For five years, the struggle over the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline dominated U.S. and Canadian energy politics. When President Obama finally rejected the project last fall, he was able to start a new chapter with recently elected Prime Minister Trudeau, who seemed eager to move past the toxic politics of his predecessor, Stephen Harper.
But as Trudeau and Obama meet in Washington this week to discuss a joint approach on climate change, new fossil fuel fights, including several Keystone XL-like pipelines, pose challenges for both leaders and threaten to exacerbate tensions between neighbors.
“Keystone XL was just the beginning,” said May Boeve, executive director of 350.org. “This movement is now engaged in major fossil fuel fights on both sides of the border and is ready to oppose any new project that is proposed. Keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the new test for climate leadership and both Trudeau and Obama have more work to do.”
Organizing under the “keep it in the ground” banner, 350.org and other climate groups are engaging in a continental wide fight against the fossil fuel industry, challenging new projects and going after existing production.
High up on the list are a group of other tar sands pipelines that resemble Keystone XL. In Canada, both the Kinder Morgan and Energy East projects are facing tough opposition. In the U.S., local and national groups have targeted a system of Enbridge pipelines proposed across the Midwest.
“If Trudeau is serious about the climate pledges he made in Paris, he needs to freeze tar sands expansion as soon as possible,” said Cam Fenton, Canadian tar sands campaign manager with 350.org. “You can play with the numbers all you want and there’s still no way to match further tar sands production with keeping global warming below 2 degrees, let alone 1.5 degrees. New pipelines fail the climate test, plain and simple.”
Activists are also pushing both leaders to go beyond the Arctic and protect all coastal areas from offshore drilling. President Obama came under fire last year for allowing Shell to explore for oil off the coast of Alaska. He’s now coming under increasing pressure to ban all new drilling in federal waters, including in the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.
“The Arctic is a spectacular treasure and so are the people, cultures and ecosystems in the Gulf,” said Boeve. “No community should have to live with the risk of a massive oil spill and constant pollution from fossil fuel development, especially low income and communities of color who are on the front lines of climate change. These communities got hit with Katrina, got hit with the BP Oil Spill, but they’re fighting to recover each and every day. Our government shouldn’t keep putting them directly in harm’s way. We say protect the polar bears, but protect the people too.”
A broad coalition of groups in the Gulf are planning a major protest at an auction for offshore drilling permits at the Superdome in New Orleans this March 23. The demonstration will highlight the irony of selling more fossil fuels at a national landmark for climate impacts.
In Canada, Indigenous communities and First Nations have an Aboriginal rights legal regime comprised of inherent and treaty rights embedded in section 35 of the Canadian constitution. This is a considerable power that Prime Minister Trudeau must consider and deal with, according to Clayton Thomas-Muller, Stop It At The Source campaigner with 350.org.
“The Trudeau government ran on the election promise to respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples to say ‘No’ to pipeline projects on their lands, while also committing to implement the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples across the board” said Thomas-Muller. “Using Transcanada’s Energy East or Kinder Morgan’s Transmountain tar sands pipelines as the trade off to deliver on these promises shows yet another campaign promise being broken and shows that the influence of oil lobbyist money to Ottawa continues to flow.”
Over the coming months, 350.org and its allies will continue to intensify the fight against the fossil fuel industry on both sides of the border, protesting fossil fuel extraction on public lands in the U.S. and pressuring the Canadian government to stop tar sands at the source.
In May, groups will be coming together under the “Break Free” platform, a worldwide week of action targeting major fossil fuel projects around the world. In the U.S., activists will target new tar sands pipelines in the Midwest, fracking in the Mountain West, "bomb trains" carrying fracked oil and gas in New York, refinery pollution north of Seattle, offshore drilling in an action in Washington, DC and dangerous oil and gas drilling in Los Angeles. In Canada, activists are preparing to protest tar sands development while calling for clean energy solutions for communities who were on the front lines of pollution and climate change.
“In Paris, world leaders made a promise to move the world beyond fossil fuels,” said Boeve. “We intend to hold them to it and do everything we can to accelerate that transition. This problem is ultimately a race against the clock. Luckily, this movement is beginning to really hit its stride.”
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By Simon Montlake
For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.
All that was before this month's deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. "It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change," she says.
Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.</p><p>The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval. </p><p>Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts. </p><p>Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers. </p><p>Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison. </p><p>Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. </p>
Stepping on the Gas<p>In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove's developer, Canada's Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide "reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world."</p><p>As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.</p><p>But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. "They are putting infrastructure in a state where there's no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas," she says. </p><p>Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it's only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions. </p>
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