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Tar Sands: capitalist disaster

John Bell

February 13, 2012

The tar sands are the second largest oil deposit in the world, and the largest human-made project on the planet, the size of England. Extracting the tar sands requires churning up the earth (resulting in massive deforestation of the Boreal forest), and huge amounts of steam (which wastes four barrels of water for every barrel of oil). The extracted mixture of sand, clay and bitumen then needs to be processed into synthetic crude, a process that burns billions of cubic feet of natural gas (creating huge carbon emissions), and produces massive amounts of toxic tailing ponds (which poison the nearby Athabasca River, leading to an epidemic of diseases in nearby indigenous communities).


The oil is then pumped via pipelines that sprawl like a three-headed monster, threatening to cause toxic oil across the continent. The Keystone XL Pipeline proposes a 700,000-barrel/day expansion through indigenous communities and sensitive aquifers to Texas. The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline proposes a 700,000-barrel/day pipeline through indigenous territory, forests and streams to the BC port of Kitimat. The Kinder-Morgan TMX Trans-Mountain Pipeline currently carries 300,000 barrels/day over the Rocky Mountains to Vancouver, and proposes an expansion to 700,000 barrels/day.


Spills are inevitable. Between 1999 and 2008 Enbridge recorded 610 spills that released 132,000 barrels of hydrocarbons into farms, wetlands and waterways on the continent. In the last two years it has suffered three major leaks: in Illinois, in NWT and most famously in Michigan, where the Kalamazoo River was fouled by thousands of barrels of leaking oil. On January 24, during the current public hearings on Enbridge, Kinder-Morgan confirmed a spill in Abbotsford, BC.


When the oil arrives in Texas or BC it will then be put into massive oil tankers that threaten to poison the oceans with spills. Finally, oil will be consumed, leading to massive carbon emissions. One of the largest consumers of oil is the military, which it uses to launch more wars to guarantee access to remaining oil—from Afghanistan and Iraq, to Libya and threats against Iran.


Harper’s enemies list

In the months leading up to the public hearings into the Northern Gateway pipeline plan, Stephen Harper’s Tories have gone all out to vilify and slander any voices opposing their vision of the Canadian petro-state. That includes spending a fortune of our tax money lobbying to prevent Europe from enacting legislation blocking Canada’s dirty oil because of the extreme environmental damage associated with its production.


The Climate Action Network file a freedom of information request and found a government/oil industry strategy paper designed to direct that lobbying. The heavily censored document lists Tory “allies” and “adversaries.” Allies include oil industry corporations and their umbrella organizations like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Shell and BP are singled out for their enthusiasm. No surprise there. But also included is the National Energy Board.


“Canadians should be concernead when a supposedly arms-length agency that is supposed to regulate the oil industry, including conducting hearings on the Enbridge’s proposed new tar sands pipeline across British Columbia, is listed as an ‘ally’ in a political strategy to lower environmental standards in other nations,” said Greenpeace energy campaigner Keith Stewart. Keith would say that. He and his organization are on the enemies list, along with First Nations.


Harper and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver have done all they can to portray opponents of the pipeline, and of the tar sands, as traitors out to wreck the entire economy. In an “open letter” carried everywhere by media, Oliver wrote: “Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade. Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth.”


Oliver slammed the very review process where the voice of Canadians can be heard: “These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda. They seek to exploit any loophole they can find, stacking public hearings with bodies to ensure that delays kill good projects. They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest.”


Gerald Amos, of the Haisla First Nation responded brilliantly in the Terrace Daily: “We are not opposed to development. But we are opposed to stupidity and placing our homelands at terrible risk in order to satisfy the insatiable greed of the international oil industry. We do not accept the Prime Minister’s claim that this project is in Canada’s national interest, and it is certainly not nation building, but rather, planet destroying.”


Greenpeace campaigner Mike Hudema also put it clearly: “This government doesn’t want to have a public discussion on the industry’s disastrous safety record, or the toxic effects that spills from a 1,170-km tar sands pipeline would have on Indigenous rights, the Rocky Mountains, the BC coast, or the more than 1,000 rivers and streams this pipeline would cross,” It has also been reported that the Canadian government directs our tax dollars to spy on First Nations groups and activists, and on environmental organizations.


People like Gerald Amos and Mike Hudema are portrayed as terrorists. It isn’t our fault that the vast majority of people speaking out are adamant in opposition to the Northern Gateway. No wonder Harper and Oliver have to stoop so low to discredit the process. Is Harper preparing the ground to sweep aside the democratic regulatory process to build his pipe? Perhaps his trip to Davos, the annual gathering of billionaires, bankers and their political figureheads, holds the clue.


‘Radical’ environmental groups see surge in support

Environmental groups and NGOs can thank Stephen Harper and his henchman Joe Oliver for a sudden surge of financial support and activism. Oliver tried to slander such groups as dangerous “radicals” and as being puppets in the employ of shadowy foreign organizations. Harper called them “enemies of Canada”.


The Dogwood Initiative is a BC-based group that has been leading opposition to the supertanker traffic along BC’s coast that would accompany the pipeline. Spokesperson Emma Gilchrist told Huffington Post, “We’ve seen an unprecedented surge of support. We’ve got cheques that say, in the memo section, ‘Thanks to Joe Oliver.’” She reported receiving $12,000 in unsolicited donations and nearly 25,000 new signatures on its anti-tanker petition–more than it got all of last year. Dogwood also increased Traffic to its Facebook site by 10,000 per cent.


The Sierra Club, ForestEthics, the Suzuki Foundation, the Pembina Institute, the West Coast Environmental Law group and others report similar surges in fundraising and information sharing. Thanks Harper and Oliver. You can’t buy advertising like that.


First Nations unite against the pipeline

On December 3, the front page of the Vancouver Sun carried a banner headline: “Gitxsan supports Enbridge pipeline: First nation to generate $7 million as equity partner.” By December 4, what was meant to be a major publicity coup for Enbridge and the Northern Gateway pipeline was turning into a p.r. disaster.


The article claimed the “agreement” signed by First Nations employees was decided upon in consultation with Gitxsan hereditary chiefs. It wasn’t true. Within hours of the news the Gitxsan Treaty Society office was barraged by angry messages and protests. The people who had signed the deal were thrown out and the offices were boarded up and blockaded.


Just days later, hereditary chief Norman Stephens told the press: “We should be clear that the Gitxsan do not want the pipeline, at any cost. There are not communities behind it.” “We stand together with all the other nations that are opposing [the Gateway project],” Gitxsan Chief Clifford Morgan told the press in January. “There would be too much destruction if an oil spill happened.” The deal has been officially ripped up.


The real voices of the Gitxsan people have been added to others speaking out against the pipeline. Here are some of those voices:


Carrier Sekani Vice Tribal Chief, Terry Teegee: “We’ve told the government and Enbridge that Dakelh people do not want their dirty oil going through our territories. The world knows that Canada is a climate criminal for allowing tar sands development to occur and yet they continue to allow it.”


Gitga’at Hereditary Chief, Ernie Hill Jr.: “Even with sophisticated safety precautions, shipping accidents still occur. Mechanical failure or human error, the outcomes are the same for our culture and our territory. The oil spills over our elders, our children, our spirit bears and killer whales.”


Gitga’at Band Councillor, Cameron Hill: “These incidents confirm to us the risks are more than just about oil spills. Our people and territory would be severely impacted just by those oil-tankers passing through. There is nothing but risk in this whole process for the Gitga’at people. There are no benefits. I have not heard one.”


President of the Haida Nation, Guujaaw: “The tycoons expect to further spread the tar sands poison, putting their lavish desires before our lifestyles and our culture. We depend on these lands and waters and we will not put the safety and well being of our territories in their hands.”


Kitimaat Village Chief, Dolores Pollard: “We have fought for untold generations to protect our lands, waters and resources. We have a sacred bond with the land that demands that we be unrelenting in this protection. Let us be clear: we will not allow any project, including Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project, to proceed if it will illegally infringe our constitutionally protected rights. We will take every necessary step, including resorting to the Courts, to continue the protection of our people and our rights.”


Nadleh Whut’en Chief, Larry Nooski: “We have provided independent non-biased information to our members and neighbours, and we have heard loud and clear that we cannot risk the health of our land and future generations for short-term financial gain.”


Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief, Alphonse Gagnon: “Our title and rights to our traditional territories have never been relinquished. We will do whatever it takes to defend our lands and waters against this threat from Enbridge… Enbridge’s plan will bring oil spills to our coast and to our inland salmon rivers. The fish, the animals, and our way of life will all be destroyed – likely forever. We are here today to tell Enbridge we will never allow this to occur.”


First Nations throughout BC have signed on to the Fraser Declaration, flatly opposing the Enbridge pipeline. When pipeline hearings moved to Edmonton, First Nations leaders from Alberta and Northwest Territories added their signatures to the document. “If Enbridge tries to disobey our laws, we will use every means available to us under indigenous, Canadian and international law to enforce our decision,” said Chief Jackie Thomas of the Saik’uz First Nation, a member of the Yinka Dene Alliance.


The role of First Nations in stopping Harper and the Northern Gateway must be a central and leading one. The land through which the pipe would be laid is unceded First Nations territory. None of these Nations has signed away control of its land. It is up the rest of us to do all we can to empower First Nations and support both their opposition to the pipeline and their sovereignty in their own land.


The petroligarchy: the real enemies of the people

There is a revolving door between Stephen Harper’s government and the oil industry. Today an advisor to a Tory cabinet minister, tomorrow a lobbyist for the tar sands.


Investigator Emma Pullman, writing for the website, has done great work charting the connections between Harper’s inner circle, oil industry corporate offices, supposedly “grassroots” organizations like, and the Quebecor media empire that runs Sun TV.


EthicalOil was founded by right-wing shill Ezra Levant. On the board with Levant is prominent Calgary oil industry lawyer Thomas Ross. The current spokesperson is Kathryn Marshall. She recently replaced Alykhan Velshi. Velshi had been chief assistant to Deputy Prime Minister Jason Kenney before a series of gaffes prompted him to go work for Levant. Velshi left EthicalOil to work in the PMO as Harper’s director of planning.


I invite you to see Kathryn Marshall’s pathetic attempt to defend the oil industry’s line on YouTube ( ) Marshall is the partner of Hamish Marshall. He has been a Harper supporter since the Alliance days, and has served several stints advising Harper’s inner circle for the past decade. Hamish Marshall owns Go NewClear Productions, which creates and hosts websites for a who’s who of Tory politicians and tar sands insiders. Check out for more details.


And let’s not forget Bruce Carson. He is the now-disgraced former senior advisor to Stephen Harper, who was caught lobbying for government money for his 22-year-old girlfriend. Before that scandal, Carson left Harper’s employ to start up the Canada School of Energy and the Environment, a tar sands-friendly “think tank.” His work is financed by tax dollars.


The oily connections don’t just show up in Harper’s office. BC Premier Christy Clark recently hired a new advisor, Ken Boessenkool. Boessenkool has served as advisor to Preston Manning, Stockwell Day and Stephen Harper. He was a key Harper strategist during the recent election campaign. In between partisan government gigs, Boessenkool paid the bills as an Ottawa lobbyist for–among other energy industry clients–Enbridge Pipelines. His role advising BC’s premier comes at a crucial moment, as the Northern Gateway hearings make headlines across the province. Christy Clark has stated she is “neutral” on the pipeline project.


Harper in Davos: profits trump democracy

Stephen Harper traveled to Davos, Switzerland to reveal his intentions for the Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta’s Tar Sands to BC’s deepwater ports. Speaking to his real constituency–the billionaires and bankers who epitomize the 1 %–he all but declared that he would ignore the outcome of the ongoing hearings into the pipeline project.


Here’s what he had to say: “[W]e will make it a national priority to ensure we have the capacity to export our energy products beyond the United States, and specifically to Asia. “In this regard, we will soon take action to ensure that major energy and mining projects are not subject to unnecessary regulatory delays–that is, delay merely for the sake of delay.”


Harper also blamed the ongoing economic crisis on “too much general willingness to have standards and benefits beyond our ability, or even willingness, to pay for them.” Environmental standards are no doubt among those the Tories no longer wish to fund–witness the crippling staff and budget cuts to the Environment Ministry, even as climate change becomes an increasingly destructive reality.


Harper, his government, and his friends in the oil industry have been waging a propaganda war around the ongoing public hearings into the Northern Gateway. Specifically, they have been trying to delegitimize the participation of environmental groups and activists, portraying them as “puppets” of foreign interests or as dangerous, almost treasonous radicals.


But more importantly, their efforts have been intended to undermine the public hearing process itself. Some 4,300 groups and individuals registered to speak at the hearings. A few will speak in favour of the project, but Harper knows the majority of voices will be loudly opposed to the pipeline.


In his Davos speech, and other comments, Harper has prepared the ground to sweep away the entire hearing process, just as he shut down Parliament when it looked like his agenda might stall. His government has a long and growing record of ignoring the law and democratic bodies. He prorogued Parliament twice. When an immigration judge found that the mass detention of Sri Lankan refugees was illegal, Harpers’s right-hand man, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, simply ignored the ruling. When a Saskatchewan judge ruled that the Tory plan to scrap the Wheat Board contrary to the wishes of the majority of its members was illegal, Harper and his gang simply stated they would change the laws to suit themselves.


The fight against the Northern Gateway pipeline is about more than one badly conceived infrastructure project. It has exposed Harper’s real vision for Canada: to put all his economic eggs in the basket of raw resource extraction. Thanks to trade deals and monetary policies, the manufacturing sector is crumbling and losing good jobs at a record pace. Harper is on record describing Canada’s future as the “Saudi Arabia of the 21st century.” The intimate connections between his government and the oil industry define our new ruling elite: a petroligarchy.

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