On August 30th, I was arrested along with 110 other protesters at the Tar Sands Action in front of the White House. We were calling on Obama to reject the proposed Trans-Canada Keystone XL pipeline. In two continuous weeks of non-violent civil disobedience, over 1,000 people from across the country and continent were arrested – a testament to the way the pipeline has ignited the fight over the tar sands, a political issue previously isolated to Western Canada and the Mid-West.
The pipeline, proposed by oil corporate giant Transcanada, would stretch 1,700 miles from the border with Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast in Texas. It would cross the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas to transport tar sands oil to Gulf Coast refineries. Tar sands oil is much more greenhouse gas intensive than conventional oil, in addition to a host of other environmental concerns. The refining and steam injection processes requires significant amounts natural gas to even create usable fuel, and the infrastructure necessary is so massive, it’s clearly visible from Google Earth. If this $13 billion pipeline is approved, any attempts by Canada or the U.S. to significantly reduce carbon emissions will be futile. The original Keystone pipeline, in operation since June 2010, already has had twelve spills, showing more spills will follow if the XL is built.
The State Department has final say on the project, based on its determination of “national interest,” so the pressure is on President Obama to reject the pipeline. The Washington protest, in the tradition of non-violent civil disobedience, issued a moral call to the President. However, a recent email leak revealing clear conflict of interest in the State Department’s environmental analysis of the pipeline, raises questions about whether Obama will heed this moral call, or if the influence of industry will prove too great.
While the Keystone XL pipeline has brought the tar sands to the fore in American environmental politics, the battle against it has been boiling for a long time in Alberta’s First Nations communities. Tar sands extraction, like hydraulic fracking and mountain top removal coal mining, is a type of “unconventional” fossil fuel extraction – methods which are becoming widespread as traditional fuel reserves run low and are increasingly expensive to extract.
Tar sand, or bitumen, is the mixture of sand, clay and heavy crude oil that lies beneath the boreal forest of Alberta, Canada. The Earth’s surface, which companies call overburden, is stripped to access this natural mixture, which is then mixed with fresh water to extract the crude oil. This process uses approximately four gallons of fresh water to create one gallon of oil. In Alberta, this water is drawn from the Athabasca river system, the lifeblood of the region’s ecology. The Keystone XL pipeline would cross the Great Plains Ogalala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest aquifers, which provides drinking and irrigation water to millions. Between the destructive use and contamination of water to extract the oil, and the risk to the Oglala Aquifer, water proves to be the connecting thread in uniting this struggle.
The tar sands are part of a rapidly expanding oil and gas infrastructure in Western Canada. Other pipelines proposed or in construction include Pacific Trails and Northern Gateway owned by Transcanada’s rival, Enbridge), which would run west through British Columbia. Industrial extraction of crude oil in Canada is already linked to disturbing health trends in Indigenous communities, notably at Fort Chipewyan, where cancer rates have risen and local fish are no longer safe to eat. Proposed pipeline routes also run without consent through sovereign tribal land which has never been ceded to the Canadian government. First Nations tribes have clearly rejected the pipelines, along with the equity offers of stock from companies. The Indigenous Environmental Network and many local communities are organizing to stop the expansion of this dirty industry.
While many Indigenous people from Canada joined with impacted people from Nebraska, Texas, and other U.S. states for the DC protests, they are also continuing the fight on their own territory.
Indigenous organizing already in motion points to possible strategies of resistance if the Keystone XL pipeline is approved. While the Tar Sands Action campaign in Washington, DC gears up for a final symbolic action on November 6th, when protesters will encircle the White House peacefully, First Nations communities in Canada are actively resisting other pipelines already under construction that haven’t received the same international attention.
In Unist’hot’en territory in British Columbia, for example, members of the Wet’suwet’en nation have built a cabin in the path of three pipelines and have vowed to defend against pipeline construction. The Wet’suwet’en offer hope that even if the Canadian and American governments move forward with tar sands expansion, the struggle will continue. Taking the lead from these direct actions, the groundswell of support generated nation-wide in the Tar Sands Action movement can continue to build regardless of Obama’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.
Reflecting on my experience in Washington, DC, and the courageous people who stood beside me, I hope we find strength to continue this struggle. Even if the Keystone XL pipeline is rejected, many other pipelines threaten public health and tribal sovereignty. We stood tall in front of the White House before being cuffed and carted away. I challenge myself and other activists to ask, how would I react if the oil company started construction on my land? If the time comes, let us stand in solidarity with those at the frontline of fossil fuel extraction, and make our opposition visible.