Tar Sands for the week (Mar 25, 2014)


A few years ago, I was living in the same Burnaby located apartment that I am now. I went outside and started to walk up the street to go to a local store, I certainly don’t remember which one at this time. When I got to the street adjoining the front of my apartment building the entire neighbourhood smelled of gas. It was a propane-like retching odour that went in my nostrils and quickly made me feel ill. Later that same day, parts of the road were cordoned off, and by the following day pipelines under the road were dug up, serviced in some manner and the smell of the gas went away.

After that time, signposts were implanted on the same route as where pipelines had been dug up for remedy: Pipeline crossing, Kinder Morgan Transmountain pipeline. At the time, while noteworthy to any who lived in the area, the significance of the name did not ring a bell. That would not happen, in fact, for some years after: When tar sands and their associated pipelines in British Columbia become a major issue of concern for the westernmost province of Canada.

It is not news that pipelines already run from the tar sands of Alberta across the mountains and into Greater Vancouver; the threats of pipelines feeding local refineries with tar sands diluted bitumen has seen previous local community organizing– specifically from among residents in northern Burnaby, where Chevron and Shell both run refineries. Chevron needs bitumen so we hear, citizens should ignore the previous ruptured pipes. What’s that? Yes, the pipelines from the refineries have burst into neighbourhoods before.

There is an often unspoken angle to this continuing dynamic– and it is a dynamic within that needs further scrutiny, simply because it is not an angle that can be broached by discussions of the tar sands delivery and production problem without an overall confidence in critiquing more than just oil deliveries, but the industrial system they are an integral part of. Airplanes– specifically, that pipelines will have smaller, feeder pipelines that terminate not at a refinery, but from one– to the airports.

The fact that is most often neglected from analysis of what the tar sands are good to the industrial system for is that tar sands bitumen cracks well into jet fuel– and not into regular gasoline for your car or lawn mower. While refineries are adapting their innards to accommodate bitumen, not as often noticed is that these refineries are often– especially in the United States– near some of the larger, more transit-through oriented airports. Denver is not a large city, in US terms at least, but it has two things: A massive airport and the largest American holding for the company Suncor– a giant, twin refinery complex outside of the city, that now handles bitumen as well.

Chicago, a major city, is a lot easier to understand having a major airport– but that BP’s refinery on the Indiana shores of Lake Michigan is also retrofitted– recently, and with much illegally exploited temporary foreign labour– for bitumen conversion as well, and also feeds the O’Hare Airport, one of the largest in North America is not known widely.

This list could go on; I leave it to others who may find it useful to construct a map of refineries already receiving bitumen and their associated airports across Turtle Island, and it may help alleviate some concerns: These pipelines and refineries are not there to keep your gas prices down, nor are the pipelines to the Coast designed to “give away” such fuel: These pipelines are to feed a massive over-consumption pattern that is American life and, in the words of Dick Cheney, “The American way of life is non-negotiable.”

The number one consumer of jet fuel on Turtle Island is, hopefully unsurprisingly, the US military. I’ve posited before the likely connection between this fact and recent US moves to isolate Russia (which means necessarily cutting off oil and gas from the Russian Federation, in various ways), Venezuela (which may mean starting a sanctions regime against their revolution, to set the stage for a bombing run) and other current supply-states for a global energy grid. Canada and tar sands may provide a bit of a buffer to take on precisely such an imperial project.

However, let’s just assume that the over-all consumption pattern of US and Canadian military needs is not being drifted in a certain direction by geopolitics– the pattern of consumption still has a need to be challenged. Why is this not happening?

Environmentalism is invariably smeared as a “middle class pursuit,” with “climate action” often being misrepresented both by advocates and opponents alike as a series of individual consumption choices. Indeed, having worked in environmental circles for a decade I confirm that the fastest route to increase ones carbon footprint is to get involved in climate justice work. So, in point of fact, if peddling personal, individual and family choices (such as driving a smart car, or reducing consumption while production continues unabated and unchecked) is the main strategy, the environmentalists with the loudest voices would have personal reasons to either stay silent on the subject, or worse: to push the buying of false solution carbon credits.

But this is not the real issue– how it unfolds is more structural. Environmentalism in the public mind (not on the ground practice) has been separated from other social justice hallways: By putting a premium on the establishment of parks, legislation around pollution or water conservation and other factors first, the social justice component is deliberately obscured in the broader stroke.

But finance capital, through foundations and individual “high donors” have changed the game for the large, well funded Big Green. Wresting control of the direction, strategy and over-all orientation of struggle after struggle has made them the eco version of corporate speak “decision makers.”

Even the language speaks to the exclusion of democracy for the population: If they are the “decision makers”– those in the control of corporations, political parties and the like– then by default, we are beholden to those decisions. Yet, real social analysis says otherwise: the people, even when dormant from their historical role, are the decision makers.

But public relations campaigns, working in concert with marketing agencies, media spectacle and so on, have adopted the course of assigning the environment as a brand, rather than as a life force unto itself. This perversion of the reality has come for a reason: Capital influences the movements it finances to achieve aims that may not go outside of the realm of capitalism itself.

Yet the convergence between social justice struggles for temporary foreign workers exploited and indigenous peoples killed by tar sands developments and their industrially released diseases comes from recognizing that capital considers them the cost of doing business. And being anti-war– when war is the single greatest threat to the environment– also needs to negate both that which causes war (often, the oil and energy supplies of a target country or population) and that which allows the same wars (the industrial feeding of jet fuel– often extracted from tar sands– into a military industrial complex that requires more and more jet fuel to continue to capture more and more oil and energy supplies).

Such an analysis will require breaking with the notion of being “good citizens” of a society that is fundamentally flawed and must, as a requirement, continue to live off both the destruction of the land and the deliberate bombing campaigns of target populations. It means identifying culprits and not seeking a “win win” situation where the interests of capital are put on the same level as the interests of human survival, ecological contiguity and peace with justice.

I mentioned at the outset I live in Burnaby. I actually grew up here; other than Joe Sakic and a few other, scattered sports heroes, there is often little for me to be proud of. I oppose much of this system, and have little faith in the elected municipal governments of any community that is cut-off from the others around it (in so many varying ways). That all said? I got a little bit of pride for my home suburb last week, when the local Burnaby Mayor, Derrick Corrigan, stated he’d join activists blocking the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion by standing in front of a bulldozer. He further had this to say:

“I know I’m [ready], I know that residents will stand there with me. I’m prepared to fight this out to the bitter end. I’m incensed with how we’ve been treated.”

While I sadly state this is likely not going to be seen should it come to it, but that even such a statement would be made reminded me of another time I noticed the mayor of my hometown getting newsworthy attention. He spoke at a larger gathering against the impending war on Iraq more than ten years ago. That tells me a lot; most of the well-known Big Green personalities were and will continue to be silent and unavailable to lend their help to such causes. They have been pushed into a hallway where the social justice aspects of their own work are no longer of concern; War and opposition to it would mean destroying what they have come to represent: Environmentalism has no opinion or issue with the crimes of the ruling class in other countries.

Big Green is a part of the elite of the society at large, and the right to go to war with helpless populations— even when demonstrably involving, in large part, a murderous lust for more oil, gas and the power associated with controlling it globally–is a “right” that Big Green ceded to the ruling class a long time ago.

To oppose this– the most rancid violation of human rights possible– would be to reject the warm embrace of a capitalist society that tolerates an environmentalism, within these pro-capital structures, that seeks to recycle, replant devastated forests and reduce water use in oil extraction methods. When oil– everywhere– is seen as a cause of war, and war is seen as needing oil to be carried out, you end up with the mayors of suburbs talking about opposition to both the wars and the oil industry.

When you don’t, you end up with organizations founded with the word “Peace” in their names that no longer have the stomach to oppose the very wars that they once were born to stop. Capital destroys and perverts all it touches. There has been the smell of toxic poison in my nose from oil and gas near this Kinder Morgan expansion already. They want to rip my neighbourhood up, put in some new pipelines and almost triple production.

If the mayor of Burnaby could oppose a war on the people of Iraq and now promises to stand in front of bulldozers, can we see the same unity of purpose from Big Green groups who are now opposing the Enbridge Gateway pipeline in public? And if that doesn’t happen, can real environmentalism start to re-connect the peace movement with those who want to stop the war on the earth and the climate?