The fall of 2012 was a tough time to be a tar sands activist, even though an amazing new movement was showing exciting signs of growth. With the fight against Enbridge’s Northern Gateway in B.C. emerging as a “campaign of a generation,” Keystone XL gathering a surprising amount of steam, and awareness of the human rights and environmental disaster in Northern Alberta growing, tar sands pipelines were developing faster than movements could even track, much less build enough power to slow down or stop.
At that point, with the Harper Conservatives in full attack mode on environmentalists, spending tens of millions on PR and other dirty tricks, we realized we were fighting as many as five massive new tar sands pipelines, crossing almost every province in Canada. At one point I even bought a domain name, PipelinesEverywhere.com. The many-headed hydra of the fossil fuel industry was in full strike mode.
While we had a strong movement in B.C. and the United States, and some pockets of activism emerging in the Prairies, we were struggling to make the tar sands an issue of national concern, and badly losing the Enbridge Line 9 fight across Southern Ontario.
“If you want to get really depressed, read these focus group transcripts,” a colleague told me, showing me what the people whose drinking water would be directly affected by Line 9 in Toronto's 905 suburbs said was most important to them. Jobs. Investments. Stability. Not climate change. Not a safe environment. And certainly not challenging a powerful federal government hell-bent on pushing a petro-based economy.
Along comes the giant
When the big oil execs and their buddies in the federal cabinet cooked up Energy East, they may have thought they had learned some lessons from the botched job Enbridge did in B.C. Unfortunately for them, they designed their whole campaign within a Toronto- and Calgary-centric, colonialist, neoliberal worldview. Either that, or they can’t read a damn map.
The hundreds of kilometres that Energy East would have had to traverse through La Belle Province apparently never made a big impression on the geniuses in Calgary, Toronto, and Ottawa, as they made misstep after misstep selling the project in Quebec. To be fair, a “foreign” Alberta project, connected to the brand-damaged tar sands, imposed by outsiders, and vigorously promoted by the despised Harper government had a lot of black marks against it from the get-go.
From unacknowledged effects on beluga whales to untranslated documents, leaked creepy PR strategies to suppressed and ignored climate impacts, TransCanada helped us do what we had so far failed to: they made the tar sands a national issue, highlighting the industry’s complete lack of morals to the mainstream. That, and uniting a very passionate — and extremely well organized — province to do whatever it took to block the project. Energy East was a game-changer for the tar sands campaign.
The next few years were exciting and perhaps unprecedented in Canada. Record turnout at hundreds of marches and rallies, massive crowdfunding campaigns, public hearings packed or even shut down, civil disruption, even toppling a powerful and well-funded Harper Conservative government, were all, in my eyes, tied to the climate movement, which was fueled in a significant way by Quebec’s anger towards Energy East.
So Thursday morning’s announcement of TransCanada pulling the plug didn’t surprise me. The economics of high cost oil have fundamentally changed. Paris happened. Renewable energy costs dropped below those of new fossils. Maybe even Trudeau’s weak “climate test” of new infrastructure helped. But let’s not forget something the likes of the Globe and Mail will never admit: People power and Indigenous power stopped this pipeline.
So where does this leave us on Kinder Morgan?
So while we rightly celebrate the toppling of the giant, the fight against Kinder Morgan just got even tougher. Predictably, Alberta’s Premier Notley told the Globe today, “There is an even greater urgency in completing the Trans Mountain project.”
Since Trudeau approved Kinder Morgan almost a year ago, our options for blocking it have diminished. But we still have options, and they must be taken. First Nations court challenges contesting lack of consultation and consent are being heard in federal court in downtown Vancouver right now. The Pull Together campaign has raised almost $600,000 to pay for four of these nations’ legal bills, with hundreds of Canadians and now Americans in Washington state organizing community events, open mic nights, and other events to raise money and build power. Funding the priorities of Indigenous leaders is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to put reconciliation intentions into action.
Environmental cases arguing against the certain extinction of the southern resident orca population, also started this week. Either or both of these legal strategies have a chance to stop or slow the pipeline, like they did with Enbridge’s Northern Gateway.
If that fails, the Coast Protectors group and their allies have amassed an army 50,000 strong, who have pledged to “do whatever it takes” to stop Kinder Morgan on the land. Structures are being built along the pipeline route. If you have any doubts as to the certitude of these people, watch B.C. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip outside the courthouse on Monday. This man does not mince words.
Habitable earth = no new fossil fuels
There is no “thinking man’s pipeline” in the era of the climate crisis. To keep a habitable planet, almost all new fossil fuels must be left in the ground. Now, not in 30 years. The oil sands won’t be growing as planned, or we doom our children to a world of chaos and pain. Canada needs to invest in clean energy, re-train workers for jobs with a future they can be proud of, and live its values by going from climate criminal to real climate leader. We’re not going to get there by keeping our emissions growing every year, and we’re not going to get there by building new pipelines, against the wishes of local communities and Indigenous populations.
So, people, feel your power today. Now let’s get on with the job of stopping Kinder Morgan and building a safe future for everyone.
Jason Mogus is a senior advisor to campaigners working for change around the world. He worked on the tar sands campaign for five years and continues to support the Pull Together and Coast Protectors campaigns.