Interview with Rex Weyler, Co-founder of Green Peace International
An in depth discussion about Canada’s pipeline stand off
By: Luis Fernando Arce, Chief Interviewer
ARB Magazine recently had the privilege of speaking to Rex Weyler, the Co-founder of Green Peace International about the pipeline standoff that has recently dominated news headlines. He speaks in great detail about the three pipeline companies that are currently proposing expansions to their current pipeline systems in Canada and the opposition these companies are contending with. Specifically, a conglomeration of environmentalists, concerned citizens and First Nations groups are fighting to have their voices heard about what they believe are the potentially tragic health impacts of the proposal.
Who are the corresponding Aboriginal and First Nations groups being affected by the three pipeline systems (Kinder Morgan, Enbridge, TransCanada)? What other communities?
Rex Weyler: Yinka-Dene Alliance – Carrier and Sekani First Nations, Nadleh Whut’en, Takla Lake, Wet’suwet’en, Saik’uz and Nak’azdli, whose combined territory comprises 25% of the proposed Enbridge pipeline route – are leading the opposition to the Enbridge pipeline proposal, along with the 61 First Nations who have signed the Fraser River Declaration. Seventy other First Nations including the Coastal First Nations alliance have officially supported the Fraser River Declaration, which opposes any tar sands development on their traditional territory. Last September, the Yinka-Dene turned down an Enbridge offer worth millions, which Chief Larry Nooski of the Nadleh Whut’en called a “desperate and disrespectful attempt to buy our support for this pipeline.” Jackie Thomas, chief of the Saik’uz, is one of the lead spokespersons for this group. She says the pipeline will never be built.
In the Michigan experience, the toxic fumes remained for weeks, and could be smelled up to 50 kilometres away
The primary groups impacted by the Kinder Morgan pipeline are the Tsleil-Waututh nation on Burrard Inlet, the “People of the Inlet,” and their Salish relatives, the Squamish and the Musqueam. The Musqueam have already signed the Fraser River Declaration and the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish are consulting their own people on how to respond. These nations are supported by the Coastal First Nations alliance (leader: Art Sterritt), which has officially opposed the Kinder Morgan pipeline and oil tankers on the Coast. Kinder Morgan attempted to slip their tar sands pipeline project past the public and the First Nations without any proper consultation – by buying BC Gas, flipping the company, keeping the pipelines, and then converting the line to shipping tar sands bitumen to tankers in Vancouver. However, the public is now aware and the First Nations impacted by the tankers are now organizing to protect the coast. The City Councils of both Vancouver and Burnaby have formally opposed the crude oil tanker traffic, and other municipalities are discussing similar motions.
The Keystone pipeline to the US, through Oklahoma to the Texas Gulf will go through Chipewyan, Cree, and Dene territory in Canada; Lakota treaty lands in North and South Dakota; and Cherokee and Chickasaw land in Oklahoma. All these groups have opposed the pipeline. The Lakota on Pine Ridge Reservation in the US have blockaded pipeline construction trucks. Dene Chief Bill Erasmus; Intertribal Council president, Pat Spears (Lakota); and Tom B.K. Goldtooth, Executive Director, Indigenous Environmental Network, are among some of the leaders who spoke to President Obama in Washington DC to protest the pipeline.
In September 2010, Assembly of First Nations in Canada asked the US government to consider tar sands environmental impacts on First Nations in its national energy policy. They cited high cancer rates downstream from the Fort Chipewyan community, which is linked to petroleum products in the water. In the summer of 2011, Athabasca Chipewyan leader Gitz Deranger was arrested with other protesters in Washington, DC. Deranger said: “I have seen the devastation of our environment and people’s health with increased cancer deaths… If Obama approves this pipeline, it would only lead to more of our people needlessly dying.”
Are there any leaders of the opposition?
In Canada, the environmental groups are following the lead of these First Nations and indigenous groups. The Yinka-Dene and Coastal First Nations are leading this movement. In the Vancouver region, where the Kinder Morgan pipeline is already delivering tar sands crude oil (diluted bitumen) to tankers, the environmental groups are following the lead of the Tsleil-Waututh, who after all are the People of the Inlet.
The leading environmental groups include Wilderness Committee, Tanker Free BC, Greenpeace, West Coast Environmental Law, EcoJustice, and Council of Canadians. Ben West from the Wilderness Committee is one of the leaders of the movement. Mike Hudema and Jessie Schwartz at Greenpeace are two activist leaders; Josh Patterson at West Coast Environmental Law and Harjap Grewal at Council of Canadians are leaders in the movement.
In the US, the Lakota nations have lead much of the protests, and 350.org is responsible for organizing the massive public demonstrations – resulting in 1200 arrests – in Washington DC last summer. Author Bill McKibben, who founded 350.org, is one of the key leaders. Among the farming communities affected by the Keystone pipeline, Nebraska rancher Randy Thompson has been a vocal leader, mobilizing the farming communities, who oppose the Keystone pipeline across their land.
What types of protests or stand-offs have occurred so far? Staged by whom?
All these groups have lead public protests, rallies, and in some cases, confrontations with pipeline construction projects. A few weeks ago, Greenpeace dropped a banner from the Lion’s Gate Bridge in Vancouver declaring “Save our coast, no tar sands pipelines.” A year ago, our group, Tanker Free BC, staged a rally in Vancouver with fishing boats, commercial boats, and public boats, during which we presented NDP MP Nathan Cullen and Green Party Vancouver City Councillor Adrienne Carr with a petition to stop the tanker traffic.
In May, the Yinka Dene Alliance organized a Freedom Train across Canada, from BC to Toronto, where Enbridge was holding its Annual Shareholders Meeting. They informed the assembled shareholders that they would enforce their ban on the oil pipelines and tankers. They staged events in Jasper, Edmonton, and other cities along the way.
In the US, the Lakota nation, the Nebraska Farmers coalition have staged protests and blocked construction. Also, 350.org organized the mass civil disobedience last summer in front of the US White House. The Nebraska Farmers Union sent a formal letter of protest to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
How far are the protestors prepared to go? Are they ready to make any concessions?
In both the US and Canada, citizens are prepared to be arrested to protect their communities, land, water, and coastlines. Some have already been arrested; 1200 were arrested last summer in Washington DC.
Indigenous nations in Canada and the US have blockaded construction and have announced that they will continue.
As in any social movement, there are varying levels and styles of commitment. Some protestors and activists work on legal and political procedures, while others are willing to physically block the pipeline construction, disrupt corporate meetings, and so forth. There will likely be people blockading oil tankers if nothing else works.
There are always groups willing to compromise and make concessions, and in some cases this may be appropriate, but the groups I’ve mentioned are not contemplating compromise or concessions with these oil companies. The scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that if the oil companies exploit the tar sands, we will likely send Earth’s atmosphere into runaway global warming to the detriment of future generations. There is no room for compromise regarding the safety and health of the planet or the demise of our own progeny. As Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh has said: “We’re fighting for the lives of our children and grandchildren, but we are also fighting for the lives of Enbridge’s and Kinder Morgan’s children and grandchildren. These future generations deserve a world in which they can thrive and walk on the beaches, and gather food from the water.”
Since the bitumen pipelines and tankers also threaten the land, rivers, and marine ecosystems, the movement to stop them – Nebraska farmers, First Nations, environmentalists – are not contemplating settling for “alternative routes” and so forth. Any tar sands bitumen that doesn’t spill into the rivers and oceans, spills into the atmosphere, and there is no way around this, so no, we aren’t really looking for half-measures. We intend to stop these pipelines and the oil tankers on our coast.
What specific areas have suffered direct damage from either the Tar Sands bitumen extraction, pipeline expansions, or oil spills? What about the physical effects and toll on people’s health?
In July 2010, a 30-inch bitumen pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy burst, spilling 20,000 barrels of tar sands bitumen into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Cleanup costs exceeded ten times the costs for normal crude oil. The challenges of dealing with sinking bitumen shocked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA Incident Commander, Ralph Dollhopf reported: “I don’t think anyone at the state level anticipated that. I don’t think anyone at the EPA anticipated that. I don’t think anyone in industry anticipated that.”
From the Kalamazoo experience, we learn that Bitumen, diluted with condensed gas and/or volatile solvents such as naphtha, separates in the water. The volatile gases – toluene and the carcinogen benzene – are released into the air, causing headaches, nausea, dizziness, coughing, and fatigue among the local population. Other animals that breathe the air likely experience similar symptoms. In the Michigan experience, the toxic fumes remained for weeks, and could be smelled up to 50 kilometres away. Two years after the Michigan spill, 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River remained closed to fishing, swimming, or even wading in the water.
Many writers and journalists inside Canada have commented that Canada is now a typical petro-state, virtually controlled by the oil company agenda
Meanwhile, the heavy bitumen sinks. Clean-up crews in a bitumen spill have to battle toxic fumes as well as bitumen sinking below their skimmers. In a marine environment, the heavy bitumen sinks, moves with wind and tides, covers the marine bottom-life, mixes with the sediments, impacts the shellfish, and kills ocean plants, fish, and marine mammals.
Bitumen crude oil also contains sulphur, paraffins, asphaltics, benzenes, and other compounds that have toxic effects on plants and animals. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (“PAHs”) in bitumen dissolve in the water. These toxins contaminate wetlands or marine ecosystems and leach into the substrate. In the marine ecosystem, these toxins disrupt the food chain at its base with the loss of photoplankton and marine biofilm that forms on mudflats – the bacteria, diatoms, and mucopolysaccharides that provide a high-energy food source for shorebirds.
The most dramatic human impact to date is with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, downstream from the tar sands project. The Chipewyan people have suffered cancer increase, new or unusual cancers, lung problems, and other health impacts – from the tar sands development, air pollution, and contamination of their water.
The Chipewyan people, elders, health experts, and industry and independent studies have given evidence that nearby oil sands activity has led to environmental toxicity levels to far exceed safe and acceptable levels. Government studies have also established that the community experiences an abnormally high cancer and rare cancer rate.
Last fall, the Chipewyan Nation and supporters presented photographs of fish caught downstream from the tar sands, with tumors, deformities, infections, and signs of disease. A few weeks ago Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam and others found two deformed fish, Suckerfish and Jackfish covered in lesion, from Lake Athabasca near their community in Northern Alberta. Chief Adam said, “Government and industry are clearly failing to adequately protect our waterways and wildlife from contamination upstream. This is a clear indication of violations to the current Fisheries Act and our constitutionally protected Treaty rights.”
The Chipewyan people have also complained that the tar sands development disturbs traditional hunting, fishing, and public gatherings.
Have any consultations or meetings between any of the three Pipeline Companies (Kinder Morgan, Enbridge or TransCanada) and First Nations or the public taken place?
There has been some dialogue between some First Nations or individual First Nations members and oil and pipeline companies, but nothing that could be called adequate consultations. In Canada, the First Nations claim that Enbridge and Kinder Morgan have failed to provide a process to secure “free, prior, and informed consent” for industrial development on their traditional territories as guaranteed by Canadian law. It is too late for “prior” consent in the case of Kinder Morgan, since the pipeline has been delivering tar sands bitumen to ships in Burrard Inlet since 2007. The Coastal First Nations claim that they have not been properly consulted on the plan to ship crude oil along the BC coast.
The Canadian National Energy Board (NEB) has conducted public “hearings” in some communities, but there has been considerable controversy regarding these hearings that have bypassed certain communities, such as Vancouver, and cancelled some hearings. There is a feeling among some communities and among the First Nations and environmental groups that these hearings have been biased toward presumed acceptance of the projects and inadequate to gain full public response.
The NEB hearings were intended to receive public “input” so the subject matter ranged from oil and pipeline companies presenting their case for the pipelines to public concerns about oil spills, health effects, and so forth.
The City of Vancouver held a one-day hearing with testimony from industry, public, and first Nations. The testimony focused primarily on marine safety, the effects of crude oil in the marine environment, frequency of oil spills and so forth. The Vancouver City Council has concluded that the risks are not worth the minor port revenues, and have passed a resolution insisting that the pipeline and oil companies, and shipping companies indemnify the City for potential oil spill costs, which would come to several tens of billions of dollars.
What about the opposition’s interactions/communications with the Federal Government – What have those been like?
The Federal Government of Canada under Conservative leader Stephen Harper has taken an extremely aggressive approach to supporting tar sands development and denouncing environmental opposition. As a result, there no access available to citizens to petition the government to reconsider tar sands development, and our groups have virtually no access to the Federal Government. We have, of course, written letters, delivered petitions, and attended public meetings, but have been generally rebuffed. We have, for example, sought information regarding Harper’s relations with oil companies, but have been refused normal Freedom of Information requests. Canada now ranks last among industrial nations in honouring freedom of information requests. The Canadian government has attacked environmental groups in the media and through tax audits, cut funding for environmental protection and for public or academic groups involved in ecology research.
Many writers and journalists inside Canada have commented that Canada is now a typical petro-state, virtually controlled by the oil company agenda. In 2008 and 2009, Harper actually shut down the Canadian Parliament to avoid inquiries into his international deals, finances, and scandals. In March 2011, 156 members of the government found Harper and his minority regime in contempt of Parliament for its refusal to share legislative information with other elected members.
So, as you might imagine, we have very little communication with our Federal Government, and zero effective communication.
In April 2011, we learned that Harper’s liaison to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers had previously been convicted of defrauding two Canadian banks, a car dealer, and his own law clients, and had lobbied the Canadian government on behalf of his ex-hooker girlfriend. The convicted felon, Bruce Carson, served as chief tar sands promoter, claiming “The economic and security value of oil sands expansion will likely outweigh the climate damage that oil sands create.” Carson also opposed “clean energy efforts in the U.S.” Canadian lobbyists undermined US low-carbon fuel standards by lobbying the US government.
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