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How the US Environmental Movement Strikes Alberta's Oil Patch



The strategy to stifle Alberta oilands was gathered at a hotel near a Minneapolis shopping mall over a decade ago.

It was the fall of 2008, and a group of environmental activists spent part of a conference where brainstorming tactics to slow the growth of oilands – and identified pipelines as the most vulnerable target.

One in particular fit the bill: Keystone XL – a 1,877 kilometer long pipeline to be built by TC Energy that would transport up to 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Hardisty, Alta, to Nebraska, where it would be connected to the company's existing pipeline network .

Their fateful decision at that meeting to throw money and organizational efforts to attack the proposed pipeline opened a difficult new chapter for the oil product.

Now the activists claim victory.

A decade later, Alberta crude oil is increasingly being suffocated from international markets; growth forecasts have been halved; iconic Canadian energy companies reclassify themselves or move headquarters; and parts of western Canada are sinking into talk of separatism.

"Keystone was a turning point"

Several US activists interviewed in recent days cited the tactical decisions made in 2008 as a place for the industry's current misery.

"Keystone was a turning point," said Kenny Bruno, an environmental movement organizer and author who helped shape the antipipeline strategy.

"It really affected the industry – as we thought."

Anthony Swift, head of the Canada project at the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), agrees that the effort at least helped to limit growth, although oil production continues to increase overall.

"We really ended the expansion," Swift said.

Activist Jane Kleeb, on the right, in the Bold Nebraska group, celebrates after US President Barack Obama denied permission to build the Keystone XL pipeline in November 2016. Trump later reversed the decision, but the project remains in limbo. (Nati Harnik / The Associated Press)

Although delays in major oil projects are now fairly common, in 2008 it was almost inconceivable that the United States would reject a pipeline – especially one from Canada, Swift said.

In November of the same year, activists reviewed the protest methods used up to that point and concluded that they needed new tactics.

Bruno said they were talking about protesting at refineries or lobbying industrial users such as shipping companies that might use fuel from Alberta.

However, the problem with targeting refineries and companies was that there were so many of them that changing the behavior of one would have a limited impact. Bruno's oil in a company's fuel supply was also impractical, Bruno said.

But when it came to pipelines, there were only a few large cross-border projects in the works.

The Keystone XL pipeline would bring oil from Hardisty, Alta., To Steele City, Neb. (Natalie Holdway / CBC)

Pipeline still in limbo

Bruno, a New Yorker who has worked for a number of non-governmental climate organizations, including Oil Change, Greenpeace and Corporate Ethics, was among those who advocated that stopping just one pipeline could do disproportionate damage to the industry.

He and others at the meeting identified a pipeline project furthest from completion – Keystone XL, for which a permit application had been filed just weeks earlier, and they reset it as their goal.

"We felt first and foremost that it was linchpin infrastructure for enlargement," Bruno said. "And second, because there were only a few pipelines, if you could stop one, that would be a big deal. … In the first few years, I assumed we would lose the campaign. But you know, I'm a New York Mets – fan. You're still fighting. "

TC Energy's pipeline plant in Hardisty, Alta., The proposed start of the 1km pipeline. (Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press / Associated Press)

Environmental groups have questioned various aspects of the expansion of oil sands over the years, including previous pipeline projects and ecological effects, such as deforestation.

However, what changed at the 2008 meeting was the decision to coordinate efforts and throw all their energy into stopping a project, says Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, a program manager with NRDC who participated in the meeting.

And it worked, she said.

"At that time, [Alberta oil] was seen as the next Gold Rush. Every major oil company in the world was there, she said. "It has changed. And it has changed for several reasons."

Eleven years later – after several court battles, protests along the planned road and outside the White House and several delays, including a rejected presidential permit from then-President Barack Obama – Keystone XL remains in limbo.

Several other pipeline projects have subsequently been halted in the United States and Canada, while others have either been canceled or simply abandoned.

Pull out and delay

An organizer of the first major Washington protest against Keystone XL, Bill McKibben, said the pipeline conflict created a template for future challenges.

He described the broader strategic goal in this way: extracting and delaying projects with fossil fuels and making them more expensive, while alternative energy becomes cheaper.

"Nothing is built for free anymore without much resistance," said McKibben, founder of the 350.org group, which has recently turned its focus on competing banks that fund oil projects.

If activists succeed in delaying fossil fuel projects long enough, clean energy will be cheaper and more viable as an alternative in the meantime, says US environmental activist Bill McKibben. (Chad Pawson / CBC)

"Sometimes we win these fights; sometimes we lose them. But even when we lose them, if you delay these projects a year or two or three years, it's time that engineers need to lower the cost of a solar panel or a wind turbine another 10 , 15, 20 percent, and the economy [for investing in oil] getting worse and worse and worse. "

It would be a wild exaggeration to say that these activists have achieved all their goals.

Global emissions are up and showing no signs of peak as they continue to grow in China. American oil production has more than doubled in several years.

Even Canadian oil production is increasing – it has practically doubled over the past decade.

A Canadian pipeline project, Enbridge's Line 3, is nearing completion. The Trans Mountain expansion and Keystone XL are still in the works.

So can international climate activists really claim that they have lost in Canada's oil sands?

"I don't think they're wrong at all," said Andrew Leach, an energy economist at the University of Alberta. "It's massive … It's made a huge difference."

The tactics could probably be ineffective as a policy to curb climate change – but, he said, it is impossible to deny the protests after Keystone XL helped limit Canada's pipeline capacity, and capacity shortages are one of several factors that are disappearing the oil sands.

US President Donald Trump reversed Obama's rejection of the pipeline with an executive order signed January 24, 2017. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Ongoing legal and other challenges

Despite US President Donald Trump's decision to revive the pipeline project, Keystone XL's problems are not over yet.

It still faces court challenges in Montana from several Native American tribes and environmental groups as well as opposition in Nebraska from dozens of landowners.

The activists' latest strategy for Keystone XL is to delay the project beyond Trump's first term and hope that a Democratic president can cancel the state by 2021.

Clean Energy Barn was built directly in the track for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in Polk, Nebraska, by advocacy group Bold Nebraska. It has solar panels and a wind turbine. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images)

TC Energy, formerly known as TransCanada, said in a recent entry that it remains committed to the pipeline, which would take about two years to build.

"There's just no way they're going to have this [Keystone XL] pipeline built before a new president is elected, "said Nebraska activist Jane Kleeb, founding director of the advocacy group Bold Nebraska.

Kleeb helped connect national climate groups with landowners who fought Keystone XL in their condition.

"People far ahead of me … really planned that if we stopped Keystone XL … that we would start limiting production completely," Kleeb said.

I think what they're really angry about is physics and chemistry. We cannot take all the coal that Alberta wants to sell to the rest of the world.– Bill McKibben, environmental activist

"It is a great achievement that, quite frankly, I do not think anyone completely seizes. They think we were just struggling with a pipeline."

Vivian Krause sees it differently. The Canadian has been named to write and lecture critically about US funding for Canadian environmental organizations, saying that the protests have done nothing to help the planet and much to enrich the protest movement as an industry.

Krause, who has a blog called Fair Questions, said she has compiled tax records showing that a single organization, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, has spent $ 4.5 million in grants since 2007 on the Tar Sands campaign and that money flowed to the the non-governmental organizations that opposed Keystone XL.

A protest from Native Americans, ranchers and politicians who opposed the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in Pierre, S.D., in October 2014. American Native American tribes in South Dakota and Montana have launched lawsuits against the project. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images)

She said she started to compile the financial data as a hobby but now gets paid to deliver presentations to companies in the energy, banking and business sectors.

If environmental groups cared about greenhouse gases, Krasue said, they would have moved on from fighting Alberta after the provincial NDP government in Rachel Notley implemented the emissions cap.

"Why are you still beating Alberta?" She said. "It has not kept oil in the ground. … I think it is a wrong strategy."

She said the main effect of the pipeline battles has been to encourage energy investment in the United States rather than Canada.

US activists inspired by Canadian opposition to oil sands

The American groups insist that they struggle with projects wherever they can – and do not release the oil sands, as the Alberta government accuses them of doing so.

Kleeb said she feels sympathy for Alberta oil workers who can't trust Keystone for jobs but have no regrets about their cause.

In her opinion, the delays of the pipeline have protected Nebraska's ownership and forced necessary conversations about the energy future.

Swift and McKibben also take exception to a frequently repeated suggestion that it was primarily Americans who lead the fight against Canadian oil.

First Nations protesters gather on the front steps of the British Columbia legislature during a demonstration against the Northern Gateway Pipeline project in Victoria in October 2012. US activists say their protest movement was partly inspired by Canadian protests against pipelines. (Andy Clark / Reuters)

Swift, McKibben, Bruno and Casey-Lefkowitz all said they first heard concerns about the expansion of oil sands in the 21st century from domestic and environmental activists in Canada.

"These are the heroes of this story," said McKibben, who used to live in Canada and even attended class with former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

He dismissed some of the frustration in the oil package as a "rage" stemming from having to confront the reality that it is impossible to achieve global emission targets and still fully develop the oil sands.

"I think what they're really angry about is physics and chemistry," he said. "We can't take all the coal that Alberta wants to sell to the rest of the world."


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