Skip to main content

Environmental Justice As Liberation: No Consent, No Pipeline, No Kinder Morgan

A confrontation is brewing on Canada’s west coast, and the stakes could not be higher.

printer friendly  
,

Kinder Morgan, a Texas-based energy giant, seeks to build a pipeline from Northern Alberta through British Columbia to the densely populated suburb of Metro Vancouver where it would be loaded onto tankers and sent through the region’s coastal waters. To say that there is opposition to their plans would be an understatement: the pipeline project is opposed by the province of British Columbia, the state of Washington, the city of Vancouver and 21 others, 250,000 petition signers, more than 24,000 who have vowed to do “whatever it takes” to stop it, and 107 of the 140 Nations, Tribes, and Bands along the route. As such, the forces of the fossil fuel industry are bearing down on British Columbia as an eight-year campaign to stop the pipeline comes to a head.

Kinder Morgan’s pipeline and tanker project was marketed to Canadians as a “twinning” of an existing pipeline built in the 1950’s, but it would actually almost triple capacity for barrels of diluted bitumen, or “dilbit.” Bitumen is the tar that comes out of Alberta’s oil patch; to move smoothly through pipelines, it has to be diluted with other chemicals, some of which are highly toxic and highly explosive.

Pipelines are leaky and dangerous enough on their own, but this project came with an additionally heightened risk factor: the Aframax tankers that will carry the volatile material are so huge that they barely fit through two urban bridges they would have to cross under for each trip. It’s such a tight and dangerous squeeze that engineers have formed an advocacy group to oppose the plan.

The risk is obvious: a tanker spill would result in an environmental catastrophe more devastating than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. That spill was simple crude that floated on top of the water, and yet it still hasn’t been cleaned up properly. A spill involving bitumen sinking to the bottom of the sea? The consequences are almost unthinkable; you can’t just replace destroyed ecosystems.

When Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline was first built through seven hundred miles of Indigenous territory in the 1950s, Indigenous people weren’t allowed to vote in Canada, and were denied the right to hire lawyers to negotiate the original route or any benefits. The Coldwater Band in British Columbia’s interior, for example, was given a one-time payment of $1,200. The pipeline is only feet from their drinking water source.

Although the people of Canada’s First Nations have had the vote since 1960, projects such as Kinder Morgan’s show the abject disregard that political leaders continue to demonstrate towards indigenous people and their lands. The vast majority of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline crosses over unceded Indigenous territories. Of around 200 Nations, Tribes and Bands within British Columbia’s colonial borders, most never signed treaties with the Crown. British Columbia is mostly unceded territory and, in Canada, Indigenous Title and Rights means that the federal government, provincial government and First Nations share jurisdiction on an overlapping set of responsibilities, including the environment.

Naturally, then, it has been First Nations communities that have taken up the fight against the degradation of their lands for profit.

One example of this was the resistance to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline from Northern Alberta to the North Coast of BC. Opposition centred around the violation to Indigenous rights by building without consent through their territories. The Yinka Dene Alliance evolved to lead a opposition, warmly and enthusiastically supported by what would become disparate members of a winning informal coalition. British Columbians learned from that fight the importance of supporting Indigenous leadership, and this collective strength was turned towards Kinder Morgan when it arrogantly decided to build its pipeline through unceded territories just slightly south of those battlegrounds.

As the power of Indigenous justice movements have grown, loose coalitions of grassroots environmental groups, civil society groups, non-profits, and labour have explicitly acknowledged the necessity to follow Indigenous leadership. Whether evolving from decolonization and anti-racist imperatives from within institutions or bubbling up organically from grassroots debate and experience, this turn away from siloed-off organizing has had a beneficial effect on what were previously (more) fractious coalitions with no central organizing tenet other than to stop a project. Without overt orchestration, the moral leadership of Indigenous groups and Elders has provided a template of mutual behaviour norms, some political direction, and a holistic vision of a future where the climate emergency ends with something other than the total collapse of human civilization.

These years of strategic organizing and relationship building have forged these conditions. One of our major imperatives identified early in the campaign was changing the provincial government.

In Canada, unlike the United States, national political parties have a relatively loose connection to their provincial counterparts. The Conservative Party has no formal ties to their provincial counterparts — most of whom retain the “Progressive Conservative” name that existed federally prior to 2003 — and the federal Liberals only maintain formal ties to the parties located in the Maritime provinces. But while there is a fair amount of ideological coherence between the federal Conservatives and their provincial counterparts, there is much less congruence with regards to the Liberals, with most provincial parties governing well to the right of the federal party.

The British Columbia Liberal Party is perhaps the exemplar of this phenomenon, particularly after the early-1990s collapse of the Social Credit Party, which had become the province’s dominant conservative party since W.A.C. Bennett’s narrow victory in 1952. After corruption scandals such as Bingogate felled the popularity of the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) government in the late 1990s, the now-right-wing Liberals — filled with former SoCreds — swept to power in 2001, winning 77 of the 79 seats in the British Columbia Legislative Assembly.

But after sixteen years in power, the BC Liberals were widely perceived to be both corrupt and morally bankrupt, dedicated to nothing other than selling off publicly-held resources and privatising public services. It took an enormous effort to change the provincial government, and months of campaigning resulted in a hung parliament, with the Liberals falling one seat short of a majority. After attempting to form a government, the Liberals lost a confidence vote that ended their run in power.

The NDP lacked a majority of the seats and could only form a government with help from a newly emergent Green Party, which holds three seats and the balance of power in the Legislative Assembly. One of the terms of the confidence-and-supply agreement keeping the current government in power is a continued dedication to opposing the building of the pipeline; violating the terms of the agreement would end in the likely defeat of the government and new elections. Only through boxing the provincial NDP into a corner could the government in British Columbia have been forced into fighting this pipeline aggressively: they had no other choice. It’s not an aspersion on the government, it’s a recognition of the various factors that influence policymaking in politics. Everything is up for grabs, except what isn’t. We learned a potent lesson, that when electoral politics are backed by a widespread and aggressive movement, ruthlessly hounded, and have no other choice, the levers of the state can be wielded to pursue the kind of fundamental policy reforms that are tantamount to a bureaucratic revolution in the institutions of the state.

That lesson is an important one, because we have had to face off against both extraction capital and other government entities in this fight, including the NDP government next door.

The Alberta NDP’s victory in the 2015 general election, which ended 34 years of Progressive Conservative rule in the province, would be comparable to the Democratic Socialists of America sweeping the state elections in Texas: a social democratic party winning power in a very conservative province with an economy that is heavily dependent on resource extraction. While the Notley government has made some progressive moves — for example, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour — they have been resolutely pro-pipeline, and are determined to get the pipeline built at any cost, up to and including launching a trade war against British Columbia.

This resoluteness has only increased after the merger of Alberta’s two conservative parties — the libertarian Wildrose Party and the conservative PCs — into the United Conservative Party has made a second NDP term in the province a very dubious prospect. Notley, in concert with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, are seriously exploring using public funds to complete the Trans Mountain Project. Given that the latter explicitly campaigned on expanding the democratic sphere for First Nations people and repairing the federal government’s relationship with indigenous communities, such a stance is galling.

But the more carrots that Trudeau promises Kinder Morgan, the bigger our movement grows. The more often we see videos like this, where an Anglican priest committed civil disobedience and accepts arrest, the more the demand for climate justice grows.

Part of the success of the movement has been working collectively to figure out how people who are not up to their eyeballs every day in the fight for Indigenous and climate justice respond to what we do. After the first few years, organizers came together to to figure out the top five reasons to oppose Kinder Morgan and then tested them. Testing and throwing out what doesn’t work has a crucial part of this fight. As relationships and trust grew, organizers were able to think through some political strategizing and messaging together, while maintaining organizing autonomy and the institutional outcomes to which they were already committed that arose from their own internal strategic and campaign planning.  

How campaigners organized themselves to work with each other was also key, as they were navigating complicated histories and backstory that have derailed mutually beneficial propositions in the past. With representatives of groups coming and going, having a central organizer who was tasked with holding and creating space for discussion and organizing proved invaluable to a sprawling campaign with a million moving parts. Biweekly meetings were facilitated by a paid organizer who did the work to set an agenda, collect updates and reports and do the mundane tasks of chairing a call with up to 25 people at any one time. This created an an valuable space to share reactions and analysis and on-the-go tactical planning, releasing overburdened activists from the chore of aligning 25 schedules and allowing them to do informal consulting on a much wider scale than without.

That process allowed us to focus more directly on what was working in our public communications and what wasn’t. It brought clarity to how we were reacting to breaking news and how successfully or unsuccessfully we were getting our message across. Storytelling started to become a more compelling part of the organizer meetings, with everyone keenly aware of how easily activists get steamrolled by the enemy. Maintaining an internal discipline that didn’t let let ideas remain standing without ruthless interrogation, campaigners created a list of risks that became the mantra:

  1. Indigenous opposition – risk to Reconciliation
  2. Environmental risk of spills
  3. Wrong way on climate action
  4. The potential loss of the iconic whale clan living in BC’s coastal waters
  5. Jobs at risk from a spill

Focusing only on the top five meant abandoning for a time some of our favourite angles, including the corporate history of Kinder Morgan. A midstream energy giant (‘midstream’ being a $50,000 word for ‘middle man’), the Kinder part comes from Richard Kinder, formerly of Enron. Yes, that Enron. We tried hard to make the two synonymous in the public eye, but we just couldn’t generate the kind of interest we thought it warranted. We couldn’t waste any more time trying to make something stick in the public consciousness that just wasn’t doing it, so we dropped that angle in the messaging we put out.

With a million-dollar budget and focus groups and polling, we probably could have figured out the right way to make it work at the time, but part of this work is knowing how easy it would be for the opposition to afford what you cannot and moving on to what works with what we have. Funnily enough, now that the final chapter of this fight approaches, interest is piqued in Kinder Morgan’s history and there is some opportunity for us to delve into the complicated history of Enron and its pox of a spin-off, Kinder Morgan. All the research, effort, and work seemed like a waste then, but it’s coming in handy now.

One of the many things that keeps you going in fights like these is the dawning awareness that no matter how much money the enemy has, or how many PR professionals and lawyers they can hire, their arrogance and inability to transcend their own worldview means they can’t cover up their brutal indifference to anything but the bottom line. Against such inhumanity, campaigning becomes about getting out of the way while the opponent damages themselves — and then making sure everyone knows it. A good example of this came when we watched in delight as Kinder Morgan couldn’t convince any institutional funds to invest heavily in the pipeline, so they had to resort to an initial public offering (IPO) that raised about half a billion less than they aimed for. A neat side effect of the IPO was the legally binding prospectus that had to treat risk soberly and responsibility lest they be sued for misrepresentation by investors. It ended up having to include a serious warning to investors that risk from multiple lawsuits and grassroots opposition could spiral costs out of control and make the project untenable.

That was a good day.

Fighting the construction of new pipelines is a daunting task. They cross thousands of miles and multiple jurisdictions and the risks are so plentiful that focus can be hard to maintain. Marine safety, drinking water, the effects of a spill on megafauna like whales and caribou, the effects of a spill on the wild salmon that are the linchpin of traditional and capitalist economies of BC’s coast, climate change effects from steam-blasting bitumen with boiling water and then sending it overseas to be burned — it’s a sprawling campaign that can quickly spiral out of control in the weeds unless activists create and maintain movement and message discipline.

After eight years of campaigning, the fight to stop Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline and tanker project is approaching its end game as the energy giant teeters on the brink of cancelling the $7.3 billion project. The fight has become a flashpoint in Canadian politics and as victory for Indigenous peoples and the environment looks increasingly close, the organizing strategies and tactics may be relevant to other struggles.

As we explore the lessons of the struggle to stop Kinder Morgan, Indigenous leadership must be foregrounded at all times as the determining factor in the increasingly popular resistance movement. In some ways, that might be unique to this particular locus of struggle because of the land and waters the pipeline and tankers propose to cross. But every resistance movement has a centrally affected or impacted community and every movement can ground their opposition to endlessly iterated destructive resource projects in decolonization and anti-racism.

As the American left should have learned after Standing Rock, there can be no justice in North America so long as Indigenous peoples are denied their land and their liberty. The fight against Kinder Morgan’s planet-killing pipelines is a model of what happens when environmental justice is also liberation, and the two must be inseparable in these battles going forward.

Sarah Beuhler is a writer and campaigner who lives in Unceded Coast Salish Territories.