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If you’ve been following the news in Canada over the last year or so, there should be nothing too surprising about our Prime Minister’s “war on science”. World-class labs and experiments have been shut down, libraries destroyed, scientists “muzzled” and mandates have been re-written along unabashedly ideological lines. The disregard for any science which might contradict his political interests has provoked indignation throughout Canada’s intellectual and academic communities, leading to protests at Capitol Hill by many notable scientists. At issue isn’t just information which might damage his political chances or the petrochemical industry he represents but the notion of “science” itself.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that there are a lot of very good critiques of science, academia and “rationality” out there. Since taking the reigns of “established truth” from religion, science has often found itself in the same authoritarian roles, defining dark-skinned people as less-than-human, homosexuality as a “mental illness” and generally facilitating the spread of empire. That being said, I must ask, if not science, then what? Emotion? Rhetoric? Dogma? If and when a better system comes along I’ll gladly adopt it, as will, I suspect, every intellectually honest academic, but only after demonstrating a superior ability to predict and explain the unknown, something the alternatives have all (so far) been unable or unwilling to do. Science, as an institution, has shown the nearly unique ability to admit wrong-doing and learn from its misktakes. That evidence-based evolution, rather than any one claim, defines “science” and sets it apart from its peers.

In spite of all the economic and institutional incentives for science to parrot the views of government, it often doesn’t, and that’s the problem here. Over the past century honest self-criticism and better methodologies have demolished many of the cherished ‘truths’ it once upheld, making life a lot harder for those who based their reactionary politics on them. This has provoked some understandable resentment and suspicion, especially among those unable to understand or evaluate the science in question. In more ignorant and hardline groups, this often leads to a wholesale rejection and allegations that all of science and academia are aligned against them in a giant liberal/communist/Jewish* conspiracy, which is now sadly something of a mainstream political view.

Even in a perfect world, science will never be “neutral”. It may assume neutrality as a starting point, but sticking with it means never reaching any conclusions, or at the very best permanently agreeing to disagree (as we have with philosophy, religion and musical preference). The sad fact is that we can’t all be right. We may be entitled to our own opinions, but reality is not obliged to indulge our egos. Believe, if you wish, that global warming isn’t real, that the Tar Sands and fracking are sustainable, that austerity, tax cuts or the gold standard are likely to fix the economy or that putting more people in prison will lower crime rates, but that’s not what the evidence says. That may be a result of Illuminati agents distorting the data, but there’s a far simpler explanation: you might just be wrong.

What we don’t know can hurt us. Not looking to see if there are cars coming doesn’t make crossing a street any safer. Nor will avoiding tests for diseases stop them from making you sick. In the face of danger, ignorance is among the worst choices one can make. Sadly, in this case, the choice is being made for us.

The rejection of science leads us down a dark path. If conclusions are decided ahead of time, there’s little point to doing experiments or writing papers at all. If evidence isn’t valued, then what sets serious debate apart from a karaoke competition? This policy threatens to stifle a world-class scientific community which took generations to build. Worse, it sets a precedent by which knowledge and truth are decided directly by the government of the day and evidence tailored to fit their views. If replacing science with ignorance is to be the new official position of our government, the only thing we’ll be able to know for sure is that our country is run by a bunch of idiots.

This week’s “movie” is actually the most recent episode of the CBC’s Fifth Estate, “Silence of the Labs”. I don’t usually use this space to promote current broadcast programming, but given the dire nature of this subject matter as well as the CBC’s willingness to post the whole thing online, I’m willing to make an exception. If you haven’t already seen it, I’d definitely recommend making time for this one, if only to see yet another glaring example of how twisted this nation is becoming.

Silence of the Labs (Official CBC Link)
YouTube Link (for those outside Canada)

*This is not hyperbole, there is a long history of association between fascism and anti-intellectualism. The Nazis adopted the ultra-nationalist “Deutsche Physik” movement which rejected “Jewish Science”, especially Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Similar views are common among religious fundamentalists, Holocaust deniers and John-Birchers for obvious reasons, as well as most of the nastier authoritarian leftist regimes.

The blockade in Westover, now enjoying its fifth day, has been a stunning success. The surprise appearance of dozens upon dozens of protesters at Enbridge’s construction site Thursday morning managed to take the company by surprise, and as of this moment, demonstrators control the site and have dug in for a prolonged stay. At least 30 tents now line the long driveway and people are continuing to arrive from as far away as Toronto and Ottawa.

Within moments of the successful seizure, a website and twitter account went live and press releases began flooding out to media outlets. Adam Carter of CBC Hamilton was on the scene shortly and tweeted live updates throughout the morning. By the afternoon, even Enbridge was tweeting to #SwampLine9. Soon others began to arrive, including more reporters and representatives of Six Nations. In terms of (official) confrontation, there’s been very little – demonstrators pledged to fight for the workers pay, if necessary, and promised not to touch the equipment, most of which is locked inside a fenced enclosure. Regular “safety inspections” and a small, full-time (rotating) presence of watchful employees have been allowed, though campers have now blocked further deliveries of fuel for the all-night floodlights. In return, campers have been allowed access to the on-site bathroom trailer, at least for the moment. If that fails, campers have brought along a composting toilet, built fresh for the occasion. Police have maintained a small presence nearby, but have so far refused to act without a court injunction. The little ‘trouble’ campers have experienced (all peaceful, thankfully), I’m told, has come from angry drivers and residents, which is pretty much par for the course in an action like this.

Since the occupation began, they’ve been joined by a steady stream of friends, activists and neighbours. Events have been held, such as the support demo last Friday on public lands across the street last and a “Swampfest” concert yesterday, featuring local acts such as Lee Reed and Mother Tareka. When I visited yesterday, spirits were still high, if a little more tired and heat-striken than when I left Thursday, with many more tents and plenty of new tarp-and-cable-spool construction.

This tiny strip of barren land, amidst the rolling hills, fields, swamp and forest of Westover, has now come to represent a national debate over energy infrastructure. Given similar opposition to proposals for new westward or southbound pipelines (Northern Gateway and Keystone XL), a tri-partisan consensus formed around an eastbound route which would quietly re-purpose existing pipelines to get Tar Sands oil to terminals in Maine. Harper’s government, so intent on turning Canada into a mid-east style petro-state, has exempted the plan from environmental assessments and taken a hard line on critics. Since even Hamilton’s council has proven powerless to intervene, many had assumed this was a ‘done deal’, but they hadn’t factored in the millions of people who live along its path.

The Westover Terminal was an obvious choice for occupation. Appearing on continental pipeline network maps, it’s the meeting point of Line 9a (Sarnia-Westover) and 9b (Westover-Montreal), the two stages of the overall reversal. It also lies amidst the Beverly Swamp, the most significant watershed in the western Hamilton, feeding both the Spencer Creek and Cootes Paradise. A spill here (the vast majority of pipelines spill at terminals) or anywhere along the nearby pipes would put the entire area at risk ecologically, as well as the many farms and residents who are dependent on wells for water.

The danger this poses to Hamilton shouldn’t be hard for most long-time residents to grasp. Not only have we long suffered with the stigma (and reality) of being a “dirty” and “polluted” city, but we’re already home to Canada’s worst freshwater tar contamination – Randle Reef. After decades of bickering and inaction, the cost of remediating this sixty-hectare patch of coal-tar near (former) Stelco’s docks now stands at around $140 million (taxpayer) dollars. Along the Spencer Creek itself, a July, 2007 fire at the Biedermann pesticide plant in Dundas spilled an estimated million litres of (still unknown) chemicals into the creek, which then flowed into Cootes Paradise. Along their route they killed an estimated 6000 fish in the creek and 5-15 million in and around Grindstone Marsh. In both of these cases, the corporations escaped any kind of prosecution, leaving us to suffer the consequences and shoulder the cost of cleanup.

Whatever Enbridge wants to claim, the oil industry’s recent record isn’t comforting. Just over a week ago a leak was discovered from Imperial Oil’s eqipment in Sarnia, not far from Enbridge’s facilities there. Around the same time, a Plains Midwestern pipeline ruptured near Manning, Alberta, spilling a few thousand barrels of natural gas condensate. A couple of weeks before that, Apache Canada spilled almost ten million litres of contaminated wastewater near Zama, Alberta. In the past few days, catastrophic floods have brought more ruptures, one in a Turner Valley gas pipeline, leaking deadly “sour gas” from a submerged section of pipe and a widespread shutdown of Enbridge’s own lines after another spill south of Fort McMurray.

Alberta’s floods illustrate the double-edged danger of these gigaprojects. Their infrastructure is not (and cannot be) built to withstand the unprecedented and cataclysmic weather which it creates. Only a few days ago much of Ft. McMurray was besieged by flood-waters – if they’d moved much further north into the oil patch and breached the massive “tailings ponds”, the resulting dump of industrial waste into the MacKenzie-Athabasca River Delta could easily have turned much of northern Canada into a dead zone. Even without such a disaster, though, there’s enough carbon buried in the sands of northern Alberta to bring about “catastrophic” global warming without any help from America or China. That means more droughts, floods and super-storms, with all the decimated crop yields and underwater cities that entails.

Line 9 is not just a symbol. This thirty-inch pipe and the export capacity it represents is crucial to Tar Sands expansion plans, and to the new Canada Haprper is busy creating. Aside from the potential disaster it represents to every community along its path, this pipeline will spur new toxic development from Alberta to Asia. In literal, physical terms, it will further entrench our economic dependence on petrochemicals, even as global efforts to break the addiction are finally underway.

If we want to stop this, now’s the time. Once a project like this goes online, it becomes infinitely harder to stop, and that’s scheduled to happen later this summer. There will soon be no more construction sites or NEB hearings, just a hundred million barrels flowing through our ground each year. This is our chance to say “no”, and we may not get another one like it for years or decades. Whether or not this blockade survives, these brave land defenders have raised the bar for everybody from Sarnia to Montreal. If it is evicted, others will try elsewhere, and only one needs to successfully stop construction, at any point in it’s 1000+ kilometres, to bring the entire project to a halt.

If you want to support Swamp Line 9, there’s many ways you can help. As with any blockade, they’re constantly in need of people to maintain a presence on the site. Whether you can stay for ten minutes or bring a tent and stick around for a while, it’ll be appreciated. There’s also a need for supplies (see official list), rides to and from the site (especially accessible vehicles) and help spreading the word on and off-line. For those elsewhere, there’s been a call-out for solidarity actions tomorrow (Tuesday June 25th), encouraging everybody to grab some signs and head to their nearest Enbridge facility. As for direct actions elsewhere along the line, such as blockades of roads and other construction sites, they’re more than welcome. This was never meant to be a ‘last stand’ – it’s only the beginning. – Official Homepage
#swampline9 on twitter – Official Facebook Page
Directions to the site

(6:56am)Early this morning a convoy of  activists from across Southern Ontario (as far as Kingston and Kitchener) converged on the sleepy town of Westover and appeared at the gates of the Enbridge pumping station. Catching workers as they changed shifts, we handed out flyers. With a message of “enjoy your day off” (and a promise to make sure they get paid), they packed up with a smile. Few remain, at this point, and we have yet to see any police.

This action, nicknamed #swampline9, was taken in response to the pending reversal of Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline, part of the proposed network bringing Tar Sands oil to the coasts.

Protesters now control the site, at least for the moment, and are beginning to set up tents. The intention is to stay as long as possible, and others are eagerly encouraged to show up to stay or support.

Much more news on the way when I can get to a real computer. In the meantime, check out or follow #swampline9 on twitter.

(Update 10:30am) Police have arrived at the site, but so far have made no move toward protesters. Most workers have now left the area, though there’s still a few doing “safety checks”. Adam Carter from CBC Hamilton is now also on the scene and tweeting live updates.

(Update 4:30m) Things are mostly quiet at the site, the police visit has been largely uneventful and workers are now completely off the site excepting the occasional “sweep” to check on their equipment (so far none has been touched). Representatives of Six Nations have arrived and made statements to the media, underscoring the contested title to area lands. Tomorrow morning, supporters have called for a rally in the park across the street from the pumping station’s front gates – if you’d like to visit but don’t want to risk stepping off public property, this is a great opportunity. For those who do want to visit or join the blockade itself, newcomers are more than welcome, especially this evening and overnight tonight.

A very telling controversy just erupted over a quiet “emergency” meeting held at the White House to discuss the serious possibility of an ice-free Arctic within the next two summers, what’s now being called the “Arctic Death Spiral” (see graphic). It’s seen almost no mention in the American press, but has been covered by The Guardian and Australian, as well as many smaller news sources. Some are downplaying it, and others are obviously exaggerating. The disputes, though, relate mostly to who was there and how much of an “emergency” it was considered. What isn’t in dispute (and was already known late last year) is the situation in the Arctic. Last year saw a record melt and this year has already seen ice covering the Beaufort Sea shatter like a sheet of glass over a few weeks in February and March. Every summer much of the Arctic ice melts, but over the last few decades total summer coverage has been shrinking dramatically. At current rates, this trend could hit zero as soon as 2015.

Let that sink in. “Melting the polar ice caps” has long been touted as one of the worst possible outcomes of climate change, with the potential to sink coastlines or disrupt global weather patterns. As recently as a few years ago, the “worst case scenarios” warned that it could be coming as soon as 2100, or at worst, 2050. Now it’s starting to happen before our eyes.

This comes along with word that our atmosphere is due to reach a global average of 400ppm of carbon dioxide sometime this week. Admittedly, this doesn’t really mean any more “doom” than 399 or 401, but it’s a frightening milestone nonetheless – this is likely the highest concentrations have been since the Pliocene era, 3-5 million years ago. The best estimates so far suggest that 450ppm is the upper level if we want to prevent “catastrophic warming”, but as the above paragraphs illustrate, those estimates may have been somewhat conservative.

Meanwhile, in Canada
In Ottawa, our own leaders generally spend their time cutting climate-related research budgets and making ignorant statements. Leading the charge is Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who’s most recently taken on Al Gore and NASA’s James Hansen over their criticisms of the Tar Sands. Before that he was forced to clarify that he did, in fact, think climate change was “important” after telling reporters that “people aren’t as worried as they were before“. Perhaps the most worrying of these embarrassing statements are those where he talks about the need to get in on massive demand growth for oil in the developing world, for which he cites the IEA. Unfortunately for him, what the IEA actually said was a little more complicated. It forecast a couple of scenarios for global oil development over the next few decades then worked out how much carbon each would put into the atmosphere. The scenario that Oliver cites is the one in which we take no serious action and approve all projects, ending with a “94% chance” of catastrophic warming.

This IEA research, which has been public since late 2011, gives another near-future deadline: 2017. If we don’t turn away from building new high-carbon infrastructure (power plants, industry, buildings etc) by then, we’ll be “locked in” to a course toward at least 450ppm. By the end of their expected operational lifespan, they will have burned enough fuel to cross that line. This, as the IEA says, will “close the door” on warming of less than 2 degrees Celsius.

There is more than enough carbon in the Tar Sands alone to put us over that level, as I’ve shown before, and as scientists like James Hansen have been trying to point out. Even without them, though, the world could still easily cross the line.

“Fire Ice”
An even larger stock of carbon, equal to about five times everything we’ve burned since the beginning of the industrial revolution, lie frozen in the (quickly melting) Arctic. Hydrates of methane form when gas bubbles get frozen into a lattice of ice crystals, creating ice you can light with a match. As temperatures rise, ice melts and the methane bubbles to the surface and escapes into the atmosphere, where it traps heat (an estimated) 20-25 times as effectively as CO2. This represents one of the “tipping points” we so often hear about where even a slight warming can set off a chain reaction causing far more. Recent readings found the highest methane readings ever recorded in the Arctic, which closely correlated with regions of melting ice.

Not content to wait for such a disaster, states and corporations are now testing these methane hydrates as a potential source of energy. One such venture, sent from Japan, just succeeded in extracting natural gas from one of their own deposits under a kilometre of ocean. Other countries, like America, aren’t far behind and though Canada has now dropped out of the race, we developed a lot of the initial technologies on our own Tundra.

Acid Rain? Meet Acid Oceans…
Another big report is being circulated this week, pointing to another emerging threat in the Arctic – acidification. As the carbon dioxide content of our atmosphere increases, so does the amount absorbed by the sea, especially in cold polar waters. Since the ocean absorbs CO2 as carbonic acid, it shifts the overall PH level, making the water more acidic. The study found “widespread and rapid acidification” which threatens disastrous implications for marine life, especially anything with a shell. Worldwide, the report states, the surface acidity of the oceans has increased about 30% since the industrial revolution began. Particularly vulnerable are tiny life forms like phytoplankton, which make up the base of the marine food chain. Phytoplankton, by the way, is crucial because it can photosynthesize like a leaf, making it an important part of regulating the world’s CO2 levels and the source of at least half the world’s oxygen.

Our Petrochemical Addiction
In spite of all this evidence and more, new-generation petrochemical projects like the Tar Sands are still considered urgent government priorities. As the timeline for taking meaningful action shortens from decades to years, our leaders aren’t just dragging their heels, they’ve broken into a run in the opposite direction. Not only are carbon emissions still rising, but they’re picking up speed Another international summit, this time in Bonn, Switzerland, just concluded with slight progress, but yet again hit the familiar stumbling block of mutual US-Chinese reluctance to act first. As the date for a “conclusive” treaty gets pushed back to 2020, it’s hard to expect much. Our government has already virtually committed itself to missing our targets, so why should anybody else bother?

This cognitive dissonance can’t last forever. Each year that we put off taking serious action and instead pursue more growth in emissions is going to make the eventual transition that much more painful. We’re not just continuing our fossil fuel addiction – we’re deepening it. By developing new kinds of “unconventional” petrochemical extraction, we’re literally re-inventing it. The massive investments now flowing into (very capital-intensive) fracking, tar sands and soon methane hydrate exploitation represent time, land and creativity that isn’t being put toward the “renewables” they celebrate so often.

This is creating another kind of “death spiral”, one in which we’re spending ever-larger amounts of money on continually-diminishing energy returns. As this drains the life from a world economy which got used to $15-30 barrels of oil, desperation sets in and the drive to exploit our remaining reserves takes over. These pressures are only going to get worse as we become even more dependent on dwindling fuel sources, and as the cost of ecological side-effects like hurricanes, floods and crop failures continues to mount. This path leads only to ruin, and the sooner we get off it the safer we’ll be.

I live near Barton St and work downtown. I see this logic play out every day. What starts as a totally voluntary indulgence in a magical substance which makes everything go faster soon becomes habit-forming. Not long after that, one can barely move at all without it. For a while, it seems glorious – a world of wealth, luxury and vanity – but soon enough the posh nightclub walls fade away and you find yourself on a mouldy matress in the slums. Before you know it, you’re heating  rocks with a gas flame then sucking hard on a pipe. Sound familiar?

Sometimes, ya just have to quit. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.

This is why people are turning to direct actions like Monday’s blockade of Highway 6. The world is quickly running out of time and potential “tipping points” are coming into view. Along with this new zeal for “unconventional” oil and gas (tar sands, fracking, etc) comes a whole host of new risks, and the global export network now threatens to spread them across continents. The profits, so far, have proved large enough to sway governments to their side. This kind of reckless disregard for the future of life on earth should give some indication of the “fitness to govern” of everybody involved in these decisions. The appropriate time to begin “reforms” was yesterday. What we do today may need to be a little more dramatic.

These days, many big numbers are being thrown around these days regarding the Tar Sands. It’s said, for instance, that there may be a total of 1.8 trillion barrels of oil or something like it in the sands of Northern Alberta. That’s a lot of oil, but what does it mean in terms of our climate?

Well, according to Wikipedia, there’s around 3 000 gigatons, or three trillion metric tons of carbon in our atmosphere, making up around 390 parts per million (by volume) of our atmosphere. As far as global warming is concerned, 350ppm is considered (probably) safe, if we’re to keep warming under two degrees centigrade over the next century. If, instead, we chose to see what happens if take a more apocalyptic route, what would that require?

Say you wanted, for some reason, to add a trillion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. This would add roughly another third to global CO2 levels, pushing them to around 520ppm (390×4/3), and twice what is needed to push us into the 450ppm “danger zone”. This would be a larger increase than we’ve seen since the dawn of the industrial revolution (~280ppm), and would likely threaten to end civilization as we know it. So, ethics aside, what would that take?

Well, by EPA estimates, burning a barrel of oil yields 0.43 metric tons of C02. At that rate, it would take about 2.3 trillion barrels of oil to achieve this devious goal. Not exactly cheap, at today’s prices.

1,000,000,000,000 metric tons / 0.43 tons/barrel = 2,325,581,395,348.837209302 barrels

In order to cut costs (super-villainy gets expensive), you could turn to a cheaper source of crude. Thanks to the dreaded “bitumen bubble”, Canada’s Tar Sands exports are selling for a great discount these days! In addition, they require much more carbon per barrel to process due to their viscous nature. A barrel of “synthetic crude” can require from about 60-180kg of emissions, compared to 24-35kg for processing conventional crude. If we make a conservative estimate of 100kg of CO2 (0.1 metric tons), that pushes the emissions per barrel to around .53 metric tons. At that rate, you could save yourself almost half a trillion barrels, bringing the total down, almost, to a somewhat familiar number…

1,000,000,000,000 / 0.53 = 1,886,792,452,830.188679245

Or just under 1.9 trillion barrels. See the problem?

We can only hope there’s no mad scientists lurking with CO2-powered death rays bent on destroying the world. The unfortunate thing is that if one wanted to, they’d hardly have to lift a finger. We are already hard at work extracting and burning these fossil fuels as fast as we can manage for reasons which aren’t a lot more noble. The “development” of these “resources” has become a national priority, eclipsing every other economic, social or political goal. Environmental laws, First Nations treaty rights, free speech, manufacturing industries, scientific research – all of these have become second-tier concerns in the rush to support and expand Tar Sands production. In return, we’re told, there could be billions or even trillions in royalties and revenues awaiting us, an awfully tempting offer in times of austerity. Keep these numbers in mind when politicians and industry officials are promising you the world, as we can’t sell billions of barrels of oil without the reasonable expectation that they’re going to be used.

Of course, this is about as simplistic and cartoonish as anything resembling a climate model can get, but I wanted to break it down to middle-school math for a reason. There’s a lot of very complex ideas and numbers being thrown around, and the resulting confusion has only served to stoke the (unfortunate) controversies. We need to bring these numbers down to a level people can grasp, instead of asking them to choose between complex, projected scenarios. I encourage you to run these numbers yourself, and experiment with others. Computers, after all, are nothing if not glorified calculators, and the internet a giant database of numbers. We can’t be afraid to check the numbers ourselves, once in a while, if only to put dire, contrasting claims in context.

To go into a little more detail, with present-day technologies, only a little over a tenth of Alberta’s Tar Sands is considered “recoverable”. That’s likely to grow, but it still only represents a dozen parts per million if. What’s important to remember is that we only need around 60ppm more until we hit the 450ppm level, and so this could easily get us a 20% or more of the way there. While that’s (probably) not apocalyptic on its own, there’s always the problematic issue of every other emission on the planet.

Alberta isn’t the only place where massive new “unconventional” oil resources are bursting onto the scene. As conventional crude oil reserves start to enter a serious decline, a desperate search for replacements is taking place. Alberta is pioneering Tar Sand extraction techniques, but it’s far from the only place such bitumen is found (Russia, Venezuela and Saskatchewan come to mind). There’s also Shale Oil – deep rock formations seeping with oil or gas which can be “fracked” out. Then there’s Oil Shale – rocks made partly out of very heavy petrochemicals which can be melted out or burned directly (the dirtiest of the bunch). Adding to these, new technologies are making deep, offshore oil accessible, perhaps soon in the Arctic as well. For Coal, mining now often demolishes entire mountains for their fuel-rich interiors. This is the real legacy of Peak Oil – increasing costs, diminishing returns and a widespread lowering of standards.

It’s crunch time. Last year we witnessed a record setting drought cut crop yields, a near-total melt of the Greenland ice sheet and a superstorm which sunk parts of NYC. Let’s cut the bullshit – either we’re serious about climate change, or we’re not. The two-faced duplicity inherent in talking about it while embracing petro-development on an unprecedented scale is both offensive and dangerous. As long as these resources exist, there will be promises of fantastic profits. As other supplies dwindle and economies fumble, they’ll only look more enticing. We’d be wise, though, not to forget the greatest value and service provided by the Tar Sands. With close to a trillion metric tons of carbon locked up underground, they may be single-handedly holding off an apocalypse.

Until we choose otherwise, that is.

Thomas Mulcair just can’t win. First, he tried to distinguish himself from other New Democrats though a mix of centrist politics, in the hopes of becoming a kind of NDP “Tony Blair”. That hasn’t worked out as well as hoped, failing to impress critics on his left and right, but ya know what they say about trying to please everybody…

That being said, he’s impressed me more over the past week than the entire rest of his tenure as leader combined, but that doesn’t say a lot. First, there’s his supportive statements toward Gary Freeman, extradited for a shootout with police dating back to 1969. Citizenship and Immigration minister Jason Kenney had branded Freeman a “Black Panther” and a “cop killer” in parliament, opposing his re-admission to Canada on “terrorist” grounds. As Mulcair (and even his American prosecutors) point out, there’s no evidence he was a Panther and only managed to hit the officer in the arm. Also worth mentioning is that Canada doesn’t officially consider the Panthers a “terrorist” group, and doesn’t seem to have a problem allowing Angela Davis to cross the border for a speaking engagement here next week.

Mulcair’s recent troubles, though, relate directly to one issue: pipelines. He recently made the trip to Washington, as so many other Canadian politicians have done recently. Unlike the rest, though, he didn’t pressure Obama to sign off on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Instead he warned about climate change and the economic plight of Eastern Canada. These remarks have not been well received across Canada, infuriating premiers like Alberta’s Alison Redford (Cons.) and Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall (NDP), as well as many federal politicians and media across the country. Viewed as scandalous, possibly treasonous, he’s accused of “not acting in Canada’s best interest”.

Now, as Mulcair and others have pointed out, there is nothing particularly scandalous about the Leader of the Official Opposition choosing to oppose government plans, even while abroad. That’s his job, and it’s the same thing Harper did when he held the position. So why is Mulcair in the spotlight? Because he criticized the Tar Sands, and chose one of the worst possible times to do it. Obama is heavily conflicted over the Keystone XL Pipeline – on one hand, he obviously wants to allow it. On the other, a very large part of his (possibly former) supporters are staunchly opposed to it, to the point where they regularly show up outside the White House in the tens of thousands, and line up by the thousands to be arrested just to make their point.

What makes this “scandal” all the more laughable is that Mulcair isn’t even “against” the Tar Sands – he simply favours a (longer) eastern route for the bitumen, hopefully involving some refining jobs along the way. For him, this might be an alternative, but for the industry itself, it would be a bitter compromise. They’ve been demanding the western (Gateway), eastern (Line 9, etc) and southern (Keystone) and more for years, with dreams including the infamous McKenzie valley pipeline proposal, Arctic shipping hubs and nuclear reactors in the oil patch. Whether or not other routes are constructed, the loss of Keystone would severely limit these ambitions, cutting billions or more out of projected profits.

These potential profits are increasingly becoming Canada’s new political Holy Grail – sought by all with the power to cure all ills. Far more than just the money, this development offers valuable political currency as well, such as the ability to fund budgets without unpopular tax rates and the massive number of new jobs created. Alberta, over the last decade, has shown how this can drive both economic prosperity and national political dominance, with our Prime Minister coming straight from the heart of Calgary’s financial district. Seeing this success in contrast to stagnating manufacturing in central Canada or collapsed fisheries in the east, many are hoping for a piece of this pie, whether it be in taxes, transfer payments, refining jobs or their own new dramatic resource extraction projects like Plan Nord and the “Ring of Fire”.

As many have noted, there’s plenty of precedent for what happens when nations become overly reliant on new oil revenues to pay their bills – it’s called the resource curse. Selling off natural capital to pay operating budgets can be a very popular move, as any number of Middle Eastern government officials can tell you, but what it does to the political process is usually downright ugly (as you’ll hear from most of their people). Excepting a few who’ve opted to charge high royalties and save large funds (ie: Norway), most lead an ugly path toward despotism, environmental destruction and/or war. Alberta’s financial strategy, of course, is the latter – charging low royalties and saving little for the future. The increasingly shrill cries over the fate of the Tar Sands from politicians across the spectrum and the big national papers only underscores how much these revenues are now being coveted. The more serious effects, though, are now being seen in widespread attempts to muzzle federal employees such as scientists, and now even Librarians. That the leader of the Official Opposition is not even “allowed” to threaten this agenda is telling, and it’s to his credit that he did it anyway. Whether it will have any impact remains to be seen.

It won’t be all that long until we have another election, and for once, it seems like the NDP might be fielding a serious contender. Harper and Mulcair are now roughly tied in polls approval ratings (though Harper leads by a distance at disapproval). Barring the entry of a certain political dynasty, Mulcair stands a chance of becoming our next Prime Minister, and it’s still hard to tell what that might mean. These latest moves have given me more hope than most so far, but I must admit, I’m still apprehensive. There’s a good interview with local Professor and notorious activist Kevin McKay on the subject which just came on CFMU’s Progressive Voices the other day, which articulates these concerns well. If “winning” means making big sacrifices in the party’s traditional beliefs, is it really winning? On the other hand, after all these years of Harper, I’d almost settle for Bob Rae. Such are the limitations of electoral politics.

The real battles with the Tar Sands are taking place at the local and grassroots levels right now, on both sides of the border. Through a growing network of civic action and civil disobedience, these pipelines and others are being challenged across North America (did you know Hamilton’s Council discussed Line 9 today?). Left to their own devices, there are few if any who’d stand up to the allure of petro-profits from the Tar Sands and it’s subsidiaries, but the growing popular pressure is proving difficult to ignore. Instead of a debate over who or where gets this infrastructure and the associated risks and profits, it’s starting to verge on a debate about whether we want this disastrous gigaproject to happen at all. That might be the conversation they’re afraid of, but it’s also the one we need to be having right now.

Today an International Day of Action Against Oil and Gas Pipelines was called in support of the Unist’ot’en land defenders opposing pipeline development through the Wet’suwet’en Territory (northern interior “British Columbia”). Solidarity rallies were held at least as far as Trinidad, and across Canada. Participating cities included Vancouver, Victoria, Prince George, Kamloops, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Waterloo, Hamilton and Chico, California.

Hamilton’s rally, like many others, took place outside our main Royal Bank branch at 100 King West (Stelco Tower), cited as the second largest financier of Enbridge along with many other Tar Sands ventures. 20-30 gathered over noon-hour to bang drums, hand out fliers and hold signs, many coming straight from City Council discussions. Jackson Square’s new security force, Intelliguard, appeared quickly showing incredible hostility, demanding people leave “their property” and threatening to call the police. For such a small demonstration in an area which has seen dozens over the past years, it was surreal. Police later appeared and did nothing, standing quietly across the street, even when the mall-cops “arrested” one guy for dropping a banner off the second-floor roof.

Enbridge also came up again today at City Council, revisiting the issue after the General Issues Committee failed to make quorum last week. Councillor McHattie’s motion to study the Enbridge’s proposed reversal of Line 9 was passed(!), and we can now await a report back from staff about Council’s options, if any, to challenge, monitor and mitigate this disaster waiting to happen.

Worries about a potential spill have only worsened after yet another spill on an Enbridge pipeline last week, this time near Chicago. This time Line 14 burst, spilling 900 barrels at the Mokena tank farm, forcing a shutdown of the line. In a region where the company is already reeling from another spill on the line last summer, and the infamous Kalamazoo River spill in 2010.

Concerns about Line 9 are now being raised all the way into Quebec. Combined with the dramatic actions being taken now by the Unist’ot’en and the widespread actions across the United States opposing the Keystone XL, we’re witnessing the growth of an international movement against these pipelines. Everywhere they try to take this oil and gas communities are standing up to oppose it. The Unist’ot’en are on the front lines of an increasingly continental struggle, but if today’s actions show anything, it’s that they’re not alone.

In the fight against the proposed network of pipelines set to extend from Alberta’s Tar Sands, yesterday, the 19th, was chosen as a day of action against the Keystone XL pipeline by blockaders in Texas, occupying its path and disrupting construction for almost two months now (a Texas record, to be sure). It didn’t disappoint. Solidarity actions took place across the nation and beyond, and blockaders in Texas faced an ugly showdowns with police.

Actions in Texas began yesterday morning when blockaders established a second “tree blockade” along the proposed Keystone XL route, taking up positions by the Angelina river. In Nacogdoches, at least forty people stormed a construction site, chaining themselves to equipment with many more blocking access by forming human chains. Police soon arrived at both locations and ordered demonstrators to leave, then stepped in to make arrests when they didn’t. Pepper spray, cherry pickers and pain compliance holds were used to pry activists apart and away from equipment. Protesters remained nonviolent throughout. At least 11 arrests were made, including four ‘locked down’ to machinery and three tree climbers.

Solidarity actions with the blockaders and others against the Tar Sands and associated pipelines took place across the continent and today even reached London, England. Sunday in Washington, around three thousand protesters converged on the White House to send a message to newly reelected President Obama regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, soon set to be reconsidered at the federal level. Yesterday at least 20 towns and cities held actions. Protesters in Houston, Texas held a teach-in outside the Valero oil refinery, which already processes (Venezuelan) bitumen. The Canadian embassy in Washington was stormed with a banner hung by Chesapeake Earth First, and our Consulate in San Francisco also saw a crowd of protesters. Other actions, ranging from rallies to banner drops and protests outside banks and gas stations took place in Bridgeport, Eugene, Seattle, Bloomington, Portland, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, Austin, Burlington (Vermont), Swathmore, Fairfax, Santa Clarita, Minneapolis, Palm Beach (with arrests) and others. In Canada, solidarity rallies took place at the Unis’tot’en blockade in British Columbia and Waterloo Ontario, and an anti-pipeline banner was hung in Coburg, Ontario.

Here in Ontario, where resistance is focused on Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline, activists from around the province met Saturday in Toronto to plan coordinated opposition. Judging from the number of forwards I’m now receiving, it seems safe to say that Hamilton is now far from alone in this fight. Tomorrow, our own council reconvenes on the issue with both sides sending delegations.

While many of these actions were small, the fact that so many places were able to take part shows how widespread and coordinated opposition to the Tar Sands and these pipelines is becoming. People are now protesting Canada across the English-speaking world. Americans are storming our embassies, and Texan landowners are beginning to embrace tactics of West-coast forest defence. These actions, in turn, are only a some of the 40 cities which have seen climate-change protests in the past week or so alone. This is no longer just an issue for northern Albertans – this gigaproject has consequences literally which span the continent. Stopping it will require a grassroots network just as broad, something that’s now starting to come together.

Solidarity to the blockaders and prisoners in Texas, Unis’tot’en, and everywhere else people are organizing and demonstrating against this ghastly gigaproject. Every community put at risk by these pipelines is another opportunity to shut them down – all we need to do is work together.

Andrew Nikiforuk is a long-time writer and activist, best known lately for his critiques of Alberta’s Tar Sands. He’s written for major publications like McLeans, the Toronto Star and the Tyee as well as being the author of many books including Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil and most recently, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude. He’ll be headed to Hamilton in a couple of weeks, as the speaker for the 8th annual Spirit of Red Hill Lecture, for a talk entitled Bitumen, Pipelines & the Petro State, on the night of Wednesday November 28th, 7:30, at the First Unitarian Church (170 Dundurn St. S.).

When discussing the Tar Sands, he has a lot to say. A native of Alberta himself, he’s researched extensively into the economic and environmental consequences, from leaking tailings ponds near the MacKenzie river delta to the difficulties involved in upgrading bitumen into synthetic crude. Rather than suggesting the “gigaproject” simply be halted, Nikiforuk argues for a “national debate on pace and scale” of the project, favouring a carbon tax to slow development as we transition to cleaner and more sustainable fuels. I won’t spoil too much of these videos or his upcoming lecture, except to say that they’re well worth a watch, and I hope to see ya on the 28th.

Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent – A general discussion of the Tar Sands and oil industry and their implications for the future of North America.

The Tar Sands and Fort Chipewyan – A talk from Ft. Chipewyan Alberta on what the Tar Sands mean to small, nearby northern communities.

Andrew Nikiforuk and Jeff Rubin discuss the Future of Oil – From TVO’s Big Ideas, a talk about the Peak Oil and the Tar Sands.

Andrew Nikiforuk debates Ezra Levant debate the Ethics of Alberta’s “Oil” Sands – A debate between between “dirty” and “ethical” oil, with Ezra Levant, one of Canada’s most outspoken and obnoxious conservatives.

This Wednesday at the General Issues Committee, Councillors will be hearing a staff report about the proposed reversal of Enbridge’s Line 9 oil pipeline, which cuts through Flamborough on its path from Montreal to Sarnia. Though publicly confirmed details are hazy and somewhat contradictory at this point, it looks very likely that this is part of plans to connect Alberta’s Tar Sands with the Atlantic, now that eastern and southern pipeline routes are proving too controversial. Enbridge had requested to address council about the matter, but has now cancelled, after twice rescheduling already. Nevertheless, discussions are planned to go ahead, with a number of groups planning to speak to the issue, from environmentalists to a representative from Six Nations, very likely the reason Enbridge now seems so hesitant to appear.

Over the past year or so, the “Keystone XL” pipeline, which had planned to connect Alberta to America’s South has become one of the most difficult issues of Obama’s term. Thousands, many famous, lined up outside the White House (and our Parliament) to be arrested in protest. Then the “Northern Gateway” pipeline became an issue in British Columbia, threatening to cut through the northern part of the province to connect with oil tankers in the coastal islands, banished since the infamous Exxon Valdez spill devestated the region. Given this legacy, there was a furious reaction causing even the Liberal provincial government to (eventually) oppose it, as well as the NDP who seem poised to take power in next spring’s elections. Undeterred, the petrochemical industry is now planning an even longer route toward Eastern Canada and it seems to have considerable political support. Beyond the now obvious support from Harper, even the NDP’s Mulcair has voiced supports this route, a notable change from his opinion regarding the Northern Gateway or “Dutch Disease” (so far David Christopherson doesn’t seem to be returning calls on the matter…)

What will be pumped through this pipeline? That’s not exactly clear. When discussing Mulcair, the press made specific mention of Albertan oil flowing through Line 9. In other discussions, Enbrige has made vague mentions of a “light oil” pipeline from Bakken, ND, which also mentioned Line 9. As much of an issue as the source is, though, there’s also the question of where it’s refined – before or after it reaches us. The Tar Sands are exactly what they sound like, a mixture of “heavy” petrochemicals (“bitumen”/tar) and sand. In order to pump bitumen through a pipeline, it must be mixed with other petrochemicals to dilute it such as naphtha (“zippo fuel”). This produces diluted bitumen, or “dilbit”. When dilbit spills, it produces a nasty mix of air and waterborne toxins making an ordinary (crude) oil spill seem tame in comparison. Residents of Marshall, Michigan learned this when, in 2010, Line 6B burst, dumping around 20 000 barrels of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River, creating an ecological nightmare which may never be completely cleaned up. Effects here depend largely on how much (highly toxic) refining and upgrading take place in Sarnia’s “Chemical Alley”, and how much the pipeline will be used for exports of raw dilbit to be refined elsewhere (like Northern Gateway plans). Regardless, with a capacity of 225 000 barrels/day, chances of a very serious spill exist for thousands of kilometres along the route.

What should Hamiltonians know about this Line 9? It’s now 37 years old and has already been reversed once. Both reversals and (corrosive) dilbit significantly increase chances of a leak or spill. The pipeline passes through the Beverly Swamp, which alone holds three important area watersheds in an area where most depend on wells for drinking water. Line 9 is a part of the same route as Enbridge’s ill-fated Line 6B which spilled in Michigan. And of course, so far most of this has been planned behind closed doors and like thousands of other projects, has been exempted from legally required environmental assessments by Harper’s budget omnibus bill.

Since last spring, this proposal has faced increasing public scrutiny. Last May, protesters burst in on National Energy Board hearings in London, shutting them down for the day. More recently in Hamilton, a packed public forum was held last month at the First Unitarian church. Many plan on heading to demonstrate inside and outside City Hall Wednesday morning to support those speaking against the reversal. Following that, Hamilton 350 is planning a protest ride to the pipeline’s Westover Terminal (6th Concession and Westover Rd.), where they’ll be demonstration on Sunday Oct. 21st. Others, in Toronto and elsewhere are planning their own forums and demonstrations, in what it sure to become a much larger controversy.

It’s still not clear how City Council will react, or what a motion from them could do either way. This pipeline poses a very clear risk of a significant environmental disaster throughout a long corridor of our rural lands. Hamilton is in no position financially to afford such a disaster, nor does our battered environmental image need further tarnishing. We already have one nationally-famous (coal) tar spill at Randle Reef which now seems poised to cost $140 million (public) dollars to clean up (and rising). Though Council cannot directly stop a federal project, they can stand symbolically against it, and with others who do the same. There’s also the taxation option, as pipelines are a specific section in our code. Elsehwhere, cities like Victoria have seen sucessful with a public divestment campaigns, seeing many institutions withdraw their pension and financing holdings of Enbridge stock. Ultimately, though, our fair city can’t do it alone. Pipelines have been halted elsewhere only through vast and often unlikely alliances which span their routes. Line 9 follows a path much like the 401, cutting across the Haldimand Tract before us and GTA afterward. With or without Council, many Hamiltonians will be opposing this pipeline, joined by countless others from cities and towns nearby.

For more information, visit

Originally posted earlier tonight on Raise The Hammer

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