Tar Sands for the week (April 8, 2014).

Tar Sands. They may be the most destructive project in the history of humanity. Yes, all these megprojects combined together also create the largest project in the history of industrial developments– the Gigaproject. By linking projected developments associated with tar sands in northern Alberta all the way through to the North Slope in Alaska, possible connections to all three major oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and possibly even including Mexico itself via pipelines– oddly enough– that dip into and then back out of Mexico, taking bitumen on a little tour through territory captured through a different spate of violence during prior centuries.

Arizona–known these days for legal racism, homophobia and a government that seems the 2014 equivalent of Mississippi in the 1950’s– may become the first all-new refinery constructed in the lower 48 United States in over 35 years. We are inundated with stories of the expansion of the Gigaproject: the multi-billion dollar expansion and retrofitting of refineries throughout the US– in particular Texas and Louisiana– and these plans are for, almost exclusively– taking on tar sands bitumen.

However, the true nature of Mexico’s contribution to the North American Free Trade Agreement could rarely be clearer than with the possibility of the new “Arizona Clean Fuels Yuma” refinery. Roughly, for Mexico, this is the deal: Temporary Foreign Workers (not only from Mexico, to be sure) will continue to work building up the infrastructure of the tar sands in Alberta itself. In point of fact, in the two western provinces of BC and Alberta, TFW’s are now entering the population at a rate that is higher than becoming landed immigrants– never mind citizenship.

Within BC and Alberta, tar sands infrastructure is related to the overall energy economy, of course. From fracking work, coal mine construction, terminals for coal near Vancouver and more, BC is well into a vision of an emerging energy market separate from tar sands– but tar sands themselves are high on this agenda.

Let’s back this up just a little bit. The Enbridge Gateway Pipeline is often opposed– incorrectly, and in my view very dangerously– as a “give away” of “jobs” to “China/Korea/Japan,” et al. The fact that Chinese corporations have bought both halves of Opti-Nexen (formerly, Israeli-Canadian), pipeline interests, and larger influence inside Syncrude itself has allowed some people to make this analysis by honest accident. Others, seeing the growing movement against tar sands, have used the information around China (and to a lesser extent, Japan and/or Korea) to feed a racist “yellow peril” fear.

Yet whether it came from the so-called Douglas Channel starting in Kitimat, or from Burnaby in the Burrard Inlet, the tar sands oil pumped through pipelines and then transported from the coast via large tanker has two other goals for termination that do not involve crossing the Pacific: California and Mexico. The possible tar sands refinery expansion of Chevron in Richmond– better known to non-Californians as San Francisco– and an offshore port in the Baja Peninsula.

The Arizona Clean Fuels Yuma refinery proposal would have pipelines that fed the refinery full of tar sands (diluted) bitumen that came through Mexico and then back north into the United States. So, in sum, Mexico gets the following: Risk for major tankers full of tar sands diluted bitumen to run aground, spill or otherwise spoil the coast in a “when not if” scenario, and both the risk to the land and the waterways are without even pathetic economic benefit: No refinery for “jobs,” or any other such benefit. Just a risk of tar sands from northern Alberta decimating the area. The Baja Peninsula is covered by the designation of multiple ecological zones of differing types.

To get to this part of the “deal” from NAFTA, Mexico will send human beings to be exploited in the modern slave pool of the TFW– no ability to even apply to stay beyond 24 months, the employer hires just for the project and then will send the people back, having earned a fraction of the pay of a locally sourced worker, thus being used as a weapon to undermine unions and safety nets for all peoples. The goal is to build the major pipelines, plants, etc to send the mock oil through Mexican protected lands and waters and then into Arizona.

Mexico is asked to provide risk and exploited populations, and receive– what, exactly?

This is the imperialist part of the Gigaproject’s goals we are told to overlook and often are handed racist images of a supposed Chinese take over. In reality, today Mexican and Chinese labourers in the TFW program have more in common with the railway construction that originally scattered dead bodies from China over the mountain ranges from east of the Rockies all the way to ports near today’s Squamish. The tar sands continue to be the project of a real, continent wide expansion of North American influence, i.e. Imperialism, and calls from people like “first BC Green” Andrew Weaver to construct refineries in British Columbia are made in order to pander to capitalism and those in power.

All such arguments around Gateway and the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion about “China” are just this: racist drivel. Economically. Resource wise. And it is coming from the so-called labour movements and large Big Green proponents. It means nothing other than to give you a united sense of who you are to fear.

Big Green, after the slow, backroom hi-jacking of grassroots movements into public relations outfits that cut anti-democratic deals with large corporations, cannot talk about the problem as one of the energy grid itself that spans “Fortress North America.” NAFTA itself saw many of the largest (well foundation funded) Big Green outfits celebrate it with “environmentalists for NAFTA in the Clinton administration. How can they take that foundation capital and now spend it to oppose the diktat of capital itself?

By integrating themselves as the green wing of the ruling class– rather than a social justice movement with a focus on the environment and people who live with the land– the “China as monster in your closet” angle is uniting.

Racism, and attacks on immigrants in particular, is a commonly fed diversion during a major economic downturn. Capitalism and the capitalists in charge are cutting back jobs, spending, hospitals and more, all the while attacking the little protection for the environment that exists and instead providing protections for military secrets and expanding military spending is normal, to be expected, and systemic. If the opposition to tar sands is systemic as well, it cannot challenge that dynamic.

The racist “Stop China” material we are hearing from not only Union circles (who often are principled in calling the TFW programs out for their exploitation) is sourced to a large extent by right wing, pro-capital Big Green. How many times has it been written that a criticism for various pipelines– especially through BC– is the Chinese threat?

Meanwhile, not since 1976 has a single new refinery been constructed in the lower United States. The plans for this Arizona refinery have been rather quiet now for a number of years. There are many reasons for the relative silence, but perhaps the most dangerous reason? Because opposition to a refinery that:


1: Means that tar sands pipelines (whether terminating in Burnaby or Kitimat) are needed, even without Chinese involvement at all;

2: puts new pipelines on the ground through Mexican territory, including offshore port access in the Baja Peninsula;

3: Includes a means by which tankers will get to California and likely into the Chevron refinery near San Francisco;

4: Sets a precedent for refinery construction in the US that further hardwires the tar sands and extreme extraction methods as the “new normal” for North America.


Why worry about “China?” Distractions, racism, and a means to opposition to tar sands that does not challenge either capital itself or the dynamics and goals of the growth economy within North America. Similar to a major campaign around renewables– but with more Pat Buchanan than Van Jones– a campaign for “stopping China” as a plank of opposition to tar sands is hiding the real climate threat: growth. Capital, like cancer as is often said, has the ideology of growth as a logic in and of itself.

Big Green cannot call into question growth. In Canada’s past, immigrants, or Jews, or the Irish, Japanese, you name it– all have been blamed when the growth needed by a capitalist system was in crisis. Today it is a “Chinese threat” calling forth the tar sands, according to Big Green. The reason is that growth– North American, free-trade integrated, Mexican-labour supplied– cannot be challenged or even named as such.

For this and many other reasons, the Gigaproject’s true scope– and the real reasons for the possible construction of pipelines to the coast– are lied about. Mexico, not China, has proposals to receive tar sands bitumen.

Many say that the Gigaproject is the largest industrial project in human history, as should be said. But the largest sideshow in history may be speaking of the Chinese threat, while North American oil and gas imperialism, refinery to port, expands. Sadly, there is nothing new in yellow peril based racism. It is as old as the railways– the same railways that will continue on the backs of dead Chinese labourers of yesterday to build further projects loaded with bitumen today.