When Canada threatens to send tar sand to China should Obama fail to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, they're talking about governments and corporations. Why does this picture leave out the global community of environmental activists?
I mentioned to a colleague of mine this week that I’d be participating in the Keystone XL protest. While he was supportive, he didn’t think it would matter much in terms of global emissions since China would be all too happy to take that sweet sweet bitumen off our hands. The Washington Post editorial a few days ago echoes the sentiment:
We asked John Baird — Canada’s new foreign minister — which nations would buy oil that America decided not to take. His answer was quick and unequivocal: the Chinese. New pipeline infrastructure will transport oil between the tar sands and Canada’s west coast, from which tankers can ship it across the Pacific Ocean. And, even now, Chinese firms are buying stakes in Canadian tar sands.I was going to write about why WaPo and the Canadian government were so wrong, why the Northern Gateway isn’t actually a viable option, but Elizabeth Shope beat me to the punch in her excellent article yesterday. Read it again - she methodically counters much of the hearsay about Canada's ability to reach the Chinese market and highlights the incredible work of First Nations communities there in preventing the pipeline. It's clear from her piece and others that the industry is betting all its chips on Keystone XL:
For the oil patch, the possibility that the XL project will falter is so outside expectations that many haven’t even considered it. Indeed, companies have already signed up for the majority of its capacity.But for the sake of argument, let’s suppose TransCanada does have a viable back-up plan. Even if that were the case, our actions next week would still be necessary because our resolve expresses solidarity with those fighting similar battles in other places. And these battles are many, and growing.
“None of us are really planning for that,” Devon Canada president Chris Seasons said.
Just last weekend in China, thousands of protesters managed to convince the government to shut down a petrochemical plant in the city of Dalian. The Chinese government of late has not been kind to the growing grassroots activism in the country so their backing down on the plant seems to betray a worry that the Dalian protest might throw fuel on smoldering anxieties elsewhere.
In May, Grist reported on the staggering size of protests in the “developing” world as coal companies have begun ramping up production there. From Bangladesh and Colombia to India and the Philippines, people are successfully pressuring governments and corporations to scrap or delay new projects.
In the fertile farming areas that support large rural populations in much of Asia, the new coal boom spells civil conflict, as fields are seized, villages are ordered to pack up and leave, and communities resist. For the U.S. coal movement, the 2,500 people who turned out to protest the Capitol Power Plant was a large number. In India or Bangladesh, marches and demonstrations of more than 10,000 people are not uncommon.
Nigeria has faced the most horrific consequences of oil production for decades. Amnesty International reports that “people in the region have experienced oil spills on par with the Exxon Valdez disaster every year for the last half century”. A UN report released this month estimated that it would require the largest environmental cleanup effort ever, anywhere, to contain the damage. Legal fights on behalf of villagers and decades of protests have failed to hold oil companies, particularly Shell and Chevron, truly accountable. Things are so desperate that one umbrella militant group in the region, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), has blown up pipelines, kidnapped workers on oil rigs and planted bombs in government buildings. Sandra Cioffi, a documentary filmmaker doesn't think they should be written off though.
There’s been some controversy about whether MEND is mostly a criminal, corrupt gang of thugs or a legitimate political resistance. I would urge everyone to consider that it’s not a spectator sport, how this will play out. There are, like in any situation where there’s so much abuse and so much cash, there are criminal and political elements. But if there is credible international mediation, then the criminal elements will be marginalized, and the political elements will be more legitimized inside Nigeria.
The industry promise of "jobs" domestically and corresponding call for "development" in poor countries clearly isn't convincing these diverse, global actors. Our own fight against the Keystone XL taps into this awakening consciousness.
One of the most important things the environmental movement can do is show that our national affinities are less important than our shared planetary future. This is not about China vs. the US and who gets to have the oil in the end. It’s about joining a global grassroots movement that recognizes common humanity across borders. We have no other choice.