Time is Short: Where Do We Draw the Line? The Keystone XL Pipeline and Beyond

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Editor’s Note: This article originally ran March 20, 2013, in the Deep Green Resistance News Service. We are republishing the entire Time is Short series, and considering that the newly elected US Senate now has enough votes to pass approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline and has made it second on its list of priorities, we think this is especially relevant.

The Keystone XL Pipeline is without question the largest environmental issue we in North America face today. It’s not the largest in the sense that it is the most destructive, or the largest in terms of size. But it has been a definitive struggle for the movement; it has brought together a wide variety of groups, from mainstream liberals to radicals and indigenous peoples to fight against a single issue continuously for several years. It has forged alliances between tree-sitting direct actionists and small rural landowners, and mobilized people from across the country to join the battles in Washington and Texas, as well as at the local offices of companies involved in building the pipeline in their own communities. It has also posed serious questions to us as a movement about how we will effectively fight those who profit from the destruction of the living world.

But it’s time for a reality check.

While TransCanada continues laying pipe in Texas and Oklahoma, the Federal government is deliberating over the permit application for the Northern Leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which will run from Alberta, Canada to Steele City, Nebraska. Despite the overwhelming (and inexplicable) sense of hope that pervades the movement, there’s little reason to be optimistic that TransCanada’s permits will be denied. So far, the Feds have neither done nor said anything that could lead any sane or rational person to believe the project will be rejected. On March 1st, the State Department released its draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, which concluded that the pipeline does not pose an unacceptable threat to human health or the environment.

Yet as we have heard only too many times already, climate scientists—including former NASA climate science chief James Hansen—have repeatedly said that the Keystone XL pipeline would be “game over” for the planet, as it would provide an outlet for the extremely dirty oil coming from the tar sands.

Obviously, the pipeline needs to be stopped. We can’t allow it to be built and to operate.

Fortunately, opposition to the pipeline is widespread, and thousands of people have been trying to stop it. A series of rallies in DC, spearheaded by 350.org, have mobilized thousands of people calling on Obama’s Administration to reject the pipeline, and inspired solidarity rallies across the country and protests at TransCanada offices.

Yet appealing to those in power isn’t working. When the leaders of some of the largest Big Green organizations (including 350.org and the Sierra Club) were being arrested outside the White House in an effort to appeal to Obama to reject the pipeline, the President was golfing with an oil executive in Florida.

Those in power are going to approve the pipeline. Asking them to change is failed strategy; at the end of the day, pipelines—like clear-cutting, strip mining, ocean trawling, hydraulic fracturing, and so many other destructive industrial activities—are legal. Those in charge of an economic system based on ecological destruction and endless growth will always favor the needs and wants of that system over the needs and wants of all those—human and non-human—harmed by their activities.

Meanwhile, more and more folks have started turning to nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience to fight the pipeline. In North Texas, the Tar Sands Blockade has done everything it can to slow construction of the Southern Leg of the pipeline. Activists with TSB have erected tree sits in the pipeline’s path, locked themselves to equipment and vehicles, stormed TransCanada offices, gone on hunger strikes, organized protests and demonstrations along the route of the pipeline, and even locked themselves inside the pipeline. But unfortunately, it simply hasn’t been enough.

But despite their efforts, the pipeline continues to be built. There’s no denying that the sustained civil disobedience has delayed the project and forced TransCanada to fight hard for every mile of pipe laid in the ground; but they have the resources to ensure to overcome even the most strategic nonviolent direct action. When the Tar Sands Blockade erected a tree-sit in the path of construction, TransCanada altered its route and built around the protestors.

The reality is that TransCanada has the resources to outlast the delays and overcome direct action. They’ve already gone to great lengths to stop those who stand it their way; they hired off-duty police officers as a private security force and brought $50,000 lawsuits against the organizers of the Blockade. Make no mistake, TransCanada will go to whatever lengths it deems necessary to make sure the pipeline is built; they will threaten, sue, arrest, pepper spray, taser, torture, and force it through blockades and lockdowns. We don’t have the thousands (or tens of thousands) of people it would take to permanently stop the pipeline through civil disobedience; we’re fighting a losing battle.

Given all of this, it’s time to step back and take stock of the situation. It is clear that Obama and his administration are going to approve the pipeline, and there isn’t anything we can do to change that. It is also clear that civil disobedience has not been successful in stopping construction. So what options are left?

As James Hansen said, the Keystone XL pipeline will be “game over” for the planet. Stop a moment, and think about that.

Game over. Let that sink in.

Given what’s at stake (and what’s at stake is horrific), we need to draw the line. The Keystone XL Pipeline cannot be allowed to be built and operate. The tar sands cannot be allowed to be developed or extracted. They must be stopped. By any means necessary. When we’ve tried it all—everything from petitioning the powerful to civil disobedience –and at the end of the day, the pipeline is still being built, we need to recognize the need for escalation, including sabotage and property destruction.

That’s a proposition that makes a lot of folks uncomfortable. And that’s okay.

But when we’re left with the choice of either killing the pipeline or being killed by the pipeline, can we afford to rule out any tactics? When everything we’ve tried so far has failed, is there any choice left except more militant forms of direct action?

This isn’t a suggestion that anyone undertake any form of action they’re not comfortable with; we should all fight like hell, using whatever means we choose to use. But if some choose other means, such as sabotage or property destruction, we should not condemn or oppose them.

When the alternative is “game over” for the planet, anyone who chooses militant action to stop the pipeline is morally justified in doing so.

And yet, far from being extremist and unconventional, sabotage and underground resistance are threads common and integral to the cloth of movements for justice and sustainability. This is a rich history, and we should be proud to carry forth its legacy.

Even in regards solely to pipeline resistance, there is a definite precedent of movements using sabotage to fight otherwise unwinnable battles. In the Niger Delta, communities have been fighting oil extraction and systemic injustice, and wielding direct attacks on pipelines as a powerfully effective weapon. Following repeated failures of negotiations and nonviolent protest, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) began militant attacks on pipelines, pumping stations, offshore oil rigs, and other infrastructure in 2006. Their use of militant tactics has been devastatingly effective: they’ve decreased the oil output of the entire country of Nigeria by 40%.

On the other side of the world in British Columbia, a series of pipelines were sabotaged by the mysterious “Encana Bomber,” who repeatedly bombed pipelines and other natural gas infrastructure belonging to Encana, an oil & natural gas corporation. Local residents had tried to use the courts and regulatory infrastructures to protect themselves and their lands, but were trampled over by both Encana and the government agencies charged with regulating the corporation. Fed up with systemic injustice and environmental degradation, someone (or someones; the attackers remain anonymous and uncaught) decided to use any means necessary to fight back. Between October of 2008 and July of 2009, there were six attacks, and despite bullying and intimidation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, no one has been caught or arrested for the actions, and community members have openly expressed support for the sabotage. The attacks stopped in July 2009, when a letter from the bomber(s) gave Encana five years to “shut down and remove all the oil and gas facilities” in the area.

In both of these cases, those opposed to extractive projects (specifically including pipelines) tried to affect change through the established and legal channels: through government agencies and regulatory bodies, through negotiations, through lawsuits and court action. But when those tactics proved ineffective, they neither gave up nor continued with a failed strategy; they escalated. They knew they had to choose between taking militant action (and accepting the risk that entails) and destructive injustice. They chose to defend themselves, their communities, and the land, even if that meant taking more drastic action.

It’s time we did the same.

And while we so often consider even discussion of sabotage as a potential tactic as beyond the pale, militancy has played a critical role in past movements for justice—ones we are eager to support. The Boston Tea Party is upheld and oft-cited as a proud moment of American history, yet it was an instance of individuals destroying property; would we condemn the Boston Tea Partiers as “terrorists”? Nelson Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize and was elected president of South Africa after being freed from 27 years of imprisonment, yet he was in jail for sabotage and militant resistance; do we denounce him as well?

The Keystone XL pipeline must be stopped, and neither appeals to the government, lawsuits, nor civil disobedience have been able to stop the deathly march of the pipeline. If we’re not willing to even consider sabotage and property destruction—or support anyone who employs those tactics—when it’s that or “game over” for the planet, then we’re morally defunct beings, only hollow shells resembling those who hold any shred of love in their hearts. Do we really believe that the property of corporations is more important and sacred than the bodily integrity of real living people or the entire earth?

If not, then it’s time for a collective shift in the dialogue and culture of the environmental movement. We need to start talking openly about the possibility—and role—of militant action in the fight to stop the skinning of Earth alive. Make no mistake; this isn’t an exhortation to senseless violence or a call to walk away from other means of struggle. It’s a (truly) modest proposal that with literally the whole planet at stake, we put all the tools on the table. If we’re honest with ourselves about the situation we’re in, we don’t have any other choice.

Time is Short: Reports, Reflections & Analysis on Underground Resistance is a biweekly bulletin dedicated to promoting and normalizing underground resistance, as well as dissecting and studying its forms and implementation, including essays and articles about underground resistance, surveys of current and historical resistance movements, militant theory and praxis, strategic analysis, and more. We welcome you to contact us with comments, questions, or other ideas at timeisshort at deepgreenresistance.org (replace ‘ at ‘ with @)