The U.S. and Canada Are Preparing for a New Standing Rock Over the Trans Mountain Tar Sands Pipeline
In British Columbia’s southern interior, on unceded land of the Secwepemc Nation, Kanahus Manuel stands alongside a 7-by-12-foot “tiny house” mounted on a trailer. Her uncle screws a two-by-four into a floor panel while her brother-in-law paints a mural on the exterior walls depicting a moose, birds, forests, and rivers — images of the terrain through which the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will pass, if it can get through the Tiny House Warriors’ roving blockade. The project would place a new pipeline alongside the existing Trans Mountain line, tripling the system’s capacity to 890,000 barrels of tar sands bitumen flowing daily from Alberta through British Columbia to an endpoint outside Vancouver.
On May 29, the Canadian government announced that it would nationalize the Trans Mountain pipeline to assure the expansion would be built, putting up 4.5 billion Canadian dollars ($3.5 billion) to acquire the pipeline and other assets from the Texas-based energy giant Kinder Morgan. The purchase has dramatically raised the stakes of the fight for both the administration of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and pipeline opponents like Manuel.
Should construction begin as scheduled in August, the Tiny House Warriors expect waves of allies from Indigenous nations inside Canada and beyond to join them as they wheel 10 of the houses into the pipeline’s path. Near the pipeline’s terminus outside Vancouver, members of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation have constructed a traditional “watch house” from which to monitor the progress of construction.
Resistance to the pipeline is already escalating: On July 3, seven pipeline opponents rappelled from Vancouver’s Ironworkers Memorial Bridge in a daylong blockade of tanker traffic associated with the existing Trans Mountain line. Last week, the Tiny House Warriors wheeled the homes into a provincial park that sits on the site of a historic village near Clearwater, British Columbia, in an assertion of their title to the land. On Saturday, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police singled out and arrested Manuel, whose livestream of the incident has garnered more than 500,000 views on Facebook. She was detained on a charge of “criminal mischief” and released later that day. The struggle against the expansion, Manuel told The Intercept, could become “the Standing Rock of the north.”
That’s exactly what law enforcement agencies on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border fear. For more than a year, U.S. and Canadian authorities have been girding for a mobilization comparable to the 2016 resistance in North Dakota, according to law enforcement communications and government reports obtained by The Intercept. In Canada, Trudeau received a Cabinet memo discussing the implications of Standing Rock for Trans Mountain one week after his administration approved the pipeline expansion.
In Washington state, where a branch of the existing Trans Mountain line feeds processed tar sands bitumen to four refineries along Puget Sound, law enforcement agencies are preparing for the anti-pipeline struggle to spill over to the U.S. side of the border. The sheriff’s office in Whatcom County monitored activists’ plans to travel to British Columbia for a recent Trans Mountain protest, and information collected was shared with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Washington State Patrol, and the Washington State Fusion Center. The sheriff’s office has arranged at least two multiagency law enforcement trainings on protest response in the last year and a half.
The documents underscore the heightened scrutiny and surveillance Indigenous-led movements fighting resource extraction have faced in the wake of the mass mobilization at Standing Rock. The Trans Mountain pipeline is part of a much bigger system whose tendrils reach deep into the United States. Trudeau’s bailout is the latest shot fired in a cross-border battle over the fate of the oil sands, bringing the Canadian fight to a head just as two oil sands pipelines, Enbridge Line 3 and Keystone XL, receive their own key approvals in the U.S. and move closer to construction. Canadian government officials are relying on completion of the three pipelines to convince oil companies to continue expanding tar sands production in Alberta.
In an era in which the climate crisis is rapidly accelerating and scientists are predicting widespread insecurity should political leaders fail to force a dramatic shift away from fossil fuels, the leaders of two of the world’s wealthiest countries are doubling down on pipeline construction and oil production. Meanwhile, managing the perceived security threat of those who stand in the way has increasingly become a priority for law enforcement.
“We take it very seriously,” said Manuel, who spent months fighting the Dakota Access pipeline and has long been involved in struggles for Indigenous sovereignty. “We’ve seen so many of our people being wrongfully convicted, being thrown in jail — Indigenous land defenders being criminalized.”
As with other Indigenous people in British Columbia, the Secwepemc have never relinquished their territory by way of treaty, land sale, or surrender, and they did not consent to the Trans Mountain expansion. “Everything flows from the land,” Manuel said. “If the land is destroyed, we are also destroyed. And that’s why we’ll stand so fiercely in defense of this land.”
Canada’s Global Energy Ambitions
The Trans Mountain fight can be traced back to 2006, when then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged that the country would become a global “energy superpower” akin to Saudi Arabia. At the center of his plan was the development of Alberta’s tar sands, underground reserves of sand, clay, and oil, which has involved laying waste to vast swaths of Canada’s verdant boreal forests. To deliver the high carbon-emitting crude to refineries and markets abroad, energy companies proposed a series of new pipelines, including Trans Mountain, Keystone XL, Enbridge Line 3, Energy East, and Northern Gateway.
U.S. imports of Canadian oil have more than doubled since 2005, with increased tar sands production driving the bulk of the increase. But, along with a precipitous drop in oil prices, pipeline opposition movements have proved to be a genuine threat to continued tar sands expansion. Two proposed pipelines — Northern Gateway and Energy East — have been killed in the last two years.
The remaining oil sands pipelines inching toward construction face the promise of massive resistance. After the Obama administration killed Keystone XL in the wake of protests, it was brought back from the dead by newly elected President Donald Trump and received approval from Nebraska’s Public Service Commission to build along an altered route. Last week, the pipeline company notified the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota that it would begin preparing construction sites. “We will be waiting,” tribal Chairman Harold Frazier replied in a one-line letter. On June 28, Enbridge Line 3 received a key approval from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. “Enbridge and Minnesota have their Standing Rock,” Ojibwe activist Winona LaDuke posted on Facebook.
And in Canada, Kinder Morgan sparked a national crisis in April when it halted all nonessential spending on the Trans Mountain project pending a guarantee from Trudeau’s government that the pipeline would be completed.
At issue were “extraordinary political risks” stemming from resistance on the part of British Columbia’s provincial government, the company stated. Half a dozen First Nations had filed legal challenges to the pipeline, arguing that their land and waters would be threatened in areas they never signed over to the Canadian government, and Premier John Horgan proposed a temporary ban on any increase in tar sands oil shipments out of the province’s ports while a panel studied the potential consequences of a spill. In retaliation for obstructing production, Alberta’s provincial government prepared to cut off gasoline supplies to British Columbia.
Trudeau, who campaigned on promises of carbon emissions cuts and reconciliation with First Nations, stepped in to buy the project — stating that the pipeline was in the “national interest.”
A coalition of Indigenous organizers labeled the purchase a “declaration of war.” “We mean it literally. The military will be called,” Manuel and other organizers wrote in a statement. “It is the national pattern to use criminalization, civil action, and other penalties to repress Indigenous resistance to these policies by bringing to bear the weight of the law and police forces against Indigenous individuals and communities.”
Some boosters of Trans Mountain have also predicted dire consequences for protesters. “There are some people that are going to die in protesting construction of this pipeline. We have to understand that,” David Dodge, a former head of the Bank of Canada who has served as an adviser to the Alberta government on infrastructure projects, stated recently.
For the climate, construction of the pipeline could be catastrophic. Numerous analysts have found that continued tar sands expansion is incompatible with efforts to avoid the worst effects of climate change, and the pipeline stands in stark conflict with Canada’s international emissions reduction commitments. A 2016 report by the Canadian government’s environmental protection agency estimated production and processing of Trans Mountain’s oil would emit 13 to 15 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.
Asked to comment on opposition to the project, Mackenzie Radan, a spokesperson for Canada’s natural resources minister, told The Intercept that 43 Indigenous communities along the Trans Mountain had route signed mutual benefit agreements with Kinder Morgan “worth hundreds of millions of dollars.” However, some leaders from those communities have underlined that the agreements don’t equal consent so much as lack of resources to put up a fight and perception of the pipeline’s inevitability.
“This project was subject to the most exhaustive review of any pipeline in Canadian history. Canadians know that the environment and the economy go hand in hand. They know you don’t have to make a choice between growing the economy and protecting the environment,” Radan added. “Together we’re leading the way in the transition to a lower carbon future.”
A Threat to the Safety of Property
Canadian law enforcement and intelligence agencies have frequently categorized pipeline opponents as extremist, violent, and criminal. The government has focused particularly on Indigenous activists, coining terminology such as “violent aboriginal extremists.”
Kanahus Manuel was born into Indigenous political struggles; her father is the late Art Manuel, a well-known activist and intellectual who spent his life fighting for decolonization. She felt called to go to Standing Rock as police repression escalated. Law enforcement and private security agents responded to protests with dogs, pepper spray, rubber bullets, mass arrests, and water hoses sprayed in below-freezing temperatures. Quieter was the sprawling intelligence-gathering operation, which included social media monitoring, undercover operatives posing as protesters, aerial videography, and information-sharing that crossed state, federal, and local jurisdictions and included the oil company.
“Nothing really surprises me when it comes to the colonial government. We’ve seen them work hand in hand with corporations on every issue,” Manuel said. “And it’s never anything new. Each time, it means we have to fight harder.”
Indeed, the surveillance and police response at Standing Rock was reminiscent of activities in Canada in years prior. In 2014, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police attempted to map out networks of Native protesters under a program called Project SITKA, according to a report obtained by Andrew Crosby and Jeffrey Monaghan, the authors of “Policing Indigenous Movements: Dissent and the Security State.” The police compiled “protester profiles” of 89 individuals identified as posing a “criminal threat” — the report noted that the events most attended by these protesters were those “opposing natural resource development, particularly pipeline and shale gas expansion.”
Within a week of Trudeau’s November 2016 approval of the Trans Mountain expansion, his Cabinet was preparing him for a crisis on the scale of Standing Rock, a document Crosby obtained via public information request shows. The clerk of the Privy Council, who acts as a deputy to the prime minister, sent a memo to Trudeau, marked “secret,” titled “Approval Process for the Dakota Access Pipeline.” “Following the recent approval of the TransMountain Expansion Pipeline,” the memo notes, “a number of Indigenous stakeholders have drawn parallels to Standing Rock, indicating that there would be similar protests if TMX goes ahead.”
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service distributed its own assessment of Trans Mountain, also obtained by Crosby, which identified several U.S. developments that had potential to impact Canada’s tar sands ambitions. In a section marked “violent confrontations and resource development,” the document references the ongoing protests at Standing Rock, asserting that “several violent confrontations between law enforcement and pipeline opponents have flared up since September resulting in hundreds of arrests and millions of dollars of damage to corporate equipment.”
“While we cannot publicly disclose our investigational interests or methodologies, we can say that CSIS’s threat assessment for the energy sector remains constant,” CSIS spokesperson Tahera Mufti told The Intercept in a statement.
RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Janelle Shoihet told the Intercept, “The RCMP is an impartial party in these demonstrations, meaning that we monitor demonstrations to ensure the safety of everyone and will take action on a case-by-case basis, with a focus on enforcement should there be any criminal activities that pose a threat to the safety of individuals or property.”
The prime minister’s office forwarded a query about the Privy Council document to Radan, the spokesperson for Canada’s natural resources minister. “The right to peaceful protest is at the foundation of our rights and freedoms in Canada but we expect people to express their views peacefully and in accordance with the law,” Radan said.
To Monaghan, the focus on criminality is a red herring intended to discredit resistance movements that challenge the interests of the Canadian state. “This has nothing to do with specific criminal activity,” he said. “They might talk about it in terms of TTPs [tactics, techniques, and procedures] or use other jargon, but what worries them is actually that these social movements are being extremely successful at swaying public opinion and asserting Indigenous land claims.”
Preparations in the Pacific Northwest
If the Trans Mountain expansion is built, giant oil tankers will carry a portion of the oil through the hook-shaped Salish Sea, which separates Washington state and Vancouver Island, and into the Pacific Ocean. The area is home to an iconic pod of orcas, whose dwindling population has been attributed in part to noisy engines that make locating prey difficult. With the pipeline, tanker traffic through the orcas’ habitat could increase by a factor of seven. From there, some boats may continue to Asia, while others will likely head to California, home of the refineries best equipped to handle the sludgy oil.
Another portion of the oil could travel via a branch line known as the Puget Sound pipeline, which delivers fuel along a 69-mile route to four refineries in Ferndale and Anacortes, Washington. Financial disclosure documents filed by Kinder Morgan indicate there’s potential for the Puget Sound pipeline’s capacity to be expanded from 240,000 to 500,000 barrels a day. Environmental organizations in Washington have pledged to resist any expanded transport of tar sands oil through the region.
A May 2017 field analysis report prepared by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Intelligence Analysis and seven fusion centers, including the one in Washington, set the stage for U.S.-based surveillance in the wake of Trans Mountain’s approval. It singled out construction of the pipeline as a development that could lead to “an increased threat of violence in the coming months from environmental rights extremists against pipeline-related entities in the Midwest and Western United States,” as well as “enhanced sharing of violent TTPs between US and Canadian environmental rights extremists.”
On March 8, John Gargett, of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management, distributed an article published in the Bellingham Herald titled “This Could Be Like Standing Rock,” which described an upcoming protest against Trans Mountain planned in British Columbia. In the email, sent to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and sheriff’s department personnel, Gargett wrote, “We should be aware that we do have the Kinder Morgan pipeline, storage and stations here in our county (as well as Skagit) that serve the refineries.”
“The Sheriff’s Office has been tracking the event for a few weeks now,” Lt. Steven Gatterman replied, copying the Washington State Patrol. “Several ride-sharing posts have appeared indicating people will be traveling to BC from the Seattle and Bellingham areas,” he added. “The biggest threat to our area may be where these travelers land if they are denied entry into Canada.”
Twenty sheriff’s deputies and 20 state troopers were designated to respond to any protests that sprung up along the border (none ever did). Gatterman added that the Sheriff’s Crime Analysis Center was searching for “intelligence information.”
“I find their actions outrageous, but I’m not surprised,” said Jamie Sayegh, a water protector from Bellingham who was part of a group that drove to the protest in British Columbia. “The truth of the matter is that our political system routinely allows corporations to use the government to defend the so-called rights of companies like Kinder Morgan to destroy our lands, our water, our lives, and trample the rights of Indigenous people.”
Gatterman also zeroed in on a group that had staged an anti-pipeline protest in the area in February 2017 that blocked traffic on Interstate 5. The group, Red Line Salish Sea, formerly known as the Bellingham #NoDAPL Coalition, is now organizing against Trans Mountain. Gatterman’s email to state and federal law enforcement inaccurately claimed the group was responsible for vandalism to a Kinder Morgan facility in a neighboring county in 2016. In an interview with The Intercept, Gatterman acknowledged that his note might have been mistaken and the incident he referenced was likely one carried out by a separate group.
“We are working in solidarity with the tribal groups and their nations that are standing against the destruction of their homelands,” said Michelle Vendiola, a Walker River Paiute tribal member from Washington’s Lummi Reservation and a founder of Red Line Salish Sea. “We have brought people up to British Columbia whenever the call is put out that that’s what’s needed.”
Vendiola is intimately familiar with Whatcom County law enforcement officials’ monitoring of anti-pipeline activists. Local prosecutors obtained a search warrant to collect private information from the Facebook page of the Bellingham #NoDAPL Coalition as part of an investigation into the I-5 blockade that ultimately led to criminal charges against Vendiola and six others.
“It’s crazy to think about how prepared they are getting to try to quash dissent here in Washington,” Vendiola said.
As March wore on, law enforcement’s efforts to prepare for large protests continued. An email Gatterman sent a few weeks after the Vancouver-area protests provided instructions for around 50 role players who would pretend to be protesters during a joint training exercise at Whatcom Community College involving around 30 officers from the sheriff’s department and the Washington State Patrol.
“Some of you will be carrying signs, some of you will be locked together in what is called a ‘sleeping dragon,’” Gatterman wrote. “We are looking for a few role players to dress in all black to simulate an anarchist group. This group also covers their faces with masks or bandanas.”
Gatterman told The Intercept that the I-5 protest, as well as another road blockade in May 2016 in protest of a Trump rally, had motivated the department’s response to the Trans Mountain mobilization and inspired them to set up the training. He said the sheriff’s office wanted to be sure officers knew how to safely handle techniques like the sleeping dragon, which were used in both protests.
After the I-5 protest, Gatterman said, his office had also assembled a special team to manage public demonstrations and had requested that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Center for Domestic Preparedness conduct a Field Force Operations training on how to police protests. According to a roster for the FEMA training, obtained via a public records request, roughly 40 state and local law enforcement officers participated, as well as 19 CBP officers.
“There’s work on formations as far as how to execute safe techniques — arrest techniques,” Gatterman said of the FEMA training. “They show some examples of things like tripods hanging from trees and overpasses, just to get you awareness of the different things you might encounter. There’s talk about throwing acid on officers, urine, feces, things like that.” A summary of the training obtained via records request describes it as providing the “skills necessary to prepare for and successfully mitigate threat incidents involving civil disorder,” including through the “use of riot control agents and less lethal munitions.”
Whatcom County’s records officer withheld a single document in response to The Intercept’s records requests, calling nondisclosure of it “essential to effective law enforcement”: a May 11, 2017, email from a county undersheriff to staff members concerning a National Sheriffs’ Association webinar called “Protest on the Prairie.” Cass County, North Dakota, Sheriff Paul Laney led a webinar by the same name on May 7, 2017, in which he shared lessons with police across the country on how North Dakota law enforcement dealt with resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline, an investigation by DeSmog and MuckRock revealed last year. “We viewed the webinar for training and informational purposes,” Whatcom Undersheriff Jeff Parks told The Intercept.
Gatterman said that outside of the British Columbia protest, the sheriff’s department had not actively monitored organizing against Trans Mountain. The agency’s response to the March protest involved examining what he described as “open source information” including public-facing Facebook pages.
Kurt Boyle, director of Washington fusion center, said that besides reviewing Gatterman’s emails forwarded by the state patrol, the fusion center took very little action in response to the Trans Mountain protests. “The only time we would actually take a look at it would be if there was the potential for some violence or vandalism or some attack on equipment that may cause danger to people or destroy things,” he said. “We don’t monitor social media.”
“Due to our robust capabilities, U.S. Customs and Border Protection frequently works with other federal, state and local agencies on many different missions,” CBP spokesperson Daniel Hetlage wrote in a statement to The Intercept. The Washington State Patrol did not respond to a request for comment.
A Radically New Landscape
Just as Standing Rock shifted public understanding of the extremes to which governments would go to support fossil fuel companies, so has the Trans Mountain fight.
Clayton Thomas-Muller, who works with the climate justice organization 350, has been involved in fighting the tar sands for over a decade. “We’re in a radically new landscape, with an entirely new campaign that needs to emerge. The federal government of Canada has demonstrated just complete hypocrisy in the purchase of this pipeline using public funds,” he said. “To paraphrase Vice President Bob Chamberlain of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs … a foreign oil corporation based in Houston gave the sovereign nation of Canada an ultimatum, and Canada buckled.”
So far, one of the largest producers in the Alberta tar sands region, Suncor, has shrugged at Trudeau’s multibillion-dollar gamble, pointing out that the “normal processes didn’t work very well.” The company has declined to commit to any new investments.
The Canadian government is hoping to find another buyer for the pipeline before its deal with Kinder Morgan is finalized at the end of July. The government has sweetened the deal by offering to indemnify any buyer against losses caused by construction delays and guarantee a rate of return if the project’s future owner is unable to complete construction because of legal decisions. Still, it’s unclear that they’ll be successful in selling it until after the pipeline is built.
If they don’t, then the Standing Rock of the north will be a battle where the line between the interests of the police and the pipeline owner will be virtually indistinguishable.
Alleen Brown is New York-based reporter, focused on environmental justice issues. Prior to joining The Intercept, she worked as an education reporter in Minnesota. Her work has been published by The Nation, In These Times, YES! Magazine, and various Twin Cities publications.
Will Parrish is an investigative journalist based in Northern California. His web site is www.willparrishreports.com