By CARL SACK
On Nov. 6, U.S. President Barack Obama formally denied TransCanada’s application for approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
The 1200-mile-long pipeline would have carried heavy crude oil (called bitumen) from tar-sands mines in northern Alberta, Canada, across the U.S. Great Plains states to oil refineries on the Gulf Coast. Tar-sands oil is the most carbon-intensive energy source ever exploited, and its full development has been called “game over for the climate” by NASA climate scientist James Hansen.
Obama’s decision to nix the pipeline a month before the Paris climate summit is a momentous victory for the growing mass movement against climate change. National organizations such as 350.org, CREDO, Rising Tide, and the Sierra Club have worked to focus international media attention on the Keystone pipeline over the past five years.
Obama himself said in his statement on the decision that the pipeline occupied “an overinflated role in our political discourse”—a role that only came to pass after the mass movement forced it into the national spotlight through protests, blockades, and mass arrests at the White House that challenged what was originally widely considered a done deal.
“Just a few years ago, insiders and experts wrote us off and assured the world Keystone XL would be built by the end of 2011. Together, ranchers, tribal nations and everyday people beat this project back, reminding the world that Big Oil isn’t invincible—and that hope is a renewable resource,” says a statement by 350.org Executive Director May Boeve on the group’s website.
The resistance to Keystone was spearheaded by local and regional coalitions like Bold Nebraska and the Cowboy Indian Alliance, which overcame animosity between white ranchers and Native American tribes in the Great Plains and blockaded parts of the project. Once they took notice, national organizations provided networking and publicity to build local protests around the country and mass civil disobedience in Washington, D.C. Much of the energy for the movement came from young people looking for ways to oppose the ecocidal actions of fossil-fuel companies and nonsensical U.S. climate policy.
These protests culminated in the massive People’s Climate March in September 2014, which drew over 400,000 activists to New York City in the largest U.S. protest against climate change to date. That march would have been even more powerful had it made explicit demands on the country’s political rulers for a swift transition away from fossil fuels. Nonetheless, it put the government on notice that a do-nothing stance on climate change is no longer tolerable to a growing proportion of the population. It demonstrated the possibility of a powerful mass movement around climate change taking shape.
Environmental journalist Bill McKibben, 350.org’s founder, gave a realistic assessment of the Keystone victory in an op-ed in The Guardian: “Given a realistic chance to affect the future, people are ready to take action. … Today was a good goal scored, but we’re still way behind. … There’s no guarantee that we can beat climate change, but there’s every guarantee we’re going to give it a hell of a fight.”
Until now, unfortunately, the strategies of national groups like 350.org and the Sierra Club have resulted in their being slow to tackle some pipeline projects that are worse than Keystone XL. A 2013 Open Letter to the Anti-Tar Sands Movement from the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands, which is fighting Enbridge Energy tar sands pipelines in that state, reads in part, “The constant focus of the tar sands narrative around the President as the ultimate decision maker is … disempowering to communities bearing the burden of existing infrastructure. … While kxl is a large part of the problem, it is time for the mainstream movement’s figureheads to stop exclusively referring to this pipeline and discouraging us from working on other tar sands issues.”
350.org relies on local groups to take on powerful multinational fossil-fuel corporations first. Their national committee selects local issues to support based on which fights have legs, leadership, and strategic value. This approach, at least so far, has allowed several cross-border pipelines bigger than Keystone to slip by under the radar.
To their credit, 350 has taken on a raft of other climate-change initiatives, from international fossil-fuel divestment to fighting the expansion of coal and tar-sands mines. The group is playing a major role in organizing international protests around the upcoming Paris Climate Talks.
In the Sierra Club, little attention was paid to pipeline projects other than Keystone until local chapters around the country demanded that the national organization allocate resources to fighting them. There are now efforts within the Club to coordinate local pipeline fights.
In Minnesota and Wisconsin, Enbridge Energy LLC has been rapidly expanding its Lakehead Pipeline system for years to accommodate both tar-sands oil and oil from the Bakken fields of western North Dakota, eastern Montana, and southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Local coalitions, including 350.org and Sierra Club chapters, are fighting the expansion.
Enbridge plans to triple the capacity of its Line 61 pipeline, which crosses Wisconsin lengthwise, including virtually all of the state’s major waterways. It will soon carry up to 1.2 million barrels of tar-sands bitumen per day, and was already up to 950,000 barrels per day in October. In addition, the company is now mulling over whether to build a new “twin” line alongside 61 that would carry another 450,000 barrels per day, bringing the total up to 1.65 million. The maximum capacity planned for Keystone XL was half that—830,000 barrels per day.
Every capacity increase promises to result in new oil spills that are poisonous to drinking water, deadly for wildlife, and very difficult to clean up. A 2010 report by the National Wildlife Federation outed Enbridge’s atrocious safety record, which then consisted of over 800 spills since 2000, including a 2008 spill that released over 1 million gallons of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Cleanup from that spill is ongoing.
Unlike Keystone, which public pressure forced a lengthy review of, Enbridge pipelines that cross the U.S.-Canada border have received the red carpet treatment from the Obama administration. The U.S. State Department rushed to approve the company’s application to divert oil from one existing border crossing to another, thus avoiding a requirement for a presidential permit like the one that ultimately stopped Keystone.
Enbridge directly credits the failure of Keystone XL for giving them the market to transport tar sands. “Now that we’ve got demand from our shippers … [they] have asked us to bring the capacity up,” an Enbridge spokesperson told the author in July 2014, when the expansion was on the drawing board.
Other companies are building pipelines as well. According to The New York Times, two million barrels of new oil pipeline capacity has come on line in the Gulf of Mexico region over the past three years, and more lines are planned. But there is growing resistance to new oil pipelines on the local level that could strengthen and rejuvenate the mass movement—if grassroots activists are given the publicity and resources that national groups have to offer.
On Nov. 2, seven protesters in Duluth, Minn., were arrested during an occupation of the Enbridge offices there. That protest was organized by a coalition of Native American and non-Native activists. Honor the Earth, a Native American non-profit group based in Bemidji, Minn., has organized multiple horse-riding protests and blockades against the company’s proposed Sandpiper Pipeline, which would transport oil from the Bakken deposits to Midwestern refineries.
In Western Canada, First Nations groups are fighting Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project. That project would include two parallel pipelines between western Alberta and a marine terminal in British Columbia, transporting tar-sands crude westward for export to Asia, and natural gas condensate eastward. The Stephen Harper administration approved the project on Oct. 5, but many legal challenges and potential mass civil-disobedience campaigns lie ahead.
First Nations are also fighting Kinder Morgan’s proposal to expand its Trans Mountain pipeline, which runs from the Alberta tar sands to a Vancouver-area port, from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day.
Sixty-six First Nations signed the Save the Fraser Declaration in 2010, declaring that they would not allow any tar-sands pipelines to cross their territories. The group spearheading the declaration, the Yinka Dene Alliance, also has released open letters to the Chinese people—the future recipients of most B.C. oil shipments—appealing for solidarity. It has filed complaints with the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, claiming that the pipeline infringes on Aboriginal land titles. The Alliance has been the victim of spying by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
In a model for American workers, Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, has thrown its support and solidarity behind the First Nations opponents of tar sands. Unifor represents some 310,000 Canadian workers, including workers in tar-sands refineries. They are calling both for the oil to be processed domestically rather than shipped abroad, and for a transition to renewable energy sources.
In the U.S., the United Steelworkers, Amalgamated Transit Union, National Domestic Workers Alliance, and three nurses unions opposed the Keystone pipeline. Unfortunately, building-trades unions were universally and vocally in favor of the project, and the executive committee of the national AFL-CIO passed a statement in support of building more pipelines.
This very short-sighted enthusiasm for oil pipelines rests on the basis of its providing short-term construction jobs. According to Politifact, the 875-mile-long northern segment of Keystone would have created 3900 construction jobs over two years but only 50 long-term operating positions. Other pipelines have similar job numbers.
Rather than pushing for a 180-degree pivot to clean renewable energy sources, which could employ many times the number of workers as pipelines, many U.S. labor misleaders applaud the expansion of U.S. and Canadian pipeline systems and other fossil fuel projects that threaten human existence through their impacts on the climate.
Climate activists should seek to win over unions by pointing out that there are no jobs on a dead planet and demanding a just transition to renewables with guaranteed full employment at union wages for displaced fossil-fuel workers. To bring the disparate struggles over local projects together into a cohesive whole, we need a broad-based, democratic, politically independent, and mass action-oriented coalition that can create cohesive demands and pilot the overall movement.
The upcoming Paris climate talks provide an opportunity to move forward in this vein. Capitalist world powers are planning for an international carbon-emissions agreement that many expect will allow for an overall increase in emissions, which could set a course for a catastrophic temperature increase of 4 degrees centigrade or more. Climatologists have warned that any increase over 1 degree poses severe threats to human society, but we are currently on track for a 4-6 degrees rise by 2100.
350.org has called for a “global weekend of action” on Nov. 28-29, consisting of local actions around the country. In a note of progress since the People’s Climate March, the group now is promoting the general demand to “keep fossil fuels in the ground and finance a just transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050.”
Globally, there will be mass protests in many larger cities, culminating in what is expected to be the largest mass mobilization around climate change to date, in Paris on Dec. 12. The London-based Campaign Against Climate Change is planning a mass protest on Nov. 29. In the U.S., the NorCal Climate Mobilization, a coalition of environmental and labor groups, is organizing a rally on Nov. 21 in Oakland, Calif.
Such protests are important opportunities for building the movement. We encourage all readers to attend one of the planned mobilizations, or to bring fellow activists together to build one in your local area. All out to save the climate!