Picking Apart the Pipeline

Climate Justice Montreal Hosts Pipeline Panel at ConU

  • This Saturday, the ConU community gathered to participate in a panel discussion on pipelines. Photo Leslie Schachter

With universities investing in oil companies, pipeline expansion proposals passing­­ and chemical spills no longer being considered newsworthy enough for local papers, someone had to say something.

All of the above issues were addressed on Jan. 18 as educators, researchers, activists and concerned citizens convened at Concordia to discuss the environmental impacts of Alberta’s oil industry and the dangers of using pipelines to move oil sands bitumen to markets.

Following a panel discussion, participants talked in small groups about different ways of taking action.

View From Chemical Valley

Welcome to “Chemical Valley”—otherwise know as Sarnia, ON, its surroundings and the Aamjiwnaang First Nation—where toxic spills are so frequent, they don’t even warrant local news coverage.

Vanessa Gray, a resident and member of Aamjiwnaang-Sarnia Against Pipelines, said that benzene, a chemical known to cause cancer, was spilled in the community last Friday—but you wouldn’t have heard about it from the media.

“The spills just happen again and again,” Gray said, specifying that they occur roughly four times a month. “What we live in has been referred to as a bubble—we are used to being afraid of whatever’s going to happen to us. I think that’s why the media chooses not to cover it.”

One pipeline passes right across the street from the community, and there are refineries and pumping stations as far as the eye can see.

“The animals have been heavily affected because the toxic water that flows through my community is the only way for them to hydrate,” Gray said.

“House pets that go off on their own and drink water have been high in cancer rates. There have been a lot of cancer deaths in small animals. We can only imagine how that affects animals that we could be enjoying like deer or fish.”

The community has also noticed significant health consequences in residents. Gray also says that birth rates and cancer rates have been affected by all of the industrial activity around the community.

“I grew up going to a lot of funerals. In my community, the average life expectancy for men is 55.”

When asked whether she has ever felt angry towards the people who work in the refineries and pumping stations surrounding her community, Gray said she never has.

“I’m sure that they’re willfully ignorant because that’s the way of life they were told to live,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that people who work for Shell are bad people—it doesn’t mean that [they are] deliberately hurting me and future generations, it just means that they need to make money in this world. We live in a capitalist system.”

Gray is now involved in environmental youth groups, hoping to raise awareness of the environmental issues in her community.

“I’m trying to get younger individuals to become more aware,” she said. “I wasn’t aware of much until my eyes were opened by grassroots organizers in Toronto who reached out to me and offered to take me to Alberta to see how the tar sands are affecting [those] communities.”

“We go to university to be trained in something [so that we can] go out and contribute to society. It’s just strange for a university to invest in things that destroy our future.”
—David Summerhays, Divest McGill Member

“This Is Dirty Money”

It is not uncommon for universities to invest in oil companies—a trend students across North America are trying to change.

An environmental organization headed by author Bill McKibben called 350.org is demanding that universities immediately stop investing in the oil industry and divest from oil companies over a five-year period.

Over 200 student groups across the continent have responded to 350.org’s call to action, by trying to get their universities on board with these demands—Divest McGill is one of them.

“It would send the message that this is dirty money,” said David Summerhays, a member of Divest McGill, a group pushing for the university to stop investing in companies involved in the oil sands and mineral extraction in northern Quebec.

“We go to university to be trained in something [so that we can] go out and contribute to society,” he said. “It’s just strange for a university to invest in things that destroy our future. It just makes universities less of a good investment for a student and for the society or government that subsidizes them.”

The financial consequences of divestment are difficult to predict, and some experts have said that divesting from the fossil fuel industry would mean lower returns for endowments.

Activists say, though, that it would have a greater impact on oil companies than on the balance sheets of universities.

“The thing about fossil fuels is that they’re so unstable,” said Summerhays, referencing the ups and downs of global oil prices.

“There are lots of great stocks out there,” he added, noting that many ethical investment funds and pension plans offer just as good returns on investment as regular funds that invest in the oil and mineral extraction industries.

Lily Schwarzbaum, another member of Divest McGill, recognizes that divestment probably won’t be a deathblow to oil sands development, but believes universities—as “moral beacons in society” whose actions carry a lot of weight—shouldn’t be involved in those types of investments.

“Putting pressure on those companies will hopefully provide incentive to create alternative sources of energy,” she said.

Tackling Line 9

The primary focus of the panel, though, was on Enbridge’s proposal to reverse the flow of its Line 9 pipeline between Sarnia, ON and Montreal.

On Nov. 29, 2012, pipeline company Enbridge Inc. filed an application with the National Energy Board seeking the reversal of the pipeline’s flow between North Westover, ON and Montreal.

The NEB has already approved the reversal of flow between Sarnia and North Westover.

By reversing the flow of the pipeline, Enbridge would be able to move oil sands bitumen from Alberta to eastern Canada. Proponents of the reversal say it would increase Canada’s energy security by reducing eastern provinces’ dependence on imported oil.

The environmental risk is too great, though, said Marilyne Tovar, an organizer at Climate Justice Montreal and a board member of the Quebec Network of Environmental Groups.

“The pipeline isn’t a new one,” she said of the 60-year-old Line 9. “These tar sands are more abrasive, more corrosive and more acidic [than other forms of oil], and they also move at a higher pressure, increasing the risk of spills—since the lines weren’t made for that.”

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