www.350ma.org.

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