Priyanka Vittal and Jesse Firempong: Big Oil’s climate cop-out

How Canada's fossil fuel giants are buying influence with police departments to do their dirty work in pipeline fights on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border

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      For sci-fi writers, worldbuilding often means dreaming up the vivid and terrifying settings where dystopian stories unfold. In 2021 amid a global pandemic, however, dystopia is a matter of perspective. 

      As the coronavirus drives this year’s Earth Day events indoors, the chilling effects of climate change have never been clearer. 

      Black, brown, and Indigenous peoples among us were already confronting nightmarish realities before COVID-19: acts of environmental racism and violence to protect a dying oil and gas industry’s profits.

      But as the need for a green recovery and climate action post-pandemic becomes self-evident, there’s a more insidious reality at work—the growing influence of corporate interests on law enforcement. As calls to defund police grow louder, experts warn that the danger is police will begin treating corporations as a “fall-back strategy” to bolster their budgets.  

      In sci-fi terms, it’s a little more like the corporate crime control of Robocop than Mad Max. 

      But it’s a dystopian blockbuster that’s already playing out with scenes of violence in Canada. 

      Some of these acts are easy to spot, like the Vancouver police’s violent arrest of the Braided Warriors in February over their opposition to insurance companies that offer coverage of the Trans Mountain pipeline. The group has gathered testimonials of the arrests to present to the United Nations Human Rights Council. 

      Canada has a long history of displacing Indigenous peoples from their land as part of the colonial accumulation of resources—most notably during the 1990 Oka Crisis at Ipperwash in Ontario and the Clayoquot protests in B.C. But the story of law enforcement being weaponized against its own citizens has taken a new turn.

      Last summer, an investigation by the B.C.-based Tyee revealed that Enbridge, Imperial Oil, and LNG Canada had donated millions of dollars to the Vancouver and Calgary police foundations. 

      Alongside “community programming”, the money was reportedly used to pay for police vehicles, drones, tactical gear, and surveillance technology. 

      Moreover, several individuals with oil industry credentials, including Shell Canada’s president, also sit on the boards of police foundations.

      All of which calls into question whether the industry is buying influence. 

      It’s happening south of the border, where the likes of Chevron and Shell—who are involved in pushing environmental and health inequities in Black and brown communities—are showing up as donors to police foundations in Washington, Seattle, New Orleans, Chicago, and Salt Lake City.

      The fossil fuel industry in Canada already relies on law enforcement to enforce civil injunctions to stop blockades and occupations in response to oil and gas projects. As criminologists point out, enforcement of injunctions can be arbitrary, giving law enforcement broad powers to arrest people. 

      While injunctions are meant to be an extraordinary legal remedy, in many cases police basically act as corporations’ private security, instead of as state actors protecting citizens. The RCMP’s brutal removal of Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders from blockades over their decade-long opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline project has become an annual flashpoint of controversy. The RCMP’s actions led to cross-country blockades of rail lines before the pandemic struck last year. 

      More recently, we’ve seen injunctions brought against the Nuluujaaq Land Guardians struggle against the proposed expansion of the Mary River iron ore mine in Nunavut, where dust from the operation is threatening plants and wildlife.

      South of the border, there are already concerns that industry, including Canadian companies, are “incentivizing” cash-strapped police units to stifle opposition to pipelines. Reporting by environmental newsletter HEATED and local sources found that Minnesota police invoiced Canadian oil company Enbridge for batons, gas masks, “protestor extraction” gear, and other equipment, along with 7,500 hours of police patrol time at construction sites for its Line 3 tar sands pipeline.

      At the same time, we’re seeing Alberta and Manitoba emulate U.S. laws developed in part by industry-affiliated groups to introduce criminal penalties for people who trespass on “critical infrastructure” like oil pipelines or refineries. Alberta’s new Critical Infrastructure Defence Act is so broad that experts say someone could be arrested for peacefully protesting on a public sidewalk.

      The laws present serious civil liberties problems. But law enforcement actions on behalf of industry go beyond their physical presence at sites of conflict. That the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service have been actively spying on Indigenous and environmental activists is an open secret. But the lines between law enforcement and industry have been further blurred in recent years. Not only do the government and law enforcement agencies share information gathered with one another, they share it with oil and gas companies.

      Just as disturbing is the growing use by police of artificial intelligence to track protesters on social media on behalf of the energy industry, possibly violating privacy and security rights.

      So who watches the watchers? 

      The answer is that just like the Black Lives Matter movement spawned new ideas about public safety, we need to enact legal safeguards against unethical partnerships and make sure our political representatives prevent the criminalization of peaceful protest. 

      With police spending reaching $15 billion annually in Canada, as settlers we can do our part to dismantle the harmful notion that oil infrastructure somehow deserves more protection than Indigenous land rights. 

      In A Roadmap To Police Free Futures In Canada, Black feminist educator Robyn Maynard writes that defunding police “is part of a broader political vision that is rooted in reimagining public safety.” In other words, a kind of worldbuilding. 

      If we can imagine entirely new possibilities for how life on this planet could be, then we can build them.

      Priyanka Vittal is the Toronto-based staff lawyer at Greenpeace Canada. Jesse Firempong is a climate justice communicator at Greenpeace and a climate justice activist based in B.C.