Mika Minio-Paluello, Anna Galkina and James Marriott travelled in North America as part of a tour over September and October to promote The Oil Road – Journeys from the Caspian to the City of London. The fourth of a series of blogs on the journey comes from James Marriott in Ontario.
York University, Toronto, Ontario
I’d never suspected that the tar sands came so close to the room in which I was booked to talk. But when I peered at the map of Toronto the line of it could be made out quite distinctly – a strip running dead straight across all the northern half of the city from Rexdale to Markham. A void space through the suburbs, like a clear-cut strip through a forest. This is a hydrocarbon corridor, laid down nearly 40 years ago when the land beyond the city was fields and woods, and the tide of urban sprawl had not washed so far up from the lakeside.
Asked the question of whether or not they came to the talk by bus, several people put up their hand. Outside on York Boulevard, in the shadow of the Scott Library, the GO buses shuttled back and forth from the subway station, laden with students. Some of the vehicles are fueled by hybrid electric, but many run on conventional diesel. They doubtless filled their tanks at the bus depot. That depot would have been supplied by road tanker, perhaps coming from Shell’s Keele Terminal, also right beside the university. This terminal is supplied by pipeline, for example from Shell’s refinery at Corunna, 6 miles south of Sarnia, on the Canada/US border near Detroit. There is no crude to be found in the rocks beneath Sarnia. The refinery is supplied by oil from a number of places, including Alberta. It arrives via a pipeline running from Shell’s Scotford Upgrader near Edmonton. There’s no crude found here either, oil in the form of tar sands is transported to the plant by a 300 mile pipeline from the vast open-cast Muskeg River Mine and Jackpine Mine that are part of Shell’s Athabascan Oil Sands Project. The images of these pits in the forests of northern Alberta, pits of an unbelievable scale, are well known in the communication of what the tar sands are to the wider world. Wounds visible from space. So, some part of the exhaust fumes issuing from the GO buses comes from the soil of Alberta – the lands of the Athabascan Cree First Nations – and is disappearing into the atmosphere.
Only twenty percent of the diluted bitumen, or DilBit, that is piped from the tar sands is refined within Canada, the remainder is sold to plants in the USA, such as Whiting in Indiana. For oil companies, there is more profit in exporting the raw product to other countries, so if their plans are realised, it will soon be shipped to refineries beyond the oceans in Europe or Asia. The bitumen is a thick, heavy substance like asphalt, so to pump it through the pipes it is diluted with volatile liquids, heated and put under high pressure. In order to get this DilBit to these destinations new pipeline systems are being created, such as the now infamous Keystone XL, planned to run through the US Mid-West. In Canada the export route to the Pacific, the Enbridge Northern Gateway, running via British Colombia, is facing implacable opposition. So the companies are striving to build lines to the Atlantic coast – the Trans Canada Energy East pipeline near Ottawa, and Line 9. This latter would use an existing pipeline and reverse its flow in order to ship tar sands towards Quebec and then on to Portland in Maine. Line 9 is the blank space on the Toronto city map, the hydrocarbon corridor that ran about 800 yards from the room we were meeting in.
The discussion around the issue flowed thick and fast. There were many students, staff and local citizens who are extremely active in opposing the planned Line 9. Momentum was building towards the National Energy Board public hearings at the Convention Centre in Downtown Toronto on 19th October which were disrupted by protests on the 4th day of the hearings. There are groups throughout the region eager to fight the plans of Enbridge, the oil company behind the pipeline. There’s Stop Line 9 Toronto, West End Against Line 9, Toronto East End Against Line 9, The Council of Canadians, Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia Against Pipelines, and Idle No More. It’s an utterly inspiring welling up of resistance to the plans for tar sands exports.
One of the strongest drivers of opposition is the threat that Line 9 poses to the rivers and watersheds on the region. Close to York University the DilBit would pass across Black Creek. As with its passage under the Humber River and the Mimico Creek, a rupture to the pipeline would lead to the toxic substance flowing into the watercourse, down through Toronto, and into Lake Ontario – the source of the citizens’ drinking water. One of the most graphic illustrations of the threat to the rivers has been the discovery that part of the existing Line 9 was lying exposed as it plunged into the Rouge River . On 20th June this year a group of activists occupied Enbridge’s Westover Pumpstation, near the city of Hamilton, with the intention of protecting the Beverly Swamp in the headwaters of Spencer Creek, Hamilton’s largest watershed.
As with pipelines we studied in The Oil Road, Line 9 and all the pipeline systems that might export tar sands are structures built in multiple overlapping stages. They are not just tubes of steel stuck in the ground – they take years to construct and have lifetimes of decades. We can identify seven distinct phases:
1. They are built in politics. Oil companies have to build support for their schemes at Federal, State and City level – persuading politicians that projects are in their interests and keeping them on side for years. Such important work engages the time of a company CEO, in the case of Enbridge this is means Al Monaco. Indeed the companies behind the tar sands have been actively forming the way in which Canada presents itself on the international stage. Emphasizing that it is a state determinedly committed to exploiting, and exporting, its hydrocarbons. This process has been powerfully illustrated by the struggle over the European Union’s ‘Fuel Quality Directive’.
2. It’s built in law, in the legal agreements that define the pipeline’s primacy as the central matter of concern in all the places that it passes through. As it is with The Oil Road in Turkey so it is in Canada – anyone who opposes the pipeline can be fought in court, anyone who obstructs its re-engineering or operation can be apprehended. This construction in law, in the case of Enbridge, is overseen by David Robottom the Chief Legal Officer.
3. It is built in finance. A company such as Enbridge is, at base, only interested in generating a good return on its capital, the division within the company that wants to realise the Line 9 project will have to persuade the Chief Financial Officer, Richard Bird, and the Board, that this project will profitable. And the head of Investor Relations, Jody Balko, in turn has to persuade the shareholders.
4. It has to be built in engineering design, the detailed scheme that plots how it will pass over rivers, past houses, whilst maintaining a neat balance between achieving a passable level of safety and doing so at the lowest possible cost. This activity falls under the remit of Enbridge President for Liquids Pipelines & Major Projects, Stephen J. Wuori.
5. It has to be built in public acceptability. Normally a key part of this is the undertaking of an Environmental Impact Assessment, designed not to change the basic plan but to reassure any members of civil society or government departments that the project is being done with maximum care. Remarkably it seems that Enbridge have been reluctant to undertake such an assessment, and the political structures of Canada have been adapted in their favour. The Federal government last year removed the requirement for an environmental assessment. Although the National Energy Board must still approve projects, the limitations for objections are very strict. Threats to the environment or wider public safety are not considered relevant.
6. It has to create support from the general public on a wider plain, far beyond those who live near the pipeline’s route. To do this it has to construct ‘the social licence to operate’, via the media, public relations, advertising, sponsorship, financing universities and so on. Roxanna Benoit, who oversees such work, is Enbridge’s Vice President, Public, Government & Aboriginal Affairs, and has been registered as a lobbyist by the government’s ‘Office of the Commission of Lobbying of Canada’ for the past five years.
7. Only then is the actual project physically realised, the pipeline is laid in a trench, or in the case of Line 9, the works are undertaken to reverse the pipeline’s flow.
Part of the concern of those resisting Line 9, is that it’s operation will lead to a toxic spill such as the one that took place on 25th July 2010, when 877,000 US gallons of DilBit spewed into Talmadge Creek, and flowed into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The pipeline belonged to Enbridge. The US Environmental Protection Agency enforced a clean up which to date has cost the company $756 million. However, when we consider the activities of the likes of Roxanna Benoit, it seems that projects like Line 9 have already spilled their toxins into the body politic of Canada – as can be seen in the changes to the law over environmental impact assessments.
Yet the vitality of the opposition to Line 9, I find immensely inspiring. The key decisions behind the project’s realisation are made by just a handful of people, but those active in opposition to it number in the thousands. And their actions mirror the powerful resistance to the plans for pipelines running west and south from Alberta. The movement to prevent the export of the tar sands, and thus strangle further expansion of the mines, is going from strength to strength. Capital investment into the extraction of tar sands in Alberta has grown by a factor of five in the last decade, but the growth in the opposition to that extraction has been far faster. With courage, perseverance – and a fair wind – this movement could force a retreat on one of the world’s largest hydrocarbon projects.
Thanks to Gerry Dunn, Amit Praharaj, Dr Anna Zalik, Brenda Longfellow, Glen Richards & Clayton Thomas-Muller.