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Environmental activists to march in Downtown Pittsburgh to protest fracking, fossil fuel

| Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, 11:53 p.m.

Thousands of young environmental activists will descend on Pittsburgh for a climate change conference this weekend and protest march Downtown on Monday, attracted by the city's ban on fracking and the region's central role in the nation's shale gas boom.

The biennial U.S. Power Shift conference is leaving the nation's capital for the first time since 2007. Its organizer, the Energy Action Coalition, includes 30 youth-led environmental and social justice organizations looking to mobilize young people to protest against fossil fuels and to discuss solutions for climate change.

Organizers expect 6,000 to 10,000 activists to attend the conference.

“I feel like it's the most pressing problem of my generation,” said Lora Matway, 19, a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh who helped sign up 101 students there for the conference. “We need our planet — for my kids and my future and everything else.”

City officials don't expect anything like the 2009 Group of 20 summit, which included a security fence closing off Downtown for two days, nearly 200 arrests and several police clashes.

Councilman and mayoral front-runner Bill Peduto will be one of the first to welcome the activists to town, with a Friday night keynote challenging them to think about how they can transform society.

Power Shift needs only about two hours of street closings Downtown on Monday and likely only a few dozen police officers to watch over that day's protest march, Pittsburgh police Lt. Ed Trapp said. They're expecting 3,000 to 4,000 on the march, starting near the Roberto Clemente Bridge and circling back through Ninth Street and Liberty Avenue, he said.

One group has pledged to use the event on Monday to “confront PNC in a series of escalating nonviolent actions across the metro region” because of the bank's past support for mountaintop coal mining. About 30 activists were arrested for acts of civil disobedience in Washington during the last conference in 2011, according to reporting by The Huffington Post.

Pittsburgh police contacted Washington police and were told there were no significant problems during the conferences there in 2009 and 2011, Trapp said. Organizers have been cooperative, collaborating with police to change their route to avoid young children who will be Downtown for field trips on Monday morning, Trapp said.

“I don't think the public has anything to be concerned about,” he added. “They're good people who have a concern about how things are done and want to have a conference to talk about that. ... But any time you have a large group like that, you could have counterprotests or fringe groups that could be a concern.”

A PNC Financial Services Group spokeswoman declined to comment, refusing to say what the company's branches are doing to prepare for protests by Earth Quaker Action Team, which disrupted the company's annual meeting in April. PNC does not fund individual mountaintop removal projects but acknowledged some of its large coal customers derived a “small portion” of their production from mountaintop mining.

Several drilling, coal and power companies contacted by the Tribune-Review either did not respond to messages or said they were not concerned about protests.

“Conferences of all nature hosted in Pittsburgh provide a boost to the local economy, so we welcome these students to Western Pennsylvania,” Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesman Steve Forde wrote in an emailed statement. “Here, they'll find a region rich with deeply-rooted historical contributions ... (including) our region's shale resources that are strengthening our economy, security and environment.”

That's not an argument that Power Shift participants believe in. They view the unconventional gas and oil boom as a part of a generational conflict over environmental security.

And they're coming to Pittsburgh at a time when that conflict is taking the national stage. The Obama administration is deciding whether to allow the Keystone XL pipeline to transport oil from Canada, a point of focus for the protesters. And as natural gas competes more with coal, federal regulators also have announced tighter regulations on the carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. They'll be taking public feedback on that plan at several sessions, including one on Nov. 8 in Philadelphia.

At Power Shift, speakers will include anti-drilling documentarian Josh Fox and Bill McKibben, an environmentalist who is leading an effort to get universities to divest from fossil fuel companies.

The idea is that they own so much coal, oil and gas, if they keep producing and burning it, it would produce enough carbon pollution to permanently damage the climate. Gas boosters often claim natural gas is a bridge fuel that burns cleaner and can be used to transition to clean energy.

“That's a hard thing to buy. As you build infrastructure ... there's incentive to keep using it,” said the Pitt student, Matway. She's hoping the protest march will bring climate issues to the attention of Downtown workers who don't usually think of them. “I'm hoping it's an eye-opener.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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