By CARL SACK
Humanity is faced with a worsening climate catastrophe. In June, levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere topped 400 parts per million at the South Pole, a concentration not seen on this planet in the last four million years. Scientists at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, which is registering 407 ppm carbon dioxide as of this writing, say that the concentration there is now probably permanently above 400.
The significance of this milestone is massive. NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen has written that 350 parts per million is the upper limit of Earth’s carbon dioxide concentration, “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.” Carbon dioxide concentrations were last at 350 ppm around 1985.
Human-induced climate change is already wreaking havoc. May 2016 marked the 13th consecutive hottest month on record in global average temperature, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The permanent drought and major wildfires in the western U.S., the huge Horse River Fire that destroyed parts of Fort McMurray in far northern Alberta, Canada (ironically the epicenter of Canada’s tar sands oil boom), the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, the killer heat wave in India, and many more unfolding disasters are all attributable to a warming world.
Yet, the world’s capitalist rulers are actively pouring gasoline onto the climate fire. U.S. politicians from President Barack Obama on down have cheered on the expansion of fracking for oil and natural gas, which has only slowed slightly in the face of a historic fossil fuel glut. Fracking continues to be exempted from most federal environmental regulations, despite its routinely poisoning of local air and water supplies, causing earthquakes, and releasing huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas over 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide over a 20-year time span.
Last December, with the support of both Republicans and Democrats, Congress quietly lifted the country’s 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports, allowing fracking for oil in the Bakken fields of North Dakota and Montana to go full speed ahead even when domestic demand can’t keep up. In June, the Democratic Party’s Platform Committee reiterated that party’s support for fracking, rejecting a proposal to call for a national moratorium on it.
In Canada, the federal government continues to actively promote the development of tar sands. Tar sands oil is the dirtiest energy source on the planet. Mixed in with soil, it takes huge amounts of energy to extract and refine, and has resulted in massive deforestation and pollution in the boreal forest region of Alberta. James Hansen has called the full development of the tar sands “game over for the climate.”
Laws limiting fossil-fuel production at the source are necessary to combat climate change, yet the agenda of Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals alike seems to be just the opposite. In their calculus, short-term profits for U.S. and Canadian fossil fuel companies trump the future livability of the planet. Likewise, the representatives of the global capitalist class utterly failed to implement meaningful limits on greenhouse gas emissions through the most recent international climate accord, the Paris Agreement, signed last December.
In a June 30 article in the journal Nature, several climate scientists warn that all of the non-binding pledges for greenhouse gas reductions made by countries as part of the agreement, if fully implemented, would result in a disastrous global temperature increase of 2.6-3.1 degrees Celsius by 2100. The agreement aspires to hold global temperatures to “well below 2 degrees Celsius,” a number which would still mean famine and displacement for millions.
There is hope in the climate justice movement, which continues to build its power to stop fossil fuels even in the face of long odds. Activists are fighting back against the expansion of pipelines used to carry oil and gas from the point of production to refineries and export terminals—and in some cases they are winning.
Although plenty of oil and gas are getting to market, pipelines represent a choke point for future production. The 2016 Crude Oil Forecast from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, which represents Canada’s tar sands industry, concludes that “Canada’s oil supply will soon greatly exceed its current pipeline capacity.” Denying the fossil fuel industry this capacity is a symbolic blow against the industry and shows that it is vulnerable to movement pressure.
Much of the growing pipeline resistance has also been driven by more local concerns. If a line bursts, it can devastate farmland, ecosystems, and waterways. This nightmare visited Michigan in 2010, when an Enbridge Energy pipeline ruptured and spilled 1.1 million gallons of heavy tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River, the largest inland oil spill in the U.S. to date. Tar sands oil is heavy and thick and pumped at high pressure, putting a large amount of stress on the pipes. Along natural gas pipelines, compressor stations release large amounts of methane, along with toxins such as benzene, toluene, sulfuric oxide, and formaldehyde.
The most famous pipeline battle to date was over the Keystone XL line, which would have cut across the central U.S., bringing 800,000 barrels per day of tar sands oil from northern Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast. In the face of a national groundswell of opposition, the Obama administration denied the pipeline’s permit to cross the Canadian border, killing the project. Now activists are fighting to keep Keystone’s successors at bay.
Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline
Another victory on the scale of Keystone XL took place at the beginning of June. A Canadian Federal Court of Appeals revoked Enbridge Energy’s permit for their proposed Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline through British Columbia. The court found that the Canadian government had failed to sufficiently consult with the First Nations impacted by the project. The newly elected Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said his administration opposes the pipeline, and the project is generally considered dead.
The Northern Gateway line was first proposed in 2004. It would have carried tar sands oil 1177 kilometers from northern Alberta west across northern British Columbia to the deep-water port of Kitimat. The oil would then have been loaded onto supertankers and shipped along the B.C. coast, which is rugged rainforest. A study estimated that cleanup from a single oil spill along the coast would cost $9.6 billion, kill fisheries, and do untold ecological damage.
The pipeline route passes through the unceded territories of the Nadleh Whut’en, Nak’azdli, Takla Lake, Saik’uz, and Tl’azt’en First Nations. These Indigenous groups formed the Yinka Dene Alliance, which passed the “Save the Fraser Declaration,” banning the pipeline from their territories. The Alliance was supported by Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector labor union. People from all walks of life protested and testified in opposition to the project.
Despite the legal ban enacted by First Nations and massive public opposition to Northern Gateway, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet approved the project in 2014. Canada’s natural resources agency labeled the First Nations and environmentalists opposing the project “adversaries.” The Yinka Dene Alliance had to sue in Canadian court to enforce their own laws in their territories. While the pipeline is now essentially dead, the Yinka Dene Alliance continues to push for a ban on oil tankers along the B.C. coast.
TransCanada Energy East
TransCanada’s 4,600-kilometer-long Energy East Pipeline would carry 1.1 million barrels per day of crude oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan to refineries in Eastern Canada. The project’s midsection is a 40-year-old natural gas pipeline that would be converted to carry tar sands. The eastern terminus in Saint John, New Brunswick would include a marine terminal for loading oil tankers to export tar sands oil to Europe. According to a report by the Council of Canadians, a social justice non-profit, the pipeline puts the drinking water of five million Canadians at risk. The Toronto chapter of 350.org is running a “People’s Climate Intervention” petition demanding Canada’s National Energy Board take climate impacts into account in the permitting process.
The Enbridge Octopus: Alberta Clipper, Line 3, Line 61, Line 66, Line 5, and Sandpiper
In 2007, Enbridge Energy won approval for and built an oil pipeline to move 400,000 barrels per day of tar sands and conventional oil through northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and northern Illinois to refineries in metropolitan Chicago and Gary, Indiana, then south through a network of pipes to the Gulf Coast. Last year, the company won approval from the state of Wisconsin to expand the pipeline’s capacity to 1.2 million barrels per day—a third higher than the capacity of Keystone XL—by tripling the pressure inside the existing pipeline.
Although activists demanded an environmental review for the expansion, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources refused, saying that a 2006 review was adequate to cover the expansion even though it only considered the 400,000 bpd volume and did not take the climate impacts of tar sands oil into account. Earlier this year, Dane County (the county that includes the state capital, Madison) passed a measure requiring Enbridge to carry extra insurance to cover potential spills. However, the County’s decision was nullified by the state legislature in a last-minute rider on the state budget.
The Alberta Clipper, the portion of the line that crosses the Canadian border, was hampered by a permitting delay caused by protests in Minnesota in 2013. To avoid getting bogged down in a permit review process similar to Keystone XL, the company devised a plan to move the oil onto a different line, Line 3, which was much older and covered by an existing permit. They now plan to decommission Line 3 and replace it with a new, larger pipe “for maintenance reasons.” Obama’s State Department played along, granting the company a permit waiver in 2014. The waiver was upheld in federal court in last year.
In addition to its existing lines, Enbridge plans to “twin” Line 61 with a new Line 66, which would carry an additional 1.2 million barrels per day of tar sands crude oil. Several environmental groups, including Madison and Milwaukee chapters of 350.org and the Wisconsin Safe Energy Alliance, a group of landowners along the line, are fighting the plans. A small group of protesters is currently on a 33-day walk along the Line 61 route to raise awareness about the pipeline.
Meanwhile, activists in Michigan are targeting another Enbridge tar sands pipeline, Line 5. That line was built in 1953 and passes under the Straits of Mackinac, the narrow water channel connecting Lakes Michigan and Huron. The environmental nonprofit FLOW (For Love Of Water), Sierra Club, and local grassroots groups are calling for the line to be decommissioned in light of the pipe’s age and the potential for a spill that would wreak havoc in two of the great lakes.
Finally, in northern Minnesota, Enbridge’s proposed Sandpiper Pipeline has been delayed until at least 2019 after a state Appeals Court rejected the certificate of approval for the project granted by the state’s Public Service Commission. The court decision is a victory for environmental activists and Ojibwe Native American tribes, who have called for the state to require a full environmental impact statement and public input process for the project.
The Sandpiper line would carry 375,000 barrels per day of Bakken crude oil from western North Dakota through northern Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin. On the way, it would pass near dozens of lakes and wetlands and the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Many of the lakes threatened by an oil spill are used by Ojibwe people for harvesting wild rice, a sacred plant and food source. All of the Enbridge pipelines in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan pass through the Ceded Territories, a large portion of those states where Ojibwe tribes retain hunting, fishing, and gathering rights guaranteed by 19th-Century treaties with the federal government.
Northeast U.S. Gas Pipelines
The Northeast U.S. is seeing a growth of pipeline expansion projects to bring in fracked natural gas from the Mid-Atlantic and the South. One major pipeline, the Kinder Morgan Northeast Energy Direct pipeline, was recently defeated. The pipeline would have extended the Tennessee Gas Pipeline, which starts in Texas, to New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, carrying 1.3 billion cubic feet per day of gas at very high pressure.
Kinder Morgan formally withdrew its permit application in May, citing a lack of buyers for the gas. The company faced a groundswell of local opposition, including a town that voted to prohibit its surveyors from taking measurements along town-owned roads. Residents objected to pollution from pumping stations, lack of control over the pipeline route, and the environmental damages associated with fracking. At least sixteen other gas pipeline projects are continuing to move forward in the region, with various levels of organized opposition.
For An Immediate, Just Transition
The movement’s victories over Keystone XL, the Northern Gateway, Sandpiper, and Northeast Energy Direct pipelines shows the power of an organized mass movement against fossil fuels. The movement is not yet strong enough to directly challenge the existing oil and gas supply lines, but more victories like these can help build confidence and bring new activists into the fight. It is imperative for the many small grassroots groups fighting pipelines to see themselves as part of a broader movement for climate justice, and to understand that their backyard is one small arena in a much larger battle against the unfolding climate catastrophe wrought by capitalism.
The call for a halt to fossil fuel production should be accompanied by calls for 100% clean, renewable energy sources now; for immediate shutdown of existing nuclear power plants and no new nukes; for rebuilding a nationalized mass transit infrastructure; for replacing factory farms with ecologically sustainable food production; for immediate cleanup of pollution in communities suffering from environmental racism; for climate reparations to impoverished nations suffering the brunt of the climate catastrophe; and for paid retraining and guaranteed jobs at union wages for all workers displaced by the transition away from fossil fuels. We must replace capitalism with an economic system that values the future of humanity over short-term profit.
A National Day of Climate Action has been called for July 10 under the demand of “a WWII-scale mobilization to restore a safe climate.” A list of local actions taking place that day is available at http://www.theclimatemobilization.org/. And on Sunday, July 24, climate and anti-fracking activists will be mobilizing for the Clean Energy Revolution march in Philadelphia (CleanEnergyMarch.org).