Paragon of environmental virtue, prophet of planetary salvation, Elizabeth May is scheduled to offer 40 minutes of her best anti-oil sands wisdom January 21 at a National Energy Board public hearing into the proposed Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain pipeline expansion. May’s presentation at the Delta Burnaby Hotel and Conference Centre on British Columbia’s Lower Mainland will be but one of many she’s made during her career-long campaign against the Canadian oil industry.
The Green Party of Canada’s leader and its lone Member of Parliament will have plenty of company at the NEB hearings. A fortnight’s worth of scheduled submissions include 20 First Nations, several municipalities, Trans-Mountain and its customers like Imperial Oil and Cenovus, plus several environmental and citizen advocacy groups and coalitions. Against the raft of project positives – jobs, prosperity and tax revenues – that proponents will address, there will be dire warnings of leaks, spills or tanker accidents from May and her fellow enemies of the oil sands.
They would also raise the spectre of climate change except the NEB doesn’t deal with upstream impacts of bitumen production like greenhouse gas emissions, so May and the naysayers will focus on the smaller, potential catastrophes locally. Again, she’ll have plenty of company. Last week the B.C. government formally rejected the project, citing inadequate oil spill protections. Vancouver City Council is also opposed because, according to Mayor Gregor Robertson, “…[of] overwhelming evidence that the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal and the oil tankers associated with it are incredibly disastrous for Vancouver.”
Never mind that a hundred tankers a year have been ferrying crude and chemicals in these waters for decades without major incident. Or that modern tanker technology and navigation practices are exponentially better and safer than they were when the oft-cited Exxon Valdez spill fouled Alaska’s shore nearly three decades ago. Or that Canadian coastal environmental safety regulation is among the most stringent on earth. If the cargo’s Western Canadian Select, steering a ship loaded with it up the coast of British Columbia is apparently an insurmountable risk.
The real goal is not to keep oil out of the sea, but to keep the oil sands in the ground. Alongside NEB obstructionism, expect more court challenges as our oil economy withers. May, and allies like Toronto eco-lawyer Clayton Ruby, are tightening the noose around the industry’s neck. Borrowing from the First Nations’ playbook for stalling mega-projects, Ruby and his Forest Ethics paymasters rank a close second to Aboriginal litigants against pipelines. They’ve sued twice against Trans-Mountain, once against Enbridge’s Line-9 reversal in Ontario, and three times against B.C.’s Northern Gateway.
Suing is the easy part. The bigger, longer strategy is to demonize and delegitimize the industry, then use the law courts and the court of public opinion to revoke or pre-empt its “social licence” to drill, pump, and ship oil sands crude. It is especially helpful to team up with an Indian band or two, whose authority to issue social licences is embedded in the Constitution. All these tactics were pioneered during Thomas Berger’s Mackenzie Valley Pipeline inquiry in the 1970s, when an alliance of greens, natives and Berger got that project shelved. During the 40 years since, a mountain of land claims and legal precedents has amassed, nearly all of it supporting First Nations and Inuit as masters of ever-larger resource-rich territories and, increasingly, Canada’s economic destiny.
Eyewitness to a pipeline killing
Ten years ago I moved to Inuvik, Northwest Territories for a job as editor of the local paper, the Inuvik Drum. I knew almost nothing about the place except that the town was built by the federal government in 1953 to resettle Inuvialuit and Gwich’in indigenous residents, many from Aklavik – a ‘sinking’ village in the soggy Mackenzie Delta that operated as trading post and regional administration centre for the Northwest Territories. Many of Aklavik’s inhabitants refused to leave, so the hamlet exists to this day with “Never say die” as its unofficial motto. In any event, within a few years Inuvik had become the new hub of the Western Arctic, and the staging ground for oil and gas exploration in the hinterland beyond.
A half-century after the town’s birth and three decades since Berger’s pipeline investigation, I arrived to find the place in throes of another exploration boom. Business was good, the Gwich’in Tribal Council were the new owners of a construction company, the Inuvialuit had inked multi-million dollar gas leases and the future looked bright. One summer night I made my way to Ingamo Hall, Inuvik’s old community gathering place where part of Berger’s inquiry was conducted. It’s a quaint log building from a simpler time, and I strolled there on a warm July evening in the land of the Midnight Sun. People call it that because Inuvik is so far North that during the summer, even in the dead of night, the sun dips just below the horizon, bathing everything in a dull twilight.
On this night at Ingamo, an organization called the Arctic Indigenous Youth Alliance was holding what it billed as an information session. Six months later, Inuvik would host the start of NEB hearings for the now-revived Mackenzie Gas Pipeline Project (MGP). This time, it seemed the project might actually succeed. Aboriginal land claims had long been settled in this part of the country – Inuvialuit in 1984 and Gwich’in in 1992 – and because of this, it was well-known in the community that both Aboriginal governments were onside with the project and would support it at the NEB hearings.
Entering the hall I was welcomed by two white women from Yellowknife representing the Alliance. Then I met the local “indigenous” representatives of the Alliance, a pair of earnest twenty-somethings who told me they learned about the information session at the town’s youth centre. The Yellowknifers ran the event, which featured a scary slideshow about oil spills and allegations that Exxon Mobil (parent company of lead MGP proponent Imperial Oil) committed genocide against indigenous people in the southeast Asia.
The Sierra invades the tundra
Four months earlier, none other than Elizabeth May, then-executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, had teamed up with the Arctic Indigenous Youth Alliance for a tele-press conference in Yellowknife. May phoned in her talking points for the launch of Mackenzie WILD, a website designed to “inform and educate” young northerners about the pipeline. May didn’t attack the pipeline directly; instead she went after the dreaded “tar sands”, warning that Mackenzie gas could wind up in Alberta, where it would produce steam used to get dirty oil out of the ground and into the atmosphere as climate-changing carbon emissions.
The Inuvialuit stood to make a fortune on gas royalties from their traditional territory. Gwich’in leaders put together the Aboriginal Pipeline Group for a stake in construction and transmission. This denied the eco-warriors some of their old allies from the Berger era, so May and company had to find a wedge to divide the Aboriginal community against itself.
If Mackenzie gas went to tar sands production, we were “throwing clean fuel after dirty” and Canada could not possibly meet its emission targets under the recently signed Kyoto Protocol, May insisted. Environmental calamity would follow. The Youth Alliance messengers at Ingamo delivered essentially the same message, topped with the Exxon genocide allegation, which had May’s propensity for hyperbole written all over it. To ensure the message got out, the Alliance was funded with a $90,000 grant from the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, a well-known Sierra Club benefactor. Although the Alliance was very small and effectively indigenous in name only, it was widely portrayed in the media as evidence of grassroots Aboriginal opposition to the MGP.
That opposition may have been manufactured, but it was nonetheless effective at gumming up the NEB’s joint review process. In those days the Board was obliged to listen to all comers. Environmental advocacy groups – many funded with national and international anti-oil sands money – stacked the hearings. The Arctic Indigenous Youth Alliance played a starring role, appearing alongside the likes of the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, Nature Canada, the World Wildlife Fund and May’s Sierra Club, whose press releases were always co-signed by the Alliance.
The project could have been a watershed moment in pipeline history. It was way ahead of the curve in terms of Aboriginal buy in and participation. But as the hearings plodded on, the potential economic game-changer for indigenous people in the Northwest Territories was priced out of the market. By the time the Mackenzie pipeline finally received NEB approval in 2010 gas prices had tanked and Imperial Oil decided to shelve it again, indefinitely.
The decision was a great disappointment for many northerners including Nellie Cournoyea, who played a key role in the Inuvialuit’s land claim and chaired the Inuvialuit Regional Corp. for 20 years. At the time, here’s what she had to say about the MGP’s opponents: “We do not need decisions to be distorted by the uninformed yearnings of some urban Canadians, nostalgic about canoeing trips they will never take anyway, into a wilderness they only imagine…The definition of environmental issues is a job for Northerners, not for southern or international environmentalists.”
Déjà vu all over again
Cournoyea stepped down from the IRC this week, but May is as busy as ever. Buoyed by their success in demonizing the oil sands to help defeat the MGP, she and the major green lobbies are now using the same communications and legal strategies against all the current bitumen pipeline proposals. The Harper government made their work somewhat more difficult by passing legislation limiting the length of NEB reviews and restricting intervenors to those either directly affected, or having demonstrably relevant information about the project.
As a result, unlike the Mackenzie Gas Project, the Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund and Forest Ethics were not invited to the Trans-Mountain or Line 9 hearings. So lawyer Ruby and Forest Ethics tried another legal tack, with a lawsuit alleging that the new rules abrogate their constitutional right to free expression. Though Ruby lost both those challenges, May has announced that Ruby will represent her in a new lawsuit against the NEB if it approves Trans-Mountain.
Favourable court and NEB decisions are not necessarily the goal for May, Ruby et al., because even when they lose, they win by dragging out the process. The Sierra Club still brags on its website about the success of this strategy against the Mackenzie Gas Project. It helped delay Northern Gateway long enough for the election of the Trudeau Liberal government, which has almost certainly killed that project by announcing a tanker ban in northern B.C. waters. Thus it remains the ground-game of choice against Kinder Morgan and any other attempt to get the oil sands flowing.
Next up are the NEB public hearings for the Energy East pipeline. They are set to begin this spring and while Forest Ethics hasn’t sued yet, fellow traveller Maude Barlow and Council of Canadians have, and it’s likely that May, Ruby and their minions won’t be far behind.
No gas, no future
I was back in Inuvik last winter, working on the Inuvik-to-Tuktoyaktuk highway construction project, one the Harper government’s attempts to stimulate resource development in the north. Between dumping of truck loads of dirt on the right-of-way, I had a chance to look around town. The boom days are over. Half of Inuvik is boarded up or for sale, and many who are originally from the area and working on the highway, live elsewhere and commute to work via Edmonton or Vancouver.
“If we didn’t have this highway, there’d be nothing,” is how my old friend Annie summed up the region’s economic outlook. Annie’s a grandmother who works 12-hour shifts in the highway project’s camp kitchen to pay her bills, in particular heating her modest home. Although the entire region is basically floating on natural gas, a water leak caused the shut down of the town’s only gas well, forcing people to heat their homes with expensive imported propane. There’s no local money to drill a new well, and no outside capital to tap an ocean of gas that’s going nowhere. So gas rich Inuvik will remain in this state of energy poverty and seasonal employment until the highway’s finished in 2018. After that, nobody’s sure.
This is what May did for Inuvik, and what her, Ruby and their cohorts seem determined to do for the rest of Canada.
Jason Unrau is a journalist with an interest in resource development and Aboriginal rights, particularly where these intersect. Currently based in Ottawa, this is his first article for C2C Journal.