After Keystone XL: taking stock of pipeline resistance in Canada

There’s no question about it: yesterday’s decision by President Barack Obama to reject TransCanada’s application to build the northern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline is a big deal.

There were a multitude of factors that led to Obama’s decision, but chief among them was the fact that an army of activists and agitators have successfully associated the pipeline with the dirty tar sands carbon bomb at its source. In fact, Obama specifically invoked climate change in explaining the rationale behind his rejection, saying that approving the pipeline would be inconsistent with tackling global warming.

This is a massive win for activists. As Neil Macdonald points out, the oil companies have considered Keystone to be a done deal for half a decade or more, and at least one oil lobbyist who spoke to him credits the turnaround almost entirely to environmentalist activism.

And yes, while Keystone has been delayed, the amount of raw bitumen shipped (by train and by more roundabout pipeline routes) from the tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico has tripled in the last seven years, and yes, TransCanada could very well resubmit a slightly altered proposal with a totally different name to the next American administration, and yes, the Trudeau government is an eager advocate for the tar sands and could use their masterful command of symbolic gesture and tone control to try to change international perceptions of Canada’s “dirty oil”. All of this is undeniably true. There’s a lot of work still to be done.

But to know that a project this major which is so enthusiastically backed by so many powerful players can still be brought down by persistent and determined activism (with a healthy dash of direct action mixed in) is incredibly encouraging. It’s heartening to see the environmental movement get such a big win, and it could very well be the harbinger of a shift in public thought about fossil fuels in general and/or the tar sands in particular.

With that in mind, I thought I’d check back in with the resistance to pipelines here in Canada. At present, there are at least three major sites of contention, and in each case there are reasons to be optimistic that resistance will ultimately be successful.

Some major proposed pipelines in Canada (image credit: CBC)

Energy East

The proposed Energy East pipeline, which would run 4600 km from Alberta to New Brunswick, has always been intensely controversial, especially in Quebec, where popular opposition to the pipeline runs high.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair was persistently harassed in Quebec throughout the recent election campaign over his party’s conditional support for the project, which in its initial formulation would have terminated at two different stations, one in Quebec and one in New Brunswick, where up to one million barrels of raw bitumen per day would be refined into marketable oil and shipped internationally.

Just days ago, TransCanada, which is also behind this project, announced that they were cancelling plans to build a terminus in Quebec, citing environmental concerns about the possibility of contaminating the calving grounds of endangered beluga whales.

But Quebec Premier Phillipe Couillard says that, if anything, the removal of the refining station makes the pipeline even less desirable to Quebec:

A marine terminal in Quebec would have created a certain number of permanent jobs once the construction phase of the pipeline was over, Mr. Couillard said Thursday in Quebec City.

“With a deep-water port, it’s easy enough to calculate the benefits in terms of infrastructure, jobs, et cetera,” he told reporters.

“Without that, I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it becomes more complicated.”

The pipeline is now not expected to go into service until 2020, according to TransCanada, which is surely trying to spin things in the most optimistic light possible. Given that long timeline, the intensity of popular opposition to the project, and the fact that TransCanada is already making concessions, I would say that this is the least likely of the three major projects I’m discussing in this post to ever be completed.

That being said, building a direct line from the tar sands to the ocean has long been a major priority of TransCanada, and would allow for a significant and dangerous ramping up of tar sands extraction. Having been blocked in their bid for a Gulf of Mexico route, Energy East is certainly looking like their most practicable route at the moment, and it’s easy to imagine them pushing this project as hard as they can.

Meanwhile, the National Energy Board (NEB), the group of appointed “experts” composed primarily of people with close ties to the oil industry which has the power to approve or reject pipeline projects, is coming under fire for the way in which it is limiting testimony by affected First Nations in its deliberation over Energy East:

The groups are allowed to talk about their creation myths, their historic use of territory that would be affected by the pipeline, and recite oral histories. But they won’t be able to talk about science and the effects that a potential oil spill might have on traditional lands.

The Montreal Gazette obtained a letter sent Monday to the NEB, in which TransCanada’s lawyers insist the regulatory board enforce its rules for these types of hearings. The list of restricted speech includes “questions that require an answer” from the company, “rhetorical questions” and “perspectives of others, whether obtained from news clippings, personal discussions, or written materials.”

In the TransCanada letter, the company expresses concerns that indigenous groups will include consultants and legal counsel in their presentation — a violation of the NEB’s policy. The company will have its lawyers on site Monday to ensure things go smoothly.

First Nations leaders say there’s no point to next week’s testimony if aboriginal people can’t introduce science-based evidence into the discussion. Under its current format, the oral traditional evidence hearing is little more than a ceremonial and largely meaningless process, said one aboriginal chief.

Sadly, this is par for the course when it comes to the NEB. The Kafkaesque restrictions on public testimony at NEB hearings are legendary, and no amount of public shaming will put them in their place, as we’ll see throughout this piece. Regardless, the move by TransCanada to drop the Quebec terminal from their proposal speaks to the depth and power of the popular opposition to this project, and bodes well for its ultimate defeat.

TransMountain/Northern Gateway/Coastal Gaslink Connector

A cluster of proposed pipelines crossing the Rockies and bound for the West Coast all run smack into one seemingly invincible obstacle: the Unist’ot’en Camp in northern British Columbia, which stands directly in the path of several pipelines the oil/natural gas industry is pushing.

The powerful force that is the Unist’ot’en Camp demands acknowledgement. In late August, having got wind of an imminent raid by the RCMP, camp leaders mobilized as much support as they could. Supporters included the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the Grand Chief of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, and denunciations flowed fast and furious from many quarters. The RCMP, amazingly, backed down from that encounter.

TransCanada (yes, them again!) appears to be trying to give the impression of backing down as well. A few weeks back, they announced that they want to reroute a portion of their Coastal Gaslink Connector, in response to concerns from the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, of which the Unist’ot’en are a subset.

The new route would put the pipeline further away from the Unist’ot’en Camp, and is ostensibly designed to avoid the Morice River by a wider margin.

The change is reminiscent of TransCanada’s attempted modification of Keystone XL’s route just weeks ago. The manoeuvre, which was ostensibly aimed at assuaging Nebraskan farmers who were irritated by the company’s lack of consultation and overuse of eminent domain in its routing, had the convenient side effect of delaying the decision process until after Obama’s successor was in office. Obama’s State Department requested TransCanada’s request for a delay, of course, but in the case of CGC, the NEB is amenable to the rerouting, although the approval process will take at least a year and potentially much longer. It’s hard to see this as anything but a recognition of the potency of the Unist’ot’en resistance.

Not all B.C. First Nations are opposed to these pipelines – there’s even a First Nations LNG Alliance! – but many are actively resisting the construction and implementation of these projects. For instance, the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation is pushing forward with a court challenge of the NEB’s review of KinderMorgan’s TransMountain pipeline, arguing that First Nations concerns are being overlooked and ignored:

Lawyers for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation are asking the Federal Court of Appeal to stop the National Energy Board’s review of the $5.4-billion project, which they say began without their client being consulted by the federal government.

“What we’ve asked the court to do is to recognize the flaws in the starting of the process, the process itself, the legal errors that the NEB has made and, really, to stop the process and send it back to the drawing board,” said Eugene Kung, staff counsel with West Coast Environmental Law…

Many critics have slammed the regulatory review process for being skewed in favour of industry and for not taking into account the pipeline’s role in enabling more oilsands development – and the increased carbon emissions that would result.

Meanwhile, Northern Gateway, which was bound for the tumultuous port of Kitimat, B.C., seems to be on life support after the election of the Liberals, who were adamant throughout the campaign that while they favour pipelines generally, they are firmly opposed to this particular pipeline. (Which tells you something about how ill-conceived it really is…) The deets:

Trudeau said during the election campaign that he opposed the project, telling The Vancouver Sun that “the Great Bear Rainforest is not a place for an oil pipeline.” He also promised a moratorium on oil tankers on the north coast, which would effectively kill the $7.9-billion Gateway project.

In short, while there’s still the potential that the industry could get some of these projects through, all of them are facing major obstacles, with their projected completion dates pushed ever further into the future – heartening news for pipeline opponents.

Line 9

Line 9 – which I’ve written about before – is the only one of these projects which has been approved by the NEB. Their approval was conditional on the completion of hydrostatic testing on select portions of the line, which the company apparently completed last month, and the full reversal of the line and pumping of bitumen is projected to begin in December.

But there are still a few reasons to be encouraged by the activism surrounding this process. First of all, according to Enbridge’s earnings announcement a few days back, the continued delays to Line 9 have cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars, and delayed the activation of the project by nearly a year. That right there is a major accomplishment.

Second, there is a major court challenge to the NEB approval process proceeding through the court. The Chippewas of the Thames First Nation has an ongoing challenge asserting that their Charter rights to consultation were ignored by Enbridge and the NEB, and that the project should not be allowed to proceed without their consultation and approval. Having been rejected by the Federal Court of Appeals just days ago, the First Nation is now likely to push forward with an appeal to the Supreme Court, as well as an open appeal to the new government to take action on this front.

Given that a centrepiece of Trudeau’s campaign was the establishment of respectful nation-to-nation relations with Canada’s Indigenous peoples, this will be an early litmus test of his government’s sincerity on this front.

Another thing to consider is that even if this project moves forward, it’s not an irreversible decision. A lot of people are very strongly opposed, given how high the stakes are, and the possibility of direct action to prevent the pipeline from becoming operational is a very real one.


What Keystone has confirmed to anti-pipeline activists across Canada is that these behemoths can be defeated. And the fact that none of these monstrosities has been able to successfully become fully operational to date is a mark of the strength of Canadian resistance to the expansion of the tar sands and the potential pollution of our waterways and communities.

The corporations behind these projects, however, are patient and deep-pocketed, and none of them are likely to give up without an extremely difficult struggle. Pipeline resistance has been extremely successful to date, but its biggest battles still lie ahead.

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