Oil & Natural Gas Frontlines: First Nations Lead the Way
American environmentalists are declaring victory over the announcement that the United States will research alternate routes for the Keystone XL pipeline. While Obama’s announcement was an encouraging gesture, U.S.-based activists are in danger of missing the forest for the trees. We must look north, the source of tar sands oil, where First Nations people in Canada are directly confronting the accelerating fossil fuel expansion on their land, as we plan the next steps in our movement.
The Keystone XL pipeline is just one in a massive network of pipelines branching out from the oil fields of Alberta, illustrated by this map. The trade magazine Pipelines International reports on this extensive infrastructure of, as they call them, “energy lifelines.” While the tar sands (or oil sands) have received international attention since the protests against Keystone XL lit off this summer, pipeline expansion is occurring on many fronts in Canada: tar sands oil, conventional oil and natural gas which is being pumped out of Canadian soil. American activists have shown their mettle in facing down the importation of tar sands oil into the U.S., but where do they stand on the dozens of other pipelines that make up this spiderweb?
Traditional environmental leaders, Indigenous environmentalists and youth came together in unprecedented ways during the Keystone fight; now we must move forward with our eyes on the frontline. The untold story of fossil fuel expansion in Canada is its toll on Indigenous communities, or First Nations. First Nations in Canada in active resistance show paths forward, as fossil fuel companies only intensify their development efforts.
On the same weekend that 12,000 protesters encircled the White House, the 2nd Indigenous Assembly on Pipelines and Mining took place in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories The Indigenous Assembly over the weekend of November 5th, issued this call to action:
Indigenous communities from across the province are gathering in Vancouver Unceded Coast Salish Territories to oppose this conference and those corporations who profit off the destruction of the land. No mining, no pipelines, no resource extraction on unceded native lands! Defend the people, protect the land!
The Assembly hosted No Mining on Native Land!, a march through downtown Vancouver on November 6th. The pipelines, notably the Enbridge oil pipeline and the Kimimat Summit Lake gas pipeline (or Pacific Trails), endanger the lands of Indigenous people who are dependent on trapping and hunting for survival.
The Pacific Trails pipeline would lead to a new liquefied natural gas (LNG) port at Bish Cove, an ecologically pristine beach, on the Western cost. The Enbridge and Pacific Trails pipelines would run alongside each other near the Morice River. The proximity of gas and oil pipelines to each other is particularly dangerous, though the companies have made no statement on this risk. Many tribal councils and governments have approved one or both pipelines, in large part due to promises of jobs, but among Indigenous residents on the land, resistance is fierce.
The same week, Likhts’amisyu and Unist’ot’en clans of the Wet’swet’en nation confronted officials from Pacific Trails pipeline (PTP), who were attempting to illegally enter their territory to move drilling equipment. This nation is one of many in Canada on land unceded to the Canadian government. The nation owns the land and PTP was not authorized to enter. Tribe members blockaded the access road, and formed an encampment until the company removed all equipment and vehicles several days later.
The Unist’hot’en clan has also built a cabin on Wet’suwet’en territory in the path of the Enbridge pipeline, PTP and one other pipeline, to prevent construction. They intend to defend the cabin and halt illegal construction on their land. Mel Bazil of the Lhe Lin Liyin (The Guardians), which support the Unist’hot’en Wet’suwet’en writes,
A delay could benefit their [Transcanada and other companies’] plans to assist in what we consider the systemic scope of the Tar Sands expansion activity. Tar sands may require offsets to operate, and proposed pipelines that acquire tenure through band chiefs and councils, and through treaty agencies … could make deals without the input or involvement of grassroots and indigenous peoples, who experience the environmental damage and pollution.
American activists must link to the struggle of First Nations people resisting Enbridge, PTP and other pipelines. The Keystone XL pipeline, once considered a no-brainer for approval by industry and legislators, now stands in limbo. That is a success for American activists. However, fossil fuels are an international industry, and NAFTA and other treaties have deeply linked the American and Canadian economies. The frontlines of fossil fuel in the U.S. are inherently connected to the struggle unfolding in Canada as part of a global supply chain.
As collaboration between major environmental NGOs and Indigenous environmental leaders deepens and expands, we must not allow Washington insiders to define the terms of victory. There is no victory until Indigenous communities, and all frontline communities, are safe from the indignities of fossil fuels.