Block the Flows: Defeating Tar Sands in the U.S. and Canada

by Anonymous

Block the Flows -- illustration by Ben Passmore Across North America, people are mobilizing to choke off the flow of Tar Sands oil, a disastrous project that aims to consolidate massive State and corporate power. Recently the US presidential election was used to pressure Obama into temporarily halting the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Tar Sands oil from Canada to refineries and ports in the Gulf of Mexico. Nevertheless, a permit is all that’s preventing this pipeline from crossing the border, and it appears Obama, corporate lackey that he is, will soon capitulate.(1) We must urgently reinforce the blockades and material bases, our greatest defense against the Tar Sands project.

This is an opportunity for us to act in solidarity with the Indigenous-led resistance to the Northern Gateway pipeline in British Columbia as well as those fighting the Eastern Gateway in Quebec, Ontario and Maine. Effective resistance against Tar Sands pipelines in the US will be decisive in stopping the overall project, while also helping create the models and movements needed to confront dangerous infrastructure projects in the future. What follows are more details and context for the largest proposed US Tar Sands oil pipeline, the Keystone XL.

The Tar Sands “Gigaproject” is the largest industrial project in human history and possibly the most destructive. The impact of Tar Sands’ strip-mining procedures on the environment alone is staggering: By releasing at least three times the CO2 emissions as regular oil production, it is slated to become the single largest North American contributor to climate change.(2) For the uninitiated, climate change—more appropriately known as climate catastrophe—will make life on earth untenable in the coming decades due to rising waters and rampant desertification.

In Alberta, where the Tar Sands are located, companies have already seized and begun strip-mining lands the Canadian government had previously guaranteed to First Nations communities. Altogether the area slated for mining is a landmass the size of Florida. In order for these companies to develop it all, however, the glut of tar sands oil must be able to reach ports so it can be sold on the global market. To this end, a sinister conglomerate of corporations are working on three vast pipeline routes to transport their product east, west and south (these pipelines effectively function as bottlenecks to the entire project, a point I’ll return to later). Completed, the pipelines would pass through the lands of yet more First Nations tribes as well as many farming communities.

What will be in these pipelines? Not oil, but something even worse: bitumen, a dense, grainy material that needs substantial further treatment at refineries to become oil. To transport it through pipelines, bitumen is mixed with dilutants—not so different from those BP recklessly dumped in the Gulf three years ago to cover up their oil disaster. Bitumen and dilutants combined make a byproduct known as “dilbit”, a cocktail of corrosive chemicals that regularly ruptures pipelines, the most recent case being last month outside of Little Rock, Arkansas when an Exxon pipeline flooded a suburban community with hundreds of thousands of gallons of this mess. Spills such as these contaminate soil and waterways, and when ingested causes the same permanent respiratory problems suffered by so many who lived or worked near BP’s oil spill.

Fear of such spills is what’s motivating many farmers in Nebraska to oppose the Keystone XL, which TransCanada originally proposed would cross their water supply. While pro-pipeline PR scum shamelessly promote “job creation”, these farmers have pointed out the multitudinous threat to people’s ways of life posed by the contamination of the Ogallala aquifer. Yielding 30 percent of the water needed for all US agriculture and most of the drinking water in the High Plains region, contamination of this water source is a sweeping concern for nearly everyone—except of course the ruling class.

As mentioned before, the Tar Sands pipelines are bottlenecks to the consolidation of power. Thus the task is simple: “If we can shut in the oil, we can bankrupt the mines.”(3) Case in point is the Northern Gateway’s Pacific Trails pipeline: Intended to transport bitumen across the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean, it met an impassable wall of First Nations communities united under the Yinka-Denee Alliance. This alliance has stated bitumen will not cross First Nations territory, effectively crippling a huge portion of the Tar Sands operation and sending companies scrambling to push through the Eastern and Southern Gateways in hopes of saving the project.

To better understand the Tar Sands project, it helps to put it in the context of Canada’s broader plan for resource extraction. In hopes of repositioning Canada in the global economy, President Stephen Harper is leading an open season on resource-rich First Nations lands through massive legislative packages that weaken environmental laws, making possible projects like Tar Sands and Quebec’s hyper-exploitative Plan Nord. The subsequent toxic waterways, poverty and community destruction will require the very public services that recent legislation has cut. What will become of the displaced? The state has increased funding for only one sector: prisons.

In the largest show of resistance to Harper’s legislation and resource extraction projects, Indigenous peoples across North America and their allies(4) are coming together under the banner of Idle No More. Beginning in November 2012, Idle No More went straight for the arteries of capital by blockading major Canadian highways and railways, which native peoples rightly view as oppressive for their role in transporting resources stolen from First Nations territories. Since the first blockades, dozens of traditional Round Dance flash mobs have been used to disrupt consumerism in its cathedrals, flooding shopping centers with people and noise. Countless Idle No More actions of this sort have happened throughout Canada as well as in the United States– in South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Minnesota, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma among others.

The US saw its first pipeline blockade back in March 2012, immediately after Obama gave TransCanada the go-ahead to build the Keystone XL pipeline through East Texas. From the start, the Tar Sands Blockade (TSB), a coalition of radicals and residential Texans, was tree-sitting, locking down to machinery, calling for large mobilizations and generally disrupting pipeline construction. Those first actions spurred anti-Tar Sands direct action elsewhere, including Houston, where there have been protests and lockdowns against Tar Sands refineries, and in other states, including Montana and Idaho where oversized shipments called megaloads were blocked from transporting huge Tar Sands extraction equipment.

Unfortunately, the TSB encampments were broken-up last November by Texas police and judges and since then there has been little action in the region. But where TSB left off, the struggle in Oklahoma is escalating thanks to a promising coalition known as the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance (GPTSR). Though most of my knowledge about this organization is limited to what they have on their website, I’m recommending them to those who want to get involved in the blockades for a few reasons:

1. GPTSR is taking direct action against the Keystone XL’s construction. Rather than wasting time appealing to the ruling class’ nonexistent conscience, GPTSR is discovering the only way to prevent these bastards from destroying the earth: blocking the flow of capital directly.

2. GPTSR states its explicit support for Indigenous Peoples — on the other hand they don’t seem to have much interest in the predominantly liberal mainstream movement. From this point we may deduce a couple of things: they have a strong analysis of Tar Sands development’s inherent racism, and they’ve placed a premium on autonomy.

3. GPTSR states they do not condemn any form of resistance — this is a refreshing change from Tar Sands Blockade’s policy, which they unfortunately adopted from “Occupy Spring”, a Democratic Party front-group established by to co-opt the Occupy movement. While TSB did a great job of igniting Keystone XL resistance, their “non-violence” policy hindered the movement by refusing solidarity to anyone using even slightly confrontational methods of resistance. It is foolish for a struggle that aims to stop pipeline to reject tactics such as waving survey stakes to ward off hostile sheriffs or pouring sugar into the tanks of construction equipment. GPTSR is far better off without this absurd rulebook, which in this case was literally written by liberals.

4. They could use your support. And judging by their points of unity they deserve it. Again I don’t know a whole lot about this group, but they’re trying to blockade, something that with a few dozen determined folks could make a tangible impact on the outcome of the movement.

Finally, some mention of the protests in DC. These increasingly large mobilizations meant to pressure Obama are one of the defining features of the movement. Unfortunately their true potential has been limited to playing the futile games the State provides: sanctioned marches, choreographed mass arrests, truth-to-power speeches, etc. In doing so they’re missing invaluable opportunities for gaining mass appeal via literal disruptions of DC, which, as the political heart of America’s global tyranny, everyone wants to see in turmoil.

The last of the DC mobilizations in February 2013 saw an unprecedented 50,000 people marching against the Keystone XL, toxic colonialism, capitalism and climate change. The crowd was a mixture of anarchists, environmental socialists and students rallied by Bill McKibben’s scientific campaign, among others. Even those at the corrupt Sierra Club(5) miraculously recovered use of their spines for the event, embracing civil disobedience tactics for the first time in their 120-year career.

Nevertheless the DC mobilizations’ only audible voices continue to be those of the movement managers with their peaceful appeals to and quiet demands of their beloved, ill-disposed president. Were this disconnect between the severity of the situation and the movement’s unwarranted peacefulness to be subverted everything would undoubtedly take a huge turn for the better. The conditions already exist for a disruption of DC; now it’s only a matter of small but determined autonomous groups intervening in the situation with their own plan of action to tip the scales.

In terms of numbers the Tar Sands movement has massive support. What it needs now is to intensify and strengthen its marches and blockades, not to mention the completely untapped cyber front, e.g. hacking corporate and state websites and databases. Now is the time to support the movement via greater autonomous organization and attack. The compromised organizational practices so prevalent in D.C. simply won’t suffice to stop Tar Sands, much less help set the stage for a broader struggle against capitalist ecocide. As we’ve seen with the Idle No More Movement and to some extent the blockade in East Texas, a solidarity that encompasses “diversity of tactics” is the best chance at building effective resistance and halting altogether the contemptible Tar Sands project.

1 The State Department, TransCanada’s last hurdle before the president, has already reapproved the pipeline, calling it “environmentally sound”. As if this wasn’t bullshit enough, it was recently discovered that the actual writing of the report was outsourced to a private contractor who is also in the pay of TransCanada.

2 For a more comprehensive list of the myriad the ways Tar Sands is a threat to people’s lives and the earth, check out

3 Quote taken from an anonymously written essay on, “Tar Sands Pipelines as Bottle-necks against the Consolidation of Power in Canada.” With a focus on Southern Ontario’s Line 9 Reversal, this essay provides a detailed analysis of the Tar Sands project and the strategic value of blocking pipelines.

4 In Vancouver in January 2013, anarchists used defensive black bloc tactics
to keep police at bay during a march against private hearings for pipeline
company Enbridge.

5 The Sierra Club’s most recent double-dealings involved them partnering with and accepted tens of millions of dollars from the fossil fuels industry, New York’s tyrannical billionaire Mayor Bloomberg, and Bank of America in exchange for “greenwashing” these institutions & individuals’ public images.