The Feeblest Head of the Hydra: Oil Spills = Occupations

By Loki Coyote

I started researching this article while at Standing Rock, after learning that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had approved a $7.5 billion pipeline project to replace Line 3. At the time, I didn’t even know such a proposal was on the table. In so-called Canada, the Kinder Morgan and Energy East pipelines have gotten the lion’s share of media attention.

My first thought when I saw the map of the pipeline route was that it seemed calculated to run through areas where the environmental movement is weakest and where anti-oil activism would be most unpopular. My second thought was to ask myself what I could do to help stop it. I think that in more hostile political climates it’s even more important that local organizers know that they have the support of a broader movement.

By the time I’d read a few articles I was excited about the possibilities of this campaign. Basically, Line 3 is an aging pipeline that has reached the end of its life-span. You could also call it a ticking time bomb. My point here is that if the Line 3 replacement project is stopped, and if Line 3 is taken off-line, then for the first time in the history of the anti-pipeline movement, we won’t simply be stopping them from expanding their capacity, we’ll actually be reducing it. We’ll be turning the tide.

This isn’t just about Line 3, though, nor even just about fighting the oil and gas. Stopping a new pipeline doesn’t make the world a better place – it just keeps it from getting worse. I don’t know about you, but I’m thirsty for something more. In the second half of this article, I’ll delve into some ruminations on the revolutionary possibilities of anti-pipeline resistance. I know attention spans aren’t what they used to be, but if you’re curious, come along for a ramble…

What is Line 3?

Enbridge’s Line 3 Replacement Project is a $7.5-billion-dollar project, slated to run southeast from Hardisty, Alberta (near Edmonton), through Saskatchewan, Manitoba, North Dakota, and Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin, on the western tip of Lake Superior. The original 34-inch pipeline was built in 1968. The new pipeline would be 36 inches and could carry 760,000 barrels per day (bpd).

This project would be the most expensive in Enbridge’s history. The line is currently transporting about 390,000 bpd, far below its maximum throughput of 760,000 bpd. Its flow has been restricted for safety reasons.

Bizarrely, in this case Enbridge wants to convince regulators how unsafe Line 3 is. According to expert testimony the company provided to Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission, the corrosion and cracking is so extensive that further use could cause calamitous leaks.

How bad is it? Enbridge says that half the joints are corroding, and that it has five times more stress cracks per mile than other pipelines in the same corridor. It was originally made with defective steel and the welding was done with outdated technology. One worker called keeping it safe “a game of whack-a-mole.”

According to Enbridge, “Approximately 4,000 integrity digs [invasive pipeline inspections] in the US alone are currently forecasted for Line 3 over the next 15 years to maintain its current level of operation. This would result in year-after-year impacts to landowners and the environment. On average, 10-15 digs are forecasted per mile on Line 3 if it is not replaced…”

Enbridge is staring down the clock right now, as the US Justice Department ordered the company back in July to replace the entire pipeline by December 2017 or commit to substantial safety upgrades to the existing line. That decree is part of a settlement the company reached after a massive 2010 spill of 3.8 million litres (around 80,000 gallons) of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.

Although Enbridge is replacing Line 3 because they have to, they’re also looking to slip something past the public. Not only does the proposed “replacement” up the capacity of the pipeline, it also would allow it to transport tar sands. Currently, Line 3 carries “light” crude oil—which is largely drawn from Western Canada’s conventional oil fields—but a completed Line 3 replacement would allow Enbridge to carry diluted bitumen across the border. This project hasn’t had to jump the political hurdles of other border-crossing tar sands pipelines, like the Keystone XL, and already has a presidential permit.

The new line would run parallel to the existing Line 3 for most of its route, but would take a different route for the final 300 kilometres (around 185 miles) between Clearbrook, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin. And, oh yeah, the original pipeline would be decommissioned and left in the ground.

So, let’s recap. This “replacement” doubles the capacity for Line 3, changes the product to be shipped, follows a different route, and the pipeline that it will “replace” will remain in the ground. Don’t you love living in the age of persuasion?

Honor the Earth, an indigenous-led NGO based in Minnesota, ain’t having it. From their website: “Enbridge wants to simply abandon its existing Line 3 pipeline and walk away from it, because it has over 900 “structural anomalies,” and build a brand new line in this new corridor. If this new corridor is established, we expect Enbridge to propose building even more pipelines in it. We cannot allow that.”

Resistance in Minnesota

Thanks to the amazing work of Honor the Earth and other activists in Minnesota, things are looking good for the campaign against Line 3. Here’s a breakdown:

The conservationist group Friends of the Headwaters was formed to divert Line 3 from northern Minnesota’s wild rice lakes. They proposed a longer pipeline that would carve further south through agricultural lands. State law requires pipeline companies to submit a simple environmental review of proposed projects. Three years ago, when Enbridge first brought up the Line 3 replacement, they intended to study their chosen site only. Friends of the Headwaters insisted that they also study feasible routes outside the Mississippi River Headwaters area.

A lengthy lawsuit ensued, and in December of 2015 the Minnesota Supreme Court sided with environmentalists. Enbridge was ordered to complete a more comprehensive assessment, including alternate routes.

Minnesota is currently writing its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Line 3, after months of battle over what the study would include and who would perform the analyses. The draft EIS was scheduled for April 2017 and the public will be able to comment at public hearings. A final permit decision is expected in spring of 2018.

As soon as Minnesota’s Environmental Impact Statement is released, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy plans to continue fighting Line 3 in court. So, given all of these factors, for sure Enbridge will fail to meet the project’s December 2017 deadline. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Let’s be real, though. There’s a shit-ton of money at stake here. I find it hard to imagine regulators taking a 390,000 bpd pipeline off-line. I’m not aware of a major pipeline ever having been taken off-line because it is old and unsafe. One example of such a pipeline is the TransNorthern pipeline in Eastern Canada. Back in November, a trio of Quebecois women shut down this pipeline through a lockdown action. They did so to bring attention to the fact that even members of the National Energy Board (NEB) have recommended that this pipeline, which was built in the 1950s, be decommissioned. TransNorthern continues to operate despite its inability to comply with the improvements the NEB ordered the company to make.

It would be great if Line 3 were shut down by the state of Minnesota, but it is equally possible that Line 3 will spill, and that when it does an army of pundits will pin the blame on environmentalists for delaying Line 3’s replacement. Remember Lac Megantic? An oil train blew up a town in Quebec, killing 47 people, and the next day media spin doctors were using the disaster to argue for pipelines, since oil-by-rail obviously isn’t safe. These bastards have no shame.

This brings us to a reality that we will probably have to deal with in the near future. As pipeline infrastructure ages, the public will be presented with a new choice—shiny new pipelines or old, rusted-out, leaky ones. This is a classic double bind, a false choice designed to force acceptance of something undesired. You know, like democracy. Perversely, environmentalists may stand accused of causing oil spills. Activists will reject this logic, but it may be seductive to centrists and pre-fabricated-thought-thinkers. It might be wise to think of a counter-narrative to this.

The reality remains that Line 3 might spill before it gets shut down. My guess would be that Enbridge will get an extension beyond December 2017 and continue operating. And it’s certain that other pipelines will rupture.

A New Approach

What if, instead of occupying to stop a pipeline from being built, land defenders used the event of an oil spill to shut down a pipeline? Though it’s probably undesirable to occupy the site of a spill, this could be accomplished by occupying a site of critical importance for the functioning of the line, such as a pumping station or valve, and preventing workers from accessing it. There would be several advantages to this strategy.

First, when there is an oil spill, a pipeline is already shut down. Though a slew of recent direct actions targeting valves have shown that it is certainly possible to autonomously shut down pipelines safely, it would be easier and less psychologically taxing to keep a pipeline off-line than to shut one down.

Second, an oil spill packs an emotional punch. I maintain that it is emotion, not rational thought, that inspires action. To most people, the petroleum economy is so normal that it takes a change in consciousness to interrupt their acceptance of it. It provides a moment where anti-pipeline direct action will be broadly understood, drawing sympathizers and supporters out of the woodwork. Artful anarchist propaganda makes radical ideas seem like common sense, and this argument sort of makes itself: If a pipeline is disaster-prone, it should be shut down.

Third, if we’re shutting down active pipelines, we’re not merely stopping the expansion of the oil and gas industry, we’re forcing its shrinkage. We’re seizing the initiative away from the capitalists. We are busting the operative myth of statecraft—that we do not have a choice.

Fourth, this switches the focus away from the sort of thinking that presents one issue as the be-all and end-all of ecological activism. There are over 200,000 miles of pipelines criss-crossing Turtle Island. There is a potential front-line just about everywhere. This shifts focus closer to home, and also ideally would lead to situations where there the tactic becomes normalized, because it is happening all over the place.

Lastly, everything that we can do to increase the political and economic risk of pipeline ruptures to corporations is good. If spills come with higher consequences for companies, they will have more incentive to prevent them. Some famous squatting graffiti in Spain read EVICTIONS = RIOTS. In two years, could we say OIL SPILLS = OCCUPATIONS?

From Temporary Autonomous Zones to Permanent Autonomous Zones

I am hoping that the Line 3 campaign leads to something akin to the resistance at Standing Rock, but which draws on some of the lessons of that fight. It’s long been my belief that resistance to industrial capitalism should go hand-in-hand with the creation of autonomous communities able to survive and thrive independent of the fossil fuel economy, and that blockades provide a moment where the impossible suddenly becomes possible, where we can strike at the heart of capitalism by collectively defying the illusion of property that holds the whole system in place.

My political goal is the creation of a federation of autonomous communes able to meet their own needs independent of the fossil fuel economy.

For that reason, I went to Standing Rock in hopes that others felt similarly, and there was a will amongst many people to reclaim treaty land and to create a permanent autonomous community on the site. Alas, the site wasn’t ideal, both because the Oceti Sakowin/Oceti Oyate camp was on a floodplain, and because it was on a sacred burial ground.

Some settlers will feel uncomfortable with the whole notion of approaching moments of opportunity created by indigenous-led resistance campaigns with any agenda at all. Aren’t non-native allies supposed to take direction from native people? To this, I’ll reply with a story.

Unbeknownst to most people, after the anti-fracking movement in Mik’mak’i (in so-called New Brunswick) was successful and most people went home, the occupation continued. There was a small group of extremely committed people who tried to do exactly what I am advocating here—to turn a resistance camp into a permanent eco-community. Some of those people were native, some Acadian, and some settler. They made it through the winter and the spring. My partner and I were there in the spring and we started a garden with the help of a Mi’kmaq elder. It was a beautiful moment, in a beautiful place. A beautiful dream.

The local support was overwhelmingly evident, if passive. When the camp needed money, they’d simply do a road block fundraiser, allowing cars to pass one at a time and asking for a toll. Most people, native and settler, would donate. One day, in the weirdest busking experience of my life, my partner and I added a fire show to the whole bizarre spectacle. I remember thinking, Goddamn I love this corner of the Maritimes—where else in the world would this even make sense?

In the end, the dream was given up because of interpersonal conflicts, but by that time it had already stopped advancing because the occupiers didn’t have the know-how or the resources to build permanent structures. They didn’t feel that other people, who had been so active in the camp when it was the place to be, cared enough to help them build their dreamed-of community. To them it was the natural next step, and it hurt them that others couldn’t see that. It still saddens me that that dream remains unrealized, and in my memory it will go down as a missed opportunity that strengthens my resolve to be prepared for the next moment of unforeseeable potential.

As a side note, some of the Acadians who were involved in that did go on to start a land project in the woods of Mi’kmak’i, which they started in large part to acquire the skills that would have allowed them to succeed in the first place. That place, located within the legendary Cocagne vortex, is, to me, one enduring legacy of the resistance at Elsipogtog.

Also, realistically, most people who come to a front line aren’t going to decide to live there long-term. For the revolutionary movement that I envision to emerge, folks would have to be willing to actually continue to live in a liberated zone after all the action has died down. This part of the theory’s untested. Do enough people actually want to live in off-grid communities throughout the four seasons?

Well, surely when the crisis deepens and matters of survival become much more pronounced, we’ll do what we need to do. That’s the best hope I’ve got; that we will succeed where so many previous generations of radicals haven’t, not because we’re smarter or braver, but because we have to. The survival instinct is a powerful thing.

As the ideologies of liberal democracy and infinite growth show themselves to be the shams that they are, more and more people are going to be looking for answers. I don’t have many answers, but I see the creation of autonomous zones as a realistic goal. We can start now. Standing Rock is an autonomous zone. The ZADs in France are autonomous zones. Such liberated territories give us opportunities to learn, to experiment, to put ideas into practice, to make connections based on shared values, and to inspire ourselves and others through direct experience. It’s only though experimentation, through trial and error, through blood, sweat, and tears that we’ll learn how to be free. Standing Rock provided thousands of people with hands-on experience in a laboratory of freedom. Such experiences are transformational, and are preparing us for what is to come.

Rapid Response

My goal is to connect the current political moment with the vision that many eco-anarchists hold—that is, the creation of interdependent autonomous communes able to survive and thrive independent of the fossil fuel economy.

So, let’s start thinking about how we might get to that point. What would it take?

At Standing Rock I put a ton of energy building and winterizing shelters, as did many other people. Many shelters were later abandoned and had to be cleaned up. I think that it would make a lot of sense for front-liners to think about acquiring and building mobile homes and various structures that are relatively easy to set up, tear down, and transport. The Standing Rock model is a game-changer, but there’s a lot of room for improvement, too.

When I was at Standing Rock, there was a lack of strategic action undertaken. Many people would probably see this as being due to a lack of leadership, but I see it as a lack of coherent affinity groups. An action plan requires a group to carry it out, and the more elaborate the plan, the better coordinated the group needs to be. A sophistication exercise involving diversion and multiple flanks, such as what would be required to take a heavily guarded site, such as the drill site at Standing Rock, would require multiple teams sharing a certain level of training and confidence.

So when I think about the future, I imagine affinity groups comprised of full-time activists for whom the activities of the group are their primary focus in life. How can we make it more realistic for more people to be able to do this?

We need bases. I think that we need a combination of urban collective houses and rural land projects that eco-anarchists can use to launch actions from. We need a culture of people who see revolution as their calling in life, their vocation. That’s what I think it will take for this movement to become revolutionary.

Where Are We Going as a Movement?

Back to Line 3. Look, it’s a pipeline. You’re against it, I’m against it, and we can stop it. To me, the more interesting question is: What will be achieved by victory? Of course the land and the water will be defended, and that is enough reason to fight—but all of these pipelines, mines, prisons, and schools are but the visible, manifest symptoms of a disease called capitalism. So long as we are dependent on capitalism for our means, we’ll still be biting the hand that feeds us.

The environmental movement is not inherently revolutionary. What can we as anarchists do to nurture the revolutionary tendencies it contains? I’m not interested in making capitalism more sustainable; in helping the machine perfect our enslavement. The fact that it is unsustainable may be humanity’s last chance for liberty. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life fighting different heads of the Hydra unless at the end of the day we’ve fundamentally transformed the way that we live.

So I ask: Where are we going as a movement? I ask, because if we want to make it somewhere, we’d better have a clear idea of where we’re headed. What vision do we have to offer? What can we invite others to believe in along with us? What spirit can we summon forth into the collective consciousness? What songs can we sing with our whole hearts when we’re on the front lines?

Nothing’s more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Look at Standing Rock. Who could have imagined such a thing just a short time ago? Who would have taken this article seriously if I wrote it a year ago? Our movement is growing, it is expanding, it is stronger and stronger by the day. We are winning the hearts and minds of more and more people, and bigger and bigger goals are becoming more and more attainable. It’s time to articulate a program of revolutionary social change that sees resistance to pipelines as a starting point.