Thanks for all the money, sorry about your environment...
Hamilton seems an unlikely place for a battle over the future of Alberta’s Tar Sands. We’re thousands of kilometres and several provinces away, and certainly no centre of national power. Like so many other places around the continent, though, from British Columbia to Texas, we’re about to become another front line in disputes over the “gigaproject. In our case, that means Line 9, or the decades-old Enbridge pipeline connecting Montreal and Sarina, which runs right through Flamborough. Plans are afoot to reverse the flow in order to carry flows from Alberta for export along the St. Lawrence. There’s a number of reasons to be wary here, since it’s the second time the aging pipes have been reversed, and the possibility that “dilbit” (diluted bitumen) will be pumped, filled with highly caustic and toxic dilutants. Both increase chances of a spill, and given that the pipeline flows right through the Beverly Swamp, with three important area watersheds, the results could be disastrous.

Pipeline expansion plans tied to the Tar Sands spiderweb the continent, reaching to every coast. Together, it might be the largest industrial project on earth. This pipeline infrastructure will lay the groundwork for exporting Alberta’s oil to the world, in the hopes of realizing Canada’s dream of energy-superpower status. With this increase in export capacity, extraction can expand to new heights. This isn’t just a (dirty) continuation of the status quo, it’s a dramatic expansion of some of the dirtiest oil extraction on the planet.

We’re taught to see the oil economy as inevitable, but with billions in public subsidies and a Prime Minister willing to demolish all legal obstacles in its path, it’s hard to see this system as natural. On top of the aid our government gives to extractive industries, they heavily subsidize the oil industry in other ways such as highways and auto company bailouts. Solar and wind power have never “taken off” in the same way because they’ve never seen this level of government support, and as long as we’re invested in the petrochemical economy as a nation, they never will.

The push to develop Canada’s Tar Sands is part of a global race to secure remaining oil reserves. The world’s leaders understand well that oil is beginning to run out, and as traditional gaints like Saudi Arabia begin to come up short, production is shifting to even less stable areas. In contrast, Canada is a westernized, (mostly) white, (somewhat) Christian, First World country. The importance of Alberta doesn’t just come in ‘grand chessboard’ narratives, though, but also the immediate economic issue of oil prices. Persistently rising prices have put incredible pressure on the world economy, and the Arab Spring hasn’t made things any easier. Canada has the reserves necessary to help stabilize these prices and keep business as usual functioning.

There’s a disconnect between discussions of “free market” solutions to these problems and the real world we see daily. In theory, declining oil reserves should cause prices to rise and investment to flow elsewhere, ideally to renewables. Yet it’s hard to open a newspaper without reading about the incredible pressure politicians are under to “keep gas prices low”. Anyone familiar with addiction would recognize this as enabling behavior. Artificially stabalizing oil prices helps keep us from facing the realities of oil depletion and continue our dependence on petrochemicals.

What would happen if these pipelines were stopped, as people in BC and the US are already fighting to do? That would limit the scale of the Tar Sands as a project, or at least slow it down. It would contribute to rising oil prices and detract from global carbon emissions. It would halt countless refinery and upgrader projects across the continent. In a concrete way, it would force us to face our energy issues sooner rather than later, and most importantly, safeguard thousands of kilometres of natural spaces.

A more pressing question, though, is what if they are not stopped? This network is only a first step, which sees networks of new refineries and upgraders popping up along these networks. It sees the return of oil tankers to BC’s coastal islands, development of the Arctic and countless other looming catastrophes. These pipelines are an oil spill waiting to happen, just like the aging tailings dams barely protecting the Mackenzie River Delta, and most of Northern Canada. Above all, though, it will mean a massive investment in continued and expanded reliance on the petrochemical economy.

Along with Tar sands and oil shale mining, other fossil fuels have also seen a shift toward highly destructive extraction techniques. For coal, it’s meant a shift toward “mountaintop removal”, particularly in the Appalachians. With natural gas, it’s meant “fracking”. And for oil, it’s meant tar sands and oil shale, from Canada’s North to Venezuela. These technologies multiply the damage traditionally done by fossil fuels, long before they get to the gas station or power plant. In the face of crises like climate change and oil depletion, they are a solid commitment to make things worse.

Hamilton cannot singlehandedly stop a continental gigaproject, but we’re far from the only ones fighting. The Keystone XL pipeline has proven one of the most divisive of Obama’s term so far, leading to thousands of arrests outside the White House last year, and now a blockade and civil disobedience in Texas. In BC’s north, nations like Wet’suwet’en are also blocking roads and evicting work crews for the Northern Gateway Pipeline. Activists, community groups, municipalities and indigenous nations everywhere are starting to ask questions and object. Enbridge has now rescheduled it’s presentation to Hamilton’s council for the second time as opponents again started signing up to speak. Whether they will ever actually show is looking less likely every day, but at this point neither choice will do their image any favours.

For those interested in learning more, there’s a public forum planned for the evening of Thursday, Sept 27th @ the First Unitarian Church (170 Dundurn St. S.). Doors open at 6:30 with the panel beginning at 7pm, and refreshments and childcare will be available. Also, for anyone looking to get involved with the action, a protest ride to the Westover Terminal is being planned next month. For more updates, follow