Gone are the days when the tarsands were an obscure experiment in making oil from tar. Today, the bitumen deposits in central and northern Alberta have become a political hot potato, an issue forced onto the world stage by coordinated protests and direct actions.
But a look at the history of the environmental groups that have signed on to the tarsands protests raises the question of whether or not an agreement between green groups and tarsands operators is on the horizon.
In Canada, Native-led opposition to the Enbridge pipeline through central B.C. has become one of the most visible faces of anti-oil protests. An ongoing 14-month blockade near Smithers, B.C., stands in the way of proposed gas and tarsands pipelines. Campaigns to stop oil tankers from travelling the B.C. coast have raised the spectre of an oil spill in the province’s coastal waters. Protests in Ontario have picked up against the Enbridge-proposed reversal of the 38-year-old Line 9 pipeline, which would pump tarsands crude to the East Coast.
Actions against the tarsands, though, are not limited to Canada.
Since 2011, thousands of people in the U.S. have been arrested protesting tarsands infrastructure, like the Keystone XL pipeline proposed to carry tarsands crude from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. In June, protesters dogged Prime Minister Stephen Harper during his visit to London, England, where, among other actions, they interrupted his speech to Parliament.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, according to Edward R. Royce, the chairman of the U.S. Committee on Foreign Affairs. “Canada is the single largest foreign supplier of petroleum and natural gas to the United States. After Saudi Arabia and Mexico, it is the United States’ third-largest supplier of petroleum,” Royce told the committee last March 14. Today in the U.S., securing access to oil is synonymous with national security.
Tarsands, shale gas, and related infrastructure are increasingly important environmental themes in B.C. But there’s a deal-making trend among some of the key players on the West Coast enviro scene that some consider greenwashing and others portray as pragmatism. As resistance to the tarsands mounts, will a conciliatory brand of anti-tarsands activism also take root?
The Tar Sands Solutions Network is a new coalition—headed up by controversial environmentalist Tzeporah Berman—that brings some of Canada’s biggest environmental groups together with smaller organizations to get the word out about their activism.
“The idea is to start to chart a path forward, to talk about what is it gonna take to see solutions on these issues and to make clear we believe capping the expansion of the tarsands and topping new infrastructure like pipelines is part of the solution,” Berman said in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight from her home in Vancouver.
Berman, branded in the media as an activist power broker in a business suit, was involved in spearheading the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement in B.C. and the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA), which covers 76 million hectares of the endangered forest across Canada.
Both of these agreements were touted as ending the “war in the woods” and brokering a kind of peace between environmental groups and logging companies. But for many of those involved, the outcomes of those agreements have been less than satisfactory.
In 2000, after three years of blockades in the Clayoquot Sound area led by the Nuxalk Nation and supported by environmental groups, the Rainforest Solutions Project (RSP) was formed. RSP initiated closed-door negotiations with logging companies and the B.C. government regarding the protection of the Great Bear Rainforest. Berman was a key player in the direct actions and, later, in the negotiations.
Today, RSP consists of Greenpeace, ForestEthics, and the Sierra Club of B.C., groups that continue to work on implementation. Indigenous people and grassroots environmentalists maintain that the deal protects a fraction of what blockaders agreed to with the NGOs who negotiated on their behalf and doesn’t do enough to keep B.C.’s coastal forests healthy.
The CBFA was signed in 2010. Berman had a hand in it as well, using her influence to bring enviros and logging companies to the table. According to the Ivey Foundation, which poured $22 million into forest activism in Canada, “The CBFA is the largest conservation agreement ever entered into and has the potential to be the most important industry-NGO agreement the world has ever seen in terms of economic importance, community impact, ecological significance, and geographic scope.”
But, like the Great Bear agreement, the CBFA generated criticisms from the moment the deal was announced.
“Obviously, when the forestry sector announced a cease-war with the NGO community and created this voluntary conservation zone with the interest being caribou-habitat protection, we had some pretty major concerns that no First Nations were involved in that conversation,” Clayton Thomas-Muller, who today runs the Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign, told the Straight from his home office in Ottawa.
After a rocky start and a rejection by indigenous people across Canada, the CBFA held for a couple of years before it finally fell apart. Greenpeace, one of the most high-profile environmental groups to sign on to the deal, walked last December.
“We weren’t really achieving very much on the ground, and [we were] giving up a lot in exchange for participating in this process, and so we decided that it was time to leave, and that was basically the reason why we left in December,” said Richard Brooks, a forest campaigner with Greenpeace who endorsed the deal in 2010.
“We were hitting the two-and-a-half-year mark and a lot of the milestones that we had set out hadn’t been achieved, the vast majority of them. There was no increased protection of the boreal forest, and, you know, we gave it a good go but at a certain point you have to cut your losses, and that’s what we decided to do.”
Canopy, a small environmental NGO based in Vancouver, also left the CBFA in 2013. A number of ENGOs are still part of the agreement. For her part, Berman says she thinks the CBFA has indeed led to the protection of critical boreal habitat.
Russ Diabo, a First Nations policy analyst and early critic of the CBFA, warns that the agreement may become a model for a future tarsands agreement. “You need to look at the CBFA and see what happened there, with them talking about setting up some kind of green campaign around the tarsands, because some are coming in there to greenwash it,” Diabo said in an interview with the Straight.
The continuity between the actors involved in negotiating these kinds of agreements has led some to be weary of the tarsands activism ever rolling out of Vancouver. Berman, who is working intensely behind the scenes with the Tar Sands Solutions Network, which was previously known as the Tar Sands Coalition, denies that a deal with oil companies is in the works.
“If you are asking, ‘Am I looking to negotiate with the oil industry and create some kind of similar collaboration to the work that I’ve done in the past,’ the answer is no,” she said.
Thomas-Muller, who is on the steering committee of the Tar Sands Solutions Network, sees the group not as a deal-making organization, but as a funding source. He maintains that secrecy and discretion around decisions taken in the fight against big oil are merited due to the nature of the enemy. “The process itself is secretive. It has to be; I mean, we’re talking about slowing down and stopping [the tarsands].”
For their part, oil companies active in the tarsands are after an agreement that would allow them to wash their hands of criticism of their environmental and social practices. In an undated document prepared for Suncor Energy Inc. by Stratfor, a U.S. business-intelligence firm (and exposed by Wikileaks), the possibility of negotiation with the coalition is explored, with the best-case scenario described thus: “Industry-wide agreement that is pragmatic and does not stifle development.”
“Pragmatism equals don’t take the position ‘Leave the oil in the ground’ but, rather, take the position ‘Stop expansion,’ ” said David Peerla, a community organizer and writer who closely follows the environmental sector. “‘Stop expansion’ means whatever place the industry got to whenever they cut the deal, that production can continue until the oil runs out, no matter the ongoing environmental costs.”
Regardless of promises not to go to the negotiating table, frontline anti-pipeline blockaders in B.C. have drawn a firm line with regard to collaborating with activists like Berman.
“I despise [Tzeporah Berman], Greenpeace, ForestEthics, and all those other clowns that were behind the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement and the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement,” said Togestiy, a hereditary chief from the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, via cellphone from outside of Smithers. “They took full advantage of aboriginal people and decided to sign deals behind closed doors without those aboriginal people being present.”
Togestiy explained how in the first year of pipeline resistance, when action camps were held, NGOs were invited, but he said they shied away the second year when community members stuck to strong messaging around the tarsands.
“The second year that we ran the camp, the NGOs all kind of backed away from what we were doing because we decided that we were going to be uncompromising and our language was going to be very, very easy and very direct,” he said. “Basically, we just said, ‘No pipelines—no to all pipelines.’ ”
The camps kicked off a blockade on the proposed routes of the Enbridge oil and Pacific Trails gas pipelines that has been ongoing for the past 14 months. The people living at the camp are gearing up for winter by hunting bear, mountain goat, and beaver. They’ve got a smokehouse going and a partly built pit house in the works, manifesting their resistance through the use and occupation of traditional Wet’suwet’en land, which was never ceded to Canada or to the B.C. government.
Time will tell if it’s possible for the old dogs on the environmental scene to learn new tricks, or if, regardless of their promises, a familiar pattern of industry-ENGO collaboration will reappear.
Journalist Naomi Klein, who has recently criticized the big green groups, maintains that a deal is unfathomable. “In my opinion, there is no circumstance in which greens should be negotiating with tarsands operators, and I don’t think that in the current political context any green group could seriously believe they could get away with that again,” she told the Straight by phone.
“The grassroots resistance is too strong.”