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High-Rolling Obama Supporter Threatens to Pull the Plug Over Pipeline

Local Matters


Published October 19, 2011 at 10:47 a.m.

Barbarina Heyerdahl
  • Barbarina Heyerdahl

Bill McKibben got the president’s attention by precipitating more than 1000 arrests outside the White House in opposition to the proposed Canada-Texas Keystone XL Pipeline. On October 17, the Washington Post reported “the two-week demonstration prompted a flurry of calls between White House offices” and the State Department “as administration officials asked to be briefed about the project’s status.”

A positive ruling on the pipeline could have an effect on Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, as well: alienating former big donors such as Shelburne resident Barbarina Heyerdahl, who would have otherwise supported him. Heyerdahl and her husband, Aaron, have given a combined total of nearly $120,000 to Obama and the Democratic National Committee over the past three years, the Post reported in an October 7 story about the president’s pipeline-related pitfalls.

“I’m profoundly disappointed in him,” Heyerdahl says over coffee at Muddy Waters, pointing to “a whole cascade of decisions” that suggest he didn’t mean what he said about climate change during his 2008 campaign: allowing oil drilling in the Arctic, neglecting to impose strict regulations on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and declining to implement new curbs on smog.

Her skepticism has grown to the point where she won’t be writing any more checks to Obama if he approves the carbon conduit that’s become the focus of the climate-change movement. “It’s a baseline issue,” Heyerdahl says of a project that could have catastrophic consequences, according to some climate scientists. “We can fight on lots of environmental fronts, but if we don’t address climate change, those other campaigns will all be secondary,” she says.

Heyerdahl’s money comes from her great-grandfather, John Pitcairn, who immigrated to the United States from Scotland in the 19th century. He got a job as a Pennsylvania Railroad telegraph boy, working his way up to become vice president of the company. Pitcairn went on to score big as an investor in natural gas and then founded Pittsburgh Plate Glass, now known as PPG Industries.

Heyerdahl has used her millions to contribute to all four members of Vermont’s liberal pantheon: Gov. Peter Shumlin, Rep. Peter Welch, and senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders have all benefited from her largesse. She has likewise contributed to the Vermont Natural Resources Council, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and McKibben’s 350.org.

Heyerdahl has been especially impressed with Shumlin, noting he spoke about the carbon overload at every campaign event she attended before deciding to become a donor. “He’s not just ladling out political Kool Aid,” Heyerdahl comments. “He really believes what he’s saying.”

She thought Obama did, too. Like many progressives, she regarded the president as a potential mold breaker who would bring a more enlightened consciousness to governing. “Here was this obviously intelligent man with two young daughters who was saying he wants to end ‘the tyranny of oil’ and protect the planet,” Heyerdahl recalls.

In addition to signing checks, Heyerdahl signed up as a campaign volunteer. “‘Oh, honey,’” Heyerdahl remembers an Obama campaign director telling her, “‘we don’t need you in Vermont. We need you in Ohio.’” So off she went to the swing state on Election Day, making coffee for voters who had lined up before the polls opened in a poor Cleveland neighborhood.

As the interview at Muddy’s makes clear, Heyerdahl is a perceptive and articulate political analyst, not just an idealistic heiress. She says, for example, that it’s “spurious” to claim the pipeline will bring the United States oil from a friendly neighbor, when in fact much of the glop from Alberta’s tar sands will likely be exported after reaching Houston. Heyerdahl says she understands the potency of the job-creation argument in the current economic crisis, but, she asks, “Are we going to sabotage our children’s future for the sake of 20,000 jobs?” That’s the figure some trade unions cite in urging Obama to turn on the taps.

Heyerdahl and her husband, a woodwork and physics teacher at the Lake Champlain Waldorf School, have four children of their own: three boys and a girl ranging in age from 8 to 18. Her maternal responsibilities are what prevented her from getting arrested at the White House in late August, Heyerdahl says.

She herself is a product of a Waldorf education, having attended the Rudolf Steiner School in Manhattan from kindergarten through 12th grade. Heyerdahl got involved in national politics there at age 7. She wrote a letter to President Richard Nixon, urging him to ban the chlorofluorocarbons that were punching holes in the Earth’s ozone shield.

Heyerdahl, who studied biology at Barnard College, earned a degree in human ecology from Maine’s College of the Atlantic. “She has substantial expertise,” says Paul Burns, director of VPIRG, on whose board Heyerdahl serves. “She contributes substantially to us, intellectually as well as financially.”

After graduation, Heyerdahl worked in Maine as an organic farmer for several years. The family was transplanted to Vermont in 2005 because Aaron — a distant cousin of Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl — got a job at the Waldorf high school in Charlotte. “Our friends told us, ‘If you can’t be a Mainer, you’ve really got only one choice: to be a Vermonter,’” Barbarina Heyerdahl says.

Despite her fierce advocacy on environmental issues, Heyerdahl, 47, wants it to be known that she’s no “tree-hugging” ingenue. “I do get it,” she says with a smile. “I know the political context in Washington has been poisonous for the past three years.” She says she’ll probably join in encircling the White House on November 6, which is McKibben’s next planned action there. And although she could obviously afford to fly, Heyerdahl will board Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express in Castleton for a 10-hour journey to Washington. It’s climate concerns that dictate her choice of travel — that, and the metal hip replacement she recently received. “Airports are enough of a hassle without what happens to me at the metal detector,” Heyerdahl remarks.

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