Environmentalists Stage ‘Laugh-In’ at Whitehouse Talk

Protesters interrupted a recent talk at Yale University by Sen. Whitehouse to call the Rhode Island Democrat a ‘climate clown.’ They don’t agree with his take on natural-gas expansion in southern New England. (Capitalism vs. the Climate)

Protesters interrupted a recent talk at Yale University by Sen. Whitehouse to call the Rhode Island Democrat a ‘climate clown.’ They don’t agree with his take on natural-gas expansion in southern New England. (Capitalism vs. the Climate)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Environmentalists critical of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s stance on natural-gas pipeline projects planned for southern New England interrupted his Feb. 28 speech at Yale Law School.

The Rhode Island Democrat, who is considered one of the top environmentalists in Congress, was shouted down for favoring natural-gas expansion and, in particular, a project to dramatically expand the capacity of a natural-gas pipeline that runs through New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

The protestors called the peaceful action a “laugh-in,” which involved loud and exaggerated laughing before standing and shouting, “It's a joke that Senator Whitehouse is an environmentalist. He needs to stop supporting Spectra’s fracked gas pipeline expansion. He's not a climate champion. He's a climate clown.”

Two of the 10 activists in the conference hall then hoisted a banner in front of Whitehouse that read: “Fracked Gas Kills.” There were no arrests in the incident. 

The group, Capitalism vs. the Climate, organized the event and claims Whitehouse supports the Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) project. The owner of the pipeline, Houston-based Spectra Energy, plans to add 40 miles of new pipeline and expand five compressor stations, including a compressor station in Burrillville, R.I.

The increased pressure on the 60-year-old pipeline has environmentalists and residents along the 1,127-mile transmission line concerned about fires, explosions and an increase in harmful emissions.

According to Spectra Energy, all of the gas in the pipeline travels from the natural-gas fields that employ the controversial method of extraction called hydraulic fracturing, but better known as fracking. Fracking is linked to water and air pollution. The drilling, transportation and burning associated with this process are suspected of releasing methane into the atmosphere, accelerating global climate change. Due to the risks, more than 20 groups in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York are opposing the AIM project and have held regular demonstrations.

Whitehouse didn’t respond to an ecoRI News inquiry about the protest. He has, however, walked a fine line on the natural-gas debate. During his weekly “Time to Wake Up” speeches, Whitehouse has called for cutting fossil-fuel emissions in order to curtail the impacts of climate change. He also has introduced a bill to curb greenhouse gases through a tax on carbon emissions.

At the same time, he supports domestic natural-gas extraction as an alternative to higher-polluting coal, especially if methane and leaks can be contained. Whitehouse also has called natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to a time when renewables provide a greater portion of energy needs. And like other top political leaders in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Whitehouse wants to expand natural gas in order to reduce price fluctuations and ease winter spikes in demand.

Whitehouse hasn’t wholeheartedly endorsed the AIM project, however, and helped schedule a public hearing for the project in Burrillville. But he hasn’t responded to reports that the energy companies intend to use the New England pipelines for export to Canada and overseas.

“Senator Whitehouse needs to either stop Spectra’s pipeline expansion or stop pretending he's a climate champion,” says Dan Fischer of Capitalism vs. the Climate.