Since the 2011 arrest of hundreds of people in Washington while protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, the fight against the tar sands has grown into one of the most important global fights against extreme energy.
Hundreds of thousands of people have come together to fight pipeline projects across the US and Canada, to stop mega-load shipments and above all to stand with First Nations in Northern Alberta and draw a clear line in the sand for politicians: being serious on climate change means rejecting the tar sands.
As it has grown in size, this movement has also grown in scale, beauty and ambition. And as it has done so, it has made life increasingly hard for the tar sands barons. Just this year, a lack of pipelines to transport tar sands to the coast played a key role in forcing Total to suspend its plans to build an $11-billion tar sands mine — something Big Oil doesn’t do very often, at least not willingly. As the movement has grown though, so too has the desperation of the fossil fuel industry, which will do anything to get tar sands to port. The most audacious “anything” so far is TransCanada’s proposed Energy East pipeline project.
The biggest tar sands pipeline proposal that industry has thrown out yet, Energy East would stretch over 4,000 kilometers from Alberta to New Brunswick and could move over a million barrels of tar sands crude each day, most of it destined for export. That’s more than double the capacity of Northern Gateway, and hundreds of thousands of barrels per day more than Keystone XL.
It would cross half the provinces in Canada, threatening communities all along the route, including over 150 First Nations communities. With a carbon footprint equal to 7 million cars, this pipeline is the latest desperate bid to do something every climate scientist in the world has warned against: pump the massive concentrations of carbon in Alberta’s tar sands out into the atmosphere. There are plenty of reasons to resist this project, but it’s worth noting that when people along the route are fighting to protect their land and water, they’re also standing up for the future of the planet.
The sheer size and scale of the Energy East project is an indication of an industry desperate to lock us into a dig, burn and dump economy for decades to come. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called this pipeline a “nation builder” for Canada, but from what I’ve seen of tar sands resistance, this could instead be the lightning rod that galvanizes the climate movement in this country — a movement capable of making a tar sands moratorium happen.
The deck is already stacked against the tar sands. They’ve been called one of the riskiest investments on the planet, for good reason. Between the carbon bubble and the impact of tar sands and pipelines on the legal rights of First Nations communities, investing in the tar sands is a dangerous gambit. As my friend Naomi Klein recently said, “Any resource investment in Canada right now should be treated as an uncertain investment.” With more and more investors dropping coal investments because of the risk, tar sands could be next on the chopping block, especially with the support of the ever-growing fossil fuel divestment movement.
This fight to slow climate change has always been defined by tipping points. In the past they have been those lines we fought so hard to keep from crossing, the thresholds of runaway warming to which we may never adapt. Now it feels like we’re approaching a new kind of tipping point, one that will see the climate movement build the kind of people power we need to bend the course of history.
This fight against Energy East, along with interconnected fights against tar sands pipelines from Line 9 in Southern Ontario to Keystone XL in Nebraska and Northern Gateway in BC, are pushing the tar sands movement to a tipping point. While stopping tar sands expansion at the source may not be right around the corner, it is certainly on the horizon — and that’s just one piece of this new climate momentum.
Later this September something that we’ve never seen in North America is going to happen in New York. Hundreds of thousands of people will take to the street for the People’s Climate March, which we’re hoping will be largest climate march in human history.
Of course we’ve seen mass mobilization before, from the Occupy movement to Idle No More and the Quebec student movement, but this will be a first for the climate movement, not just because of the size of this march, but because of who is coming. This march will not just be made up of environmentalists, but also labour unions, students, Indigenous peoples, communities still rebuilding from the impacts of Hurricane Sandy and so many more.
In many ways, this march will be a street-level view of the emergence of the kind of movement we need to confront climate change. Because to change everything, we need everyone.