People power

Think a Kinder Morgan approval is a done deal? Think again

West coast pipeline can, and will, be stopped
Photo: SumOfUs

Justin Trudeau announced today that his government will put the ratification of the Paris agreement on climate to a vote in Parliament. This is welcome news. But ratifying it will be meaningless if the Liberals keep approving fossil fuel mega-projects. With the deadline for a decision on Kinder Morgan looming, the media has been full of reports from government sources that Trudeau plans to approve this tar sands pipeline.

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If you just pay attention to the news, there seems to be a sense of pipeline fatalism setting in on Canada’s west coast. According to a recent poll, only 27 per cent of people in British Columbia think that the Kinder Morgan pipeline will not be built, a sentiment reinforced by all the reports that Trudeau favours a Kinder Morgan approval this December.

On the one hand, this feeling that the Kinder Morgan decision is a foregone conclusion makes sense. Canada’s National Energy Board has approved the Kinder Morgan pipeline, and the federal government’s supplementary review panel has seemed oddly quiet about the overwhelming opposition to the project they heard during their recent sojourn through B.C. Add to this a full-court lobby press from the fossil fuel industry — Kinder Morgan has met with the federal government at least 31 times since the Liberals took office — and the average person could be forgiven for thinking the deck is stacked in favour of pipeline approval.

Super-sized pipeline The Trans Mountain pipeline has shipped crude oil from northern Alberta to B.C.’s Lower Mainland since 1953. In 2005, it was purchased by Kinder Morgan Inc., the largest energy infrastructure company in North America. KMI was founded by Texas billionaire Richard Kinder, a former Enron executive and prominent Republican donor. The proposed twinning of the Trans Mountain pipeline would increase the amount of oil shipped to the west coast from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day, with an estimated 400 tankers per year carrying diluted bitumen for export out through Vancouver’s narrow harbour. The federal government’s decision on the pipeline is due Dec. 19.

Lessons from Keystone XL

The truth, however, is that the deck always seems stacked in favour of approving projects like this — right up until the moment it isn’t.

How do I know that? Six words: “We are inclined to do so.”

These were uttered by then secretary of state Hillary Clinton in October 2010 when she was asked about the U.S. government’s feelings on approving the Keystone XL pipeline. Canadian prime minister at the time Stephen Harper took it a step further, calling that pipeline project a “done deal.”

We all know how that ended. But what’s important to our current situation is understanding why and how Keystone XL ended up being stopped: people power.

On Aug. 28, 2011, in the midst of a historic sit-in outside the White House to stop Keystone XL, the U.S. State Department issued their “final” Environmental Impact Statement on the pipeline — recommending a presidential approval. In any other place or time, that would have been the end of the story and the pipeline would have been built, if not for the movement already building to stop it.

Even inside the U.S. climate movement, it was a small minority who believed that the pressure that had been mounting on President Barack Obama to reject the pipeline would work. But that small minority kept organizing, and less than three months later, on Nov. 10, 2011, shortly after climate activists had surrounded the White House, the Keystone decision was delayed. According to the CBC, the delay was a “stunning victory for the North American environmental movement.”

Of course, that wasn’t the end of Keystone XL. Time and time again, the pipeline would come back, usually with the media reporting some kind of imminent approval. But, time and time again, people organized, took action and the pipeline was delayed.

Relentless organizing

On Jan. 31, 2014, for example, the U.S. State Department released another final Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL pipeline arguing again that the pipeline would be unlikely to alter global greenhouse gas emissions. It was a major blow to the Keystone opposition, and many felt it swung the momentum back towards an impending pipeline approval. It may have. But it also spurred people to get organized.

Changing the prime minister’s mind when it comes to this pipeline is going take a lot of pressure, and we don’t have a lot of time.

Four days after the release of the statement, over 200 vigils in 44 states were held despite the biting February cold. A few months later, on April 18, ahead of another major protest in Washington D.C., the State Department suspended the regulatory process indefinitely.

These are just two examples of how people power changed political minds. During this whole time, organizing to stop Keystone XL was relentless. There were countless other lawsuits, blockades, marches, rallies and more. But all of it added up to one thing — there was never a moment when the Keystone pipeline could have been approved quietly.

Right now, those of us in B.C. and across Canada who don’t want to see a pipeline wreck our climate and violate Indigenous rights need to take heart, because there is a long way to go between a politician hinting support for a pipeline and an approval. We also need to get more organized, think strategically and take action. Changing the prime minister’s mind when it comes to this pipeline is going take a lot of pressure, and we don’t have a lot of time.

That’s one reason why earlier this week youth and students launched Climate 101, a mass student-led civil disobedience action to stop the Kinder Morgan pipeline planned for Oct. 24 in Ottawa.

Youth voters hold Trudeau to account

While most political pundits are framing Trudeau’s choice as one between angering B.C. or Quebec, and losing support for the 2019 federal election in one province or the other, they’re missing the forest for the trees. In 2015, 45 per cent of people from 18 to 25 voted for Trudeau, a record-breaking turnout that some argue delivered him a majority. That same age range, actually stretching all the way up to 34, tends to have an unfavourable view of pipelines, preferring bold climate action and respect for Indigenous rights to stale politics-as-usual.

What matters is making sure that Trudeau realizes there is no way he can approve this pipeline quietly.

As the self-appointed minister of youth, Trudeau’s pipeline politics could land him in hot water with a demographic he’s going to depend on in 2019. We may never know exactly why Obama rejected Keystone XL, but between 400 youth and students arrested at the White House to stop the pipeline in 2014, and the constant pressure from students during the president’s travels around the country, youth no doubt played a significant role.

We know young people can’t do this alone, and we also know that even if we all step up to the plate to try and stop this pipeline, Trudeau might still approve it. What matters is making sure that he realizes there is no way he can approve this pipeline quietly. We have to make sure that if there is a federal approval of Kinder Morgan this December, the entire country and indeed the whole world is paying attention.

Remember, the December deadline for the federal government’s decision on Kinder Morgan will come just a few weeks after Canada has to show up at this year’s UN climate summit in Morocco and put some meat on the bones of its much applauded, but skeletal, rhetoric from the Paris climate talks last fall. And new research from Oil Change International makes the scientific case clearer than ever that the first step to not cooking our planet is to not build pipelines like Kinder Morgan.

Whenever a pipeline decision is looming, it might seem like approval is inevitable. But, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the fight against Keystone XL, it’s that dedicated, organized people can do the improbable, and, sometimes, the impossible.

I don’t know if we can do it, but I sure as hell know we can try.

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