Resistance to pipeline expansion associated with Alberta’s oil sands is spreading. Amidst a burgeoning Idle No More grassroots Indigenous movement and evidence of industrial pollution, Ottawa residents gathered to voice opposition to Enbridge’s Ontario-Québec Line 9 pipeline in a panel discussion on Dec. 12.
Oil Sands Audacity
In early January, a federally funded study confirmed that pollution from the oil sands has contaminated lakes as far as 90 kilometres from the mining project.
Examination of lake sediments revealed that airborne pollutants – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are deadly chemicals formed by the incomplete burning of fossil fuels – were 2.5–23 times greater than 1960 levels, prompting lead author and Queen’s University researcher John Smol to tell the New York Times, “now we have the smoking gun.”
According to Smol, the study reveals that bitumen pollution “is not natural, is increasing over time and the footprint of the industry is much bigger than anyone thought.” The research confirms earlier investigations charging that tar sands air pollution was contaminating the region and polluting the Athabasca River, much to the ire of the oil industry and provincial and federal governments. Despite overwhelming evidence from multiple studies, industry spokesperson Travis Davies recently commented that oil sands development does not adversely impact local ecosystems.
Despite international condemnation, the Harper government continues to lead an assault against the environment by gutting legislative protection, reducing monitoring, defunding research, and muzzling climate change scientists. It also recently disbanded the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy and ceased to fund the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area, which is the world’s leading freshwater research centre.
Meanwhile, resistance to the arteries and lifelines which feed the oil sands machine has intensified. Environmentalists with the Tar Sands Blockade movement in the US are hunger-striking, tree- sitting, and blockading TransCanada’s construction efforts in Texas as part of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Against Enbridge’s Line 9
The Dec. 12 panel highlighted that the effects of the most carbon emitting-intensive industrial project in the world have far-reaching implications even beyond northern Alberta communities.
The hyper expansion of the oil sands in recent years caused industry to search for alternative markets, since the US Keystone XL project stalled amidst widespread opposition in Canada and the US.
Attempts to construct routes to ship bitumen through BC to the Pacific are opposed by dozens of Indigenous communities and municipalities. Movements such as Defend Our Coast and actions such as permanent camp construction along pipeline routes are part of a broader opposition that is now gaining momentum in Ottawa.
Line 9 is an Enbridge pipeline constructed in 1976 between Sarnia and Montreal. The flow of conventional crude oil was first reversed in 1999 due to market conditions, but in August 2012 the National Energy Board granted an Enbridge request to once again reverse the flow – phase one from Sarnia to Hamilton – with the objective of shipping heavy crude with diluted bitumen eastward.
On Nov. 29, Enbridge submitted a formal application to reverse the second phase between Hamilton and Montréal. It is expected industry and government will attempt to pipe the bitumen further east – to Saint John, N.B. and Portland – for Atlantic export.
The primary concerns associated with the reversal and bitumen flow are threefold. First, the age and build of the pipeline. 40 years old with a skewed ratio at 30 inches in diameter to ¼ inch thickness, Line 9 is the same make and model as Enbridge’s Line 6B, which spilled 6.3 million litres of diluted bitumen into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010. Second, according to pipeline opponents, there is evidence that diluted bitumen is much more corrosive than conventional crude, with 15-20 times the concentration of acid and 5-10 times the level of sulphur. The third related concern surrounding pipeline leaks is the population base along the Line 9 corridor. An estimated 9.1 million people live within 50 kilometres of the corridor, including 18 Indigenous communities who have not been consulted about the proposed changes.
Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians discussed the energy industry’s pipe dreams as efforts to create a “snakes and ladders board game” that will take “tar sands oil to all corners of the earth.” According to Barlow, they are pumping out bitumen – the dirtiest oil on Earth – faster than they can sell it. This has forced companies like Enbridge to find or build new supply routes.
Ben Powless of the Indigenous Environmental Network passed around a steaming, smelly chunk of extracted bitumen and discussed the devastating environmental impact on Dené, Cree, and Métis communities whose land is directly impacted by oil sands pollution. According to Powless, the environmental destruction and associated impacts on Indigenous communities should be considered as violations of human rights, treaty rights, and international Indigenous peoples’ rights.
Powless linked Line 9, the pipeline network, and the tar sands back to government efforts surrounding imposed legislation – Harper’s “pipeline promotion bills” – and attempts to stifle opposition by defunding non-profit organizations and criminalizing opposition. Powless called on non-Native Canadians, especially residents of Ottawa, to take action: “[Line 9] presents us with a very unique opportunity to make a stand for the environment, for human rights, for Indigenous communities – and to really put a wrench in Harper’s plans right here at home.”
Toxic Profits Blockaded
According to panelist Ron Plain of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, the effects of bitumen transport and processing have grave impacts far from the extraction site. The community is located near Sarnia in southwestern Ontario, in the heart of “Chemical Valley”, home to 63 petrochemical refineries.
Aamjiwnaang has been subject to numerous scientific studies as a result of high rates of pollution and cancer and has been referred to as the “most polluted spot in North America,” by National Geographic.
According to Plain, the Line 9 reversal project would see an increase in bitumen oil production in the area, which currently processes 225,000 barrels on a daily basis.
The community blockaded a CN rail line into Chemical Valley for 13 days beginning on Dec. 21 as part of the Idle No More movement and in support of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike on Victoria Island in Ottawa.
Dozens of railways, roads, and border crossings have been blockaded across the country over the course of numerous weeks since the Idle No More movement gained momentum in December.
This article first appeared in the Leveller, Vol. 5, No. 4.