We are members of Peaceful Uprising and Utah Tar Sands Resistance, groups that are working to stop tar sands mining from beginning in Utah. As tar sands mining is scheduled to begin in Utah in 2013, we deeply valued the chance to visit the Tar Sands Blockade in Texas several months ago to gain insight from other grassroots organizers. Finding solidarity across such a distance inspired this piece.
On January 10, Oklahomans marched on a section of the Keystone XL pipeline in Stroud, Okla., to launch a direct action campaign against the project. Just three days earlier, more than 100 activists stormed into the Houston headquarters of TransCanada, the corporation contracted to build Keystone. Meanwhile, a new tree-sit went up to block the path of the pipeline’s construction in Diboll, Texas. These actions represent the spirit of Blockadia—a vast but interwoven web of campaigns standing up against the fossil fuel industry and demanding an end to the development of tar sands pipelines.
Blockadia is a place where the future of the environmental movement is being negotiated. In this vast region of proposed tar sands pipelines—particularly the Keystone XL, which reaches from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico; and the Northern Gateway, which extends from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia—communities are engaged in struggles that draw strength from one another. From a hunger strike in Houston to the third annual signing of the Save the Fraser Declaration in Vancouver, these communities have been ramping up their efforts in recent weeks.
Complemented by the recent firestorm of actions for indigenous rights by the Idle No More movement across Canada and the world, Blockadia is bringing a renewed emphasis on social justice to the environmental movement.
The efforts of communities throughout Blockadia share three main characteristics that make the struggle against tar sands pipelines different than any environmental campaign in U.S. history: the normalization of direct action; the involvement of rural and indigenous groups along with more typical “activists;” and the ability of tar sands extraction to motivate even those who tolerated conventional oil pipelines. Blockadia’s campaigns are building a unified front larger than anything the environmental movement has ever seen.
Through these qualities, Blockadia’s campaigns are building a unified front larger than anything the environmental movement has ever seen, making the struggle potentially winnable despite the steep odds against it.
1. Normalization of direct action in land defense
The communities along the pipeline routes have come to accept that it’s OK for people who don’t fit into a typical activist stereotype (think young, urban, and highly educated) to practice civil disobedience to protect their land. In Texas and elsewhere, rural landowners and others who never imagined themselves diving into direct action are doing so because it’s their only recourse to protect their homes and families. In Texas, landowners such as the 78-year-old Eleanor Fairchild have stood in the way of bulldozers.
“Direct action is scary, it’s technical, and it does require some knowledge and skill sharing,” says Ron Seifert, spokesperson for the Tar Sands Blockade. Nonetheless, when all other strategies have failed, locals have embraced it.
Blockadia isn’t just a Texas thing. Geraldine Thomas-Flurer, coordinator of the Yinka Dene Alliance—a group of six First Nations that stands against the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry tar sands from the Alberta mines to the coast of British Columbia—says the First Nations in this region are prepared to physically block its construction if it comes to that. Over 130 First Nations have signed onto a declaration prohibiting the pipeline—the Save the Fraser Declaration—that was coordinated by the Yinka Dene Alliance. First Nations in British Columbia are prepared to physically block construction of the pipeline, if it comes to that.
“Many of our chiefs have said that they would lay down their lives in a nonviolent way if it came to that,” Thomas-Flurer says. “People have said they would die for this. I would die to stop this.”
Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska, a group that defends the rights of bread-basket landowners facing TransCanada’s legal team, makes a similar point. “If construction were to start in our state, you would see people doing civil disobedience, no doubt.”
Some Nebraskans traveled to Washington, D.C., for the protests against the Keystone XL in August 2011, which ended in mass arrests.
“Some of the old timers say they’ve never picketed in their entire lives,” Kleeb says. “I could definitely see these [people] blocking roads with their pickup trucks or blocking roads with themselves and their neighbors.” She also pictures locals moving cattle into the pipeline’s path to stop construction, techniques that take advantage of the flat landscape and available resources.
2. Involvement of rural communities and indigenous peoples
Another way Blockadia differs from earlier movements is that local people are taking leading roles because they understand how the pipelines will affect their lives. This stands in stark contrast to other high-profile environmental campaigns—such as protests against mountaintop removal in Appalachia and the efforts to block logging in the Pacific Northwest—that culminated in bitter hostilities between non-resident organizers and locals who felt their livelihood was under attack.
Locals are not showing up holding pro-pipeline signs in this struggle. That’s due to the effective outreach concerned locals have made to their own communities.
Ron Seifert, spokesperson for the Tar Sands Blockade, emphasizes that local people began working to stop the pipeline years ago. Only later did non-resident activists come in and join with locals, who had already been drawing publicity toward the issue.
Geraldine Thomas-Flurer says First Nations and non-indigenous people are working together in solidarity in British Columbia. “It’s a unified voice,” she asserts, adding that the majority of the public in the province stands firmly against tar sands pipelines. “I never thought I would ever see the day that we would come together. Relationships are changing, stereotypes are disappearing, there’s more respect for one another. If anything, this Enbridge Northern Gateway has unified British Columbia.”
Labor is also joining the opposition. Dave Coles, president of Canada’s Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union, says a huge portion of workers in Alberta’s tar sands industry stand firmly against tar sands pipelines. “We represent thousands and thousands of members in the tar sands,” he says. “Our members who work in the tar sands are unanimous in their support for killing this thing.”
Not only do energy workers understand that the energy sector’s economic boom and bust cycle will eventually put them out of a job, he says, but they hold that the pipeline would be detrimental to Canada for economic reasons, as well as for human rights and the environment.
Although TransCanada and Enbridge have tried to launch counter-campaigns in support of the pipelines, these have not been successful. Enbridge launched a massive campaign to draw support for the Northern Gateway, but Thomas-Flurer says that it hasn’t been working.
“Enbridge tries to stir the pot,” she says. “They’re gonna try to divide and conquer. We’ve been there, done that. It’s old hat to us because it’s happened to our people throughout history.”
The building trades sector has also attempted to launch counter-protests, says Coles, but these have been driven by leadership rather than workers, and thus lack momentum.
Seifert adds that TransCanada’s propaganda campaign has been largely ineffective. “We have yet to be met with counter-protests,” he notes, saying the credit for that belongs to “local communities who have spent years building awareness.”
Another reason why counter-protests haven’t taken hold in the U.S. is that locals know they’re fighting a foreign corporation. Another reason why counter-protests haven’t taken hold in the U.S. is that locals know they’re fighting a foreign corporation. According to Kleeb, “You constantly hear ranchers and farmers say, ‘How in America can a foreign corporation take land that my ancestors homesteaded, that portions of their family died for in the Dust Bowl?’”
In British Columbia, First Nations are also fighting against an invasive power. “We’ve never signed a treaty,” Thomas-Flurer says. “We’ve never ceded our land. We’ve never gone to war. We’ve never given up title to our traditional territories. And the law is on our side.”
3. People who tolerated fracking and oil pipelines are drawing the line at tar sands
Many of those rising up against tar sands pipelines tolerated other industries that environmentalists consider highly polluting. But the dangers of tar sands pipelines are too hard to ignore.
Tar sands pipelines carry diluted bitumen—tar sands oil—along with highly toxic solvents that are necessary to make the thick slurry flow through a pipe. Earl Hatley, Riverkeeper of the Grand River in the Waterkeeper Allliance and member of the Cherokee Nation, is leading a battle against the Keystone XL in the Oklahoma courts. “I’m not against oil and gas pipelines,” he says. “I just couldn’t sit back in my watershed with all the problems that I’m facing and watch the pipeline go through.”
In Texas, one of the landowners who has been most outspoken about the pipeline—and who was arrested in October for standing in the way of a bulldozer—has been invested in the oil industry for much of her life, says Seifert.
“Eleanor Fairchild is the widow of an oil geologist, and her family was involved with the oil industry, and she’s not opposed to pipelines categorically or fossil fuels categorically,” he says.
Though Texas is known for its allegiance to the oil industry, many people felt betrayed by the industry’s deception.
“TransCanada misrepresented its pipeline to everyone,” Seifert explains. “It never mentioned to anyone that it was a tar sands pipeline, ever.” Tar sands pipelines carry diluted bitumen—tar sands oil—along with highly toxic solvents that are necessary to make the thick slurry flow through a pipe.
“A lot of people didn’t know what tar sands were at first, but they were outraged when they found out,” Seifert says. “They were outraged that they were never told what will be in the pipe.”
The future of Blockadia
Whether these unique factors will add up to a victory is anyone’s guess. Some seemingly key ingredients to success—ones that other campaigns like the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s achieved—are still absent. This issue hasn’t cracked popular media, and as a consequence, few people besides environmentalists and front-line communities have heard about it. Tar sands hasn’t become a campaign issue in electoral politics, either.
Nevertheless, the three unifying factors of Blockadia form a vital foundation that gives this movement a chance not only to block the proposed tar-sands pipelines, but to radicalize the environmental movement as well. With historically marginalized people stepping into the forefront of the movement, and historically privileged groups fighting for rights they once took for granted, momentum is building.
The coming months will show whether Blockadia can win the hearts and minds of the broader public, catalyzing neighboring communities into action and creating the overwhelming support that would be required for the campaigns to achieve their ultimate goals.
In the meantime, throughout Blockadia, people are more fully comprehending and articulating the intertwined nature of social justice and environmental issues, and working together on these causes. The active engagement of people in the frontline communities is giving environmentalism the heart it desperately needed, connecting movements for the healthy survival of communities to movements bent on protecting our land and water.
Melanie Jae Martin and Jesse Fruhwirth wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.