Why 2016 will be a year of victories for the pipeline resistance movement

Image description: Three pipeline resisters are chained to a valve behind a chain-link fence, which bears a sign reading “NOTICE: NO TRESPASSING”. These three brave folks had their first trial session in Sarnia today in relation to the incident in question. (Image credit: The Indignants/Facebook)

Pipelines are having a moment right now.

Even in the darkest depths of the Harper years, I can’t recall a time when tar sands bitumen transportation infrastructure was such a hot-button headline issue. And not in an isolated one-off kind of way, either – barely a day goes by without some prominent national figure making some newsworthy statement about pipelines.

I mean, it’s only Tuesday, and here’s just some of the big news in pipelines so far this week:

When Parliament went back into session yesterday, last week’s interprovincial spat over Energy East was a major topic of discussion. Interim Leader of the Opposition Rona Ambrose was scathing in the year’s first Question Period, accusing Justin Trudeau of being indifferent to the plight of unemployed tar sands workers in Alberta and imploring him to call up his “friend”, Montreal mayor Denis Coderre, to straighten out this whole mess and convince him to do the right thing and back the damn pipeline.

Ambrose and other Conservatives, both in and out of Parliament, leaned heavily on insinuations that the battle over Energy East is a threat to national unity, falling back on a West versus Quebec trope that has been their framework for understanding controversial issues since the Seventies, as though this wasn’t evidently a capitalists vs everyone else issue.

Throwing raw unrefined bitumen on the fire, Ambrose directly compared the Liberal approach to the Energy East flap to the National Energy Program (NEP), which, if you aren’t forty-plus and from the Prairies, was introduced by Pierre Trudeau and was basically Stalinism, except worse. Ambrose’s invocation of the still-loathed-in-Alberta NEP wasn’t elaborated on in any way, and seemed to be mere gesturing in the direction of some a despised energy- and Trudeau-related combination of words.

Meanwhile, the Liberal government, pressured on their right from pipeline-boosting Conservatives, have also been pressured for weeks on their left from pipeline resisters. In the context of this repeated and pointed criticism from both sides, the Globe and Mail indicated yesterday that the government will, as promised,  be mandating climate tests for proposed pipelines which are currently undergoing review before the National Energy Board. (The NEB, which has been dogged by controversy since its overhaul by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is not to be confused with the NEP, which was literally Satan.)

The Globe was unable to get on-the-record confirmation from the ministries responsible, yet suggests the measures will be introduced next month, which suggests to me that their report was based on an off-the-record tip from Liberal insiders who were eager to push back against accusations from activists that the government isn’t acting on this issue, despite the fact that the policy isn’t yet firmly in place.

Then, today, presumably in response to the hoopla around Coderre’s announcement last week that he and eighty-one other Montreal-area mayors were opposing the Energy East pipeline, Trudeau visited his “friend” at Montreal City Hall, and in a post-meeting press conference, the pair gave some extremely mixed messages. First off, Trudeau insisted that, unlike his predecessor, he would not be a “cheerleader” for pipeline projects. But just as Trudeau grew more aggressive, Coderre engaged in some tactical retreating:

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre dialed back the rhetoric on the Energy East pipeline project Tuesday, coming out of a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a more conciliatory message.

Coderre has accused TransCanada Corp. of “arrogance” in its dealings with the Montreal Metropolitan Community.

On Tuesday, the mayor said “respect” is essential.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about respect, being responsible and having a balanced approach [between economic growth and sustainable development],” he told reporters, standing next to Trudeau at Montreal city hall.

Coderre stuck to his position that TransCanada Corp. has more work to do if it hopes to win community support for its Energy East project.

As in, there’s room for movement from the Montreal-area mayors, providing they get more dollars out of it. (Sorry, I’m cynical.)

Meanwhile, as the Globe reported today, Energy East doesn’t even qualify for the title of the most contentious pipeline among Canada’s mayors – that dubious distinction goes to Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain. After all, the mayor of Burnaby, B.C., expressed a willingness last year to get arrested and destroy his political career if it would mean bringing down this pipeline. Vancouver’s mayor called the pipeline “disastrous” and a “grave threat” to the city’s health and well-being. And, as I wrote a few weeks ago, a recent B.C. Supreme Court ruling related to another controversial pipeline, Northern Gateway, has extremely negative implications for the fate of the TransMountain project.

But all of that is old news.

In new news (AKA “news”), a report tabled today in the House of Commons by Canada’s federal environment commissioner reveals that the NEB is unable to confirm compliance in fully one-half of the cases in which it has imposed conditions on pipeline operators, and that pipeline oversight is in desperate need of an overhaul.

NDP environment critic Nathan Cullen said the report’s findings won’t help the public’s confidence in pipeline safety.

“The response we’ve had from the previous government — and this government, to be fair — is that ‘we have very strict systems in place’ and ‘we will put upon these oil companies a number of very strict conditions,'” he told reporters Tuesday. “That’s the assurance that’s been offered to a skeptical and concerned public.

“That’s meaningless if less than half of the conditions that have been applied are actually even followed,” he said. “At the very least, follow the conditions that you’ve set down rather than what we see right here, which is after years of warning the NEB continuing to be unable or unwilling to follow through on their own requirements for a pipeline to be built.”

Additionally, three women were arrested in recent days for trying to block access to an NEB hearing into TransMountain in Vancouver; a group of pipeline resisters shut down Enbridge’s Line 9 overnight (confirmation from Enbridge); and Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr accelerated the federal government’s timeline for new regulations for the NEB, saying they will be released within “days”.

Oh, and Rick Mercer’s weekly rant was a tear-down of Coderre’s opposition to Energy East as selfish, a rant which generated significant backlash online.

And that’s the week in pipelines – so far.

I’m reminded of Mahatma Gandhi’s aphoristic measurement of the progress of successful resistance movements: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” In this chain of events, pipeline resisters are clearly at stage three.

No longer ignored or derided as marginal, opponents of pipelines now hold significant influence over the public discussion on this vital issue. Their multi-pronged strategy of resistance on all fronts has clearly been effective; in the courts, in the press, and along their very routes, pipelines have been transformed into sites of contention and debate.

But this newfound success over the past several months has occasioned a veritable avalanche of opposition from desperate pipeline proponents, who are casting the issue in increasingly dire terms. See, for instance, Rona Ambrose’s inflammatory comments on national unity.

Ambrose also went on the CBC last night to defend the current NEB rules as “rigorous” and accusing the Liberals of creating uncertainty around the review process, which to my cynical ear sounds like a loyal soldier taking marching orders from on high.

What is it going to take to tip this battle from a fight to a victory for pipeline resisters? Simply continuing to do what they’ve been doing ought to be enough.

When I first found out about the latest act of resistance against the illegal and repugnant Line 9 yesterday, one particular line in the activists’ statement has stuck out in my mind. I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing, but here’s the relevant bit:

ps. for those curious to follow in our stead – enbridge thinks they’re being all smart by putting on large gold security chains (which can’t be cut with bolt cutters) and lockboxes on the gates. bypass these by cutting the fence itself. then all you need are some garden shears (to cut the very, very secure zip tie protecting the electrical panel), your wits and an exit plan.

Enbridge did indeed make a big deal a few weeks ago of the fact that it was increasing security at its pumping stations in response to three embarrassing incidents over the course of a month, and it’s humorous to think how easily these measures were bypassed.

But there’s also something symbolic in this. Throughout the whole process of ostensible review, Enbridge, along with TransCanada and Kinder Morgan, have relied on their obvious strengths to carry their projects through to approval. The companies in question were wealthy and influential, could invest billions into getting projects off the ground, could offer major cash incentives to on-the-fence communities and constituencies, had a lot of pull on the National Energy Board, and benefitted from a process which was designed to streamline approval and minimize the opportunities for dissent to be expressed.

Thinking themselves secure, even invulnerable, the pipeline companies first ignored and then ridiculed their poorly-funded, marginal grassroots opponents. But pipeline resisters have managed to successfully undermine and negate the energy companies’ strengths with the simple strategy of subverting, challenging, and ignoring the rigged NEB process. It’s as though they’ve gone around the extra-strong gold-plated locks and busted directly through the fence.

To be sure, a lot of folks have engaged with the NEB, and in doing so, have demonstrated what a preposterous farce the Board is. But in addition, court cases, especially those brought by First Nations, have undermined the NEB’s claims to authority over the process and delayed the process of approval for multi-billion-dollar projects. Meanwhile, direct actions against already-approved pipelines have dramatized the struggle against transporting dilbit and have rallied pipeline resisters across (so-called) Canada to action.

If pipeline resisters continue along these three trajectories – engaging (for the sake of discrediting) with the process, litigating (for the sake of delay) against the process, and acting directly (for the sake of further mobilization) outside of the process – then defeat of many or all of these major pipelines becomes increasingly likely.

Actions along these trajectories have already raised the national debate over pipelines to a heated, hysterical pitch. Even pipeline proponents are openly questioning whether another major pipeline project will ever be approved in Canada.

With Northern Gateway presumably dead after even major politicians abandoned it, with Kinder Morgan increasingly challenged on all sides, with Energy East suffering under major contention and widespread disapproval, and with already-approved projects like Line 9 coming under increasingly regular attack from hardcore pipeline resisters, it’s worth speculating: at what point will the pipeline resistance movement declare victory?

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