Recently I finished reading Jacques Poitras’ Pipe Dreams, which focuses on the story of the failed plans for the Energy East pipeline. In the book Poitras strives for a balanced perspective of the politics and conflict around the pipeline, and mentions other pipeline plans, such as Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain. Poitras also digs into some of the history around the fraught situation of indigenous peoples and capitalist development, from the Sand Hills in Saskatchewan to Shoal Lake in Ontario. Poitras also reviews the story of the CPR and its impact on indigenous peoples as an eerie echo of how colonization and capitalism today evoke the same dynamics of imperalism from the past. Elsipogtog, Grassy Narrows, the Chipeywan downstream of Fort McMurray. Examples still abound that continue to demonstrate the willingness of any branch of Canadian government to continue the project of violent colonization, ignoring the rights of indigenous peoples and pursuing the facilitation of capitalist development. Poitras’ book is by no means a critical work of political economy, but it does trace the path of Energy East through the lens of a journalist attempting, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to not ‘take sides’.
The story of Energy East – or really of any pipeline meant to bring more bitumen from Alberta to market – is more than one of a continual colonial treading on the rights and lives of indigenous people, as deplorable as that is on its own. Prime Minister Trudeau’s avowed intent to pursue reconciliation with indigenous peoples in our corner of Turtle Island is at best, ironic, and at worst, violently hypocritical when it comes to the impacts that more bitumen pipelines can have on indigenous communities, in British Columbia or elsewhere.
As James Hansen made clear in 2013, increased exploitation of the bitumen deposits in Alberta are ‘game over‘ when it comes to the necessity for humanity to mitigate climate change.
There’s really no simpler way to sum up the situation than that.
Fossil fuel industry proponents have consistently argued against incorporating climate impacts into evaluations of pipeline projects through the National Energy Board (NEB), yet the increase in bitumen extraction that would go along with the construction equates with increased oil getting to market, which of course means increased carbon emissions. Further extraction of the bitumen resources in Alberta, however lucrative this is for the fossil fuel section of the energy industry, is dangerous for us all, and not just in our corner of Turtle Island, but across this fragile, beautiful planet of ours.
The fossil fuel industry and its wealthy owners – true to capitalist function – are desperate to make as much money as possible from fuels that we know very well are pushing the planet further to climate disaster. Meanwhile the hypocrisy of our leaders – particularly in the Canadian state, from my point of view – grows more rank by the day, not least in the government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline, and its subsequent predictable green-lighting of the project through the laughably sycophantic proxy of the oil sector known as the NEB. Despite the growing number of more urgent warnings from scientists, despite aspirational pledges made at important international gatherings, our governments continue to facilitate increased fossil fuel extraction and exploration, and this has to stop.
With renewable energies catching up in terms of affordability, we need to move our communities and societies, our nations toward renewable energy infrastructure that does not further threaten our planet in the form of climate impacts. We need to keep our energy infrastructure public, so that we don’t wind up paying more for it, in the form of returns to capitalist owners. We need to use our resources to fund the things that are important to the safety and viability of people and planet, such as public health care, education and other social services, adequate civil infrastructure for water, public transit, electricity.
Most importantly with respect to progress on climate, however, is our need to challenge the fossil capitalists and our pliant, enabling fossil fuel industry-supporting governments and politicians. We cannot have progress on mitigating climate, on reducing emissions, if we continue to support, indirectly or directly, the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure. We should be pushing collectively toward renewable energy infrastructure, and it is up to us as citizens to demand this from our leaders.
When fossil fuel proponents reply by saying we need oil no matter what, that we need to drive fossil fuel automobiles and use fossil fuels for transportation and electricity, our reply needs to be: why? Why can’t we build a renewable infrastructure? Why can’t we invest in a sustainable future? Why are we allowing ourselves – as a society, as a nation, as a global community – to be held hostage by fossil fuel interests that proclaim they support the common good, when in fact, they are pushing us toward climate catastrophe?
We need to try to alter our common trajectory toward a sustainable future. In trying to do this, we have nothing to lose but the chains our our fossil fuel-based past, dominated as it is by powerful capitalist players. We can build something different, something public, something that will truly benefit all of us, ALL of us, in the long run.