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Five conundrums about the coming pipeline war

By Pieta Woolley

Everyone is still feeling high on the victory in Standing Rock Sioux reservation — and we should be. It worked! A protest movement that was indigenous-led, social-media enhanced, media-worthy and internationally supported highlighted just how grim the other side was. Clearly, the tactical genius of Gandhi and Martin Luther King has not been forgotten.

Nevertheless, if you’re a pipeline watcher, you know that was a tiny battle. And, in the fight against climate catastrophe, that was merely the first rallying wave of the flag as critical as it was. In Canada, for instance, we now face Kinder Morgan, Keystone XL, Energy East and so many other projects that’ll bring more fossil fuels to North American and foreign markets.

But are the trickier questions surrounding Standing Rock and others truly being considered — at least in public discourse?

Here are five conundrums about the coming pipeline war.

1. Are existing pipelines okay?

Reality check: The pipeline map of North America looks like a tightly woven spider web because there are so many of them. Alberta, Texas and the U.S. side of the Great Lakes are particularly dense with pipelines.

The conundrum: Protests have sprung up where new pipelines are planned. But the continent’s plumbing system already carries unimaginable amounts of crude oil, gasoline, natural gas and other substances. For instance, the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline, which was recently approved by the Trudeau government to carry crude from Edmonton to Vancouver, is merely an expansion. The original has been delivering 300,000 barrels of oil per day to the West Coast for the past 63 years.  

The nitty-gritty: Is the next step shutting down existing pipelines?

2.  What happens if we chase resource extraction out of North America?

Reality check: Pipelines are currently under construction in Africa, Asia and Latin America, so it’s not as though extraction is going away if it’s not happening in Texas. For example, in East Africa, several natural gas pipelines are in various states of the approval, and “Projects in the region have frequently been delayed or disrupted following issues relating to the management of land rights; resettlement issues and the environmental and social impact of the project.” Right. Read between those lines.

The conundrum: In North America, pipeline-resistors probably have the power to shut down at least some new construction. Granted, refusing to accept the risk of pipelines here, while benefitting from piped products, such as cars, warm homes and plastic medical devices, smacks of NIMBYism.

The nitty-gritty: What would it take to support anti-pipeline protests in other countries?

3. Are non-indigenous people really prepared to let First Nations lead?

Reality check: When CBC Indigenous Unit reporter Stephanie Cram visited Standing Rock’s camps, she found aggressive non-indigenous “allies” bullying her as she did her job.
And, of course, First Nations leadership is divided on pipelines, too.

The conundrum: When First Nations approve a pipeline, are non-indigenous resistors willing to concede? Who is in charge of protests exactly?

The nitty-gritty: Conflicts that have nothing to do with pipelines directly are being worked out, thanks to pipelines.

4. How much are we prepared to give up for the sake of our ethics?

Reality check: If we’re not prepared to assume the risk of pipelines in North America but prepared to use piped products, we’re pushing our risk onto the world’s most vulnerable people.  For example, three years ago, 47 people lost their lives and more than 3,000 square meters of ocean were covered in a thick oil slick when a pipeline exploded in Qingdao, China.

The conundrum: Are we prepared to give up cars, gas-heated homes, plastic kayaks, air travel and imported food, such as coffee and bananas — and so much more?

The nitty-gritty: We’re so complicit in a pipeline world, extracting ourselves from it as a nation seems near-impossible. So can we live with ourselves if our resistance amounts to nothing more than a Canada-wide eco-bubble?

5. What happens if oil and gas extraction and pipeline construction are allowed to continue at this pace?

Reality check: We’re hooped. That’s the conclusion reached by British journalist and climate-watcher George Monbiot. “Using the industry’s own figures, it shows that burning the oil, gas and coal in the fields and mines that are already either in production or being developed is likely to take the global temperature rise beyond 2 degrees,” he wrote in The Guardian in September, referencing the 2016 UN Paris agreement on climate change. “And even if all coal mining were to be shut down today, the oil and gas lined up so far would take it past 1.5 degrees. The notion that we can open any new reserves, whether by fracking for gas, drilling for oil or digging for coal, without scuppering the Paris commitments is simply untenable.”

The conundrum: It seems hopeless.

The nitty-gritty: Time for a bigger vision and a greater action. Ideas, anyone?

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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