Indian rights activists say treaties give them a say on pipeline route

Indian rights lawyers argue that a Sandpiper spill could endanger their rights to gather wild rice.
Indian rights lawyers argue that a Sandpiper spill could endanger their rights to gather wild rice.


By David Shaffer, Star Tribune


In a new battlefront over energy policy, American Indian rights attorneys argued Wednesday before a Minnesota judge that historic treaties give tribes a say in where to build crude oil pipelines across land ceded by the Chippewa in the 19th century.

“Everybody has kind of forgotten what our rights are, and that is why we are here,” Frank Bibeau, an attorney for the Indian nonprofit group Honor the Earth, told an administrative law judge at a hearing in St. Paul.

Honor the Earth says the proposed $2.6 billion Sandpiper crude oil pipeline across northern Minnesota will produce “inevitable oil spills and environmental degradation” on ceded lands. Spills could endanger Rice Lake near McGregor and Sandy Lake in ­Aitkin County where Indians gather wild rice, the group says.

For the first time in Minnesota, Indian rights attorneys are arguing that the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) lacks unilateral authority to approve pipelines. They want the state to reject the proposed route of the Sandpiper pipeline from North Dakota, and have offered an alternative path.

Enbridge Energy’s preferred pipeline route goes southeast from Clearbrook, Minn., passing west of Park Rapids and then heading east to Superior, Wis. It avoids Indian reservations, but passes through ceded lands on which Chippewa bands retain the right to fish, hunt and gather rice.

Attorneys for the company contend that the commission has no business deciding the meaning of federal treaties. Even so, much of the two-hour discussion before Judge Eric Lipman focused on 10 treaties signed between 1825 and 1864 by Minnesota Indian tribes.

“It would represent a dramatic departure from the commission’s precedent and would significantly impact not just pipeline projects but all large energy projects sited in northern Minnesota,” said Christine Brusven, an attorney for the Calgary-based pipeline company that’s proposing to build the 610-mile pipeline to carry North Dakota oil.

Headed for the courts?

Lipman, who is overseeing the regulatory review of the pipeline, is expected to rule on the treaty rights question, but the final decision rests with the Public Utilities Commission. The issue ultimately could land in federal court.

Before the hearing, about 45 Honor the Earth supporters, led by the group’s leader Winona LaDuke, demonstrated outside the PUC’s office.

Some Minnesota tribes have successfully asserted off-reservation rights under 19th century treaties. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1999 affirmed that the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa and seven other Chippewa bands retained hunting, fishing and gathering rights under an 1837 treaty on lands and lakes ceded by the tribes in central Minnesota, including Lake Mille Lacs.

Similar rights have been recognized under other treaties, and state and tribal governments share responsibility for game management in some ceded areas. This year, the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa is exercising rights under an 1854 treaty to spear walleyes in several lakes in northeastern Minnesota’s Arrowhead region.

Honor the Earth attorneys contend that the 19th century treaties and early 20th century court rulings about wild rice reserves give the Ojibwe a present-day right to help make decisions affecting treaty-related resources.

“We are not saying we have an absolute veto,” Bibeau said in an interview.

Cooperation sought

Prof. Peter Erlinder of William Mitchell College of Law, who also represents Honor the Earth, said various treaties “need to be accommodated by state regulatory activities.” He said the state and tribes need to find a way to cooperate on pipeline siting.

But Enbridge attorney Randy Thompson, who represented Lake Mille Lacs landowners in the 1999 case, said Honor the Earth overstates the reach of the landmark decision.

“It is a nonexclusive right to hunt and fish,” Thompson said. “It gives bands the ability to self-regulate hunting and fishing by band members. It doesn’t give bands co-management authority. It doesn’t give the bands the ability to regulate nonmembers.”

Legal experts say protection of natural resources under 19th century Indian treaties is an emerging area of law.

“We have very little idea where it is going to go,” said James Coleman, an assistant professor of energy law at the University of Calgary and Haskayne School of Business.

In the state of Washington, a tribe with rights to fish for migrating salmon has successfully argued that the state Transportation Department must repair hundreds of culverts that block the passage of fish. Federal judges, most recently in 2013, have ruled that the barrier culverts violate treaty promises. Another federal judge in that state upheld in 1996 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ right to deny a permit for a fish farm because it conflicted with the Lummi Nation’s treaty fishing rights.

Most treaty cases have been decided in federal court. Honor the Earth’s legal battle is unusual because it’s in a state regulatory proceeding. Bibeau said he reserves the right to take the case to tribal or federal court later.

Two precedents

In two previous Minnesota utility cases, tribes tried unsuccessfully to assert tribal authority over proposed pipelines or power lines. In 2011, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe objected to a proposed transmission line that skirted tribal lands, but lost in federal court. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa objected to another pipeline in 2007. That project, like the transmission line, eventually won approval of the PUC.

Coleman, who grew up in the Twin Cities, said Indian activists face a difficult legal battle in the pipeline case. Unlike the Washington cases, he said, where judges saw actual harm to treaty-protected resources, the Minnesota concerns are about a potential situation, and depending on how bad the disaster was, maybe at some point it could eliminate those treaty rights.

Stand with Indigenous Peoples, Stop the Pipelines

Moccasins on the Ground workshop where participants are trained in the skills, tactics, and techniques of nonviolent direct action.
Moccasins on the Ground workshop where participants are trained in the skills, tactics, and techniques of nonviolent direct action.


As so often happens, Native Americans are leading the fight to save the world.

By Will Falk, San Diego Free Press

While half of the world’s species are disappearing, while the remaining 48 hunter/gatherer societies are literally fighting for their survival, while 32 million acres of rainforest are cut down a year, and while three hundred tons of topsoil are lost a minute, we are again at war with those who would destroy the planet.

There have been many wars fought on behalf of our life-giving land in North America. The overwhelming majority of those killed in defense of the land have come from peoples like the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Nez Perce, the Sauk, and the Apache. Native Americans have long stood in the way of this destructive culture. It is time that we join with Native Americans and other dominated peoples around the world who are at war. It is time that we, the privileged in this settler culture, step off our pedestal and onto the battlefield to place our bodies in harm’s way like so many indigenous people have before us and continue to do today.


As a young white radical, I have admired the long traditions of resistance found in Native communities. I find myself wondering what could have been had Tecumseh won or if Crazy Horse was not betrayed. I find myself wishing I could have been there with Geronimo or King Phillip or Chief Joseph to shoot back at the pale skin and pale blue eyes I share with so many of the soldiers, miners, and settlers who have butchered Native peoples over the centuries.

But, mostly, my heart just breaks. And breaks and breaks again when I recall the long list of lost battles and cold-blooded massacres.

My heart breaks when I think of that frigid morning in December, 1890 when Lakota Sioux led by Spotted Elk woke up next to Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota to find themselves surrounded by 500 soldiers of the US 7th Cavalry. Some of the older women and the frailest children would have been wrapped in robes made from the skins of buffalo hunted to near extinction by the very soldiers taking positions over the camp.

They look up at the four rapid fire Hotchkiss guns pointed down on them from the hills above with their frosty breath foreshadowing the thick fog of gun smoke that would blanket the field in just a little while.

My heart breaks again looking at the photographs of Lakota men, women, and children strewn across the frozen ground. I see Spotted Elk’s body frozen in a half-sitting position in the snow. His legs bent one way, and his bullet-riddled torso bent another way. His arms curl up as his dead biceps tighten in the cold.



My heart breaks when I read eyewitness accounts from the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 where Colorado-territory militia killed 200 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women, and children who thought they occupied their camp under the protection of the US Army. I read of soldiers putting six-shooters to the heads of infants and “blowing their brains out.” I watch as white men jump off their horses with knives in hands to cut ears, noses, fingers, and testicles off corpses to take home as souvenirs.


Lierre Keith, the brilliant environmental and radical feminist writer, often diagnoses the problem with modern mainstream environmental activism saying, “We’ve got to stop thinking like vandals and start thinking like field generals.”

If we are to have any chance of surviving the devastation, we must espouse courses of action based on strategic objectives. In other words, we have to act like we’re fighting to win a war.

Even mainstream environmentalists recognize that one of the biggest threats to life on Earth is the use of fossil fuels. The burning of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide – the worst of the greenhouse gasses responsible for climate change. Scientists predict an 11 degree Fahrenheit average temperature rise by 2100 due to the effects of runaway greenhouse gas emissions.

If we are going to win this war of survival, we are going to have to stop both the present use and spread of fossil fuels. Many argue that the task is impossible. Many argue that we’ll never get people to voluntarily give up fossil fuels. We fill our cars with gas. Homes are heated by coal. The plastic screens we read the daily news on are made with oil. Giving up fossil fuels means giving up our very way of life.

But, what if the world is forced to give up fossil fuels because they cannot get access to them?




The truth is the fate of the world is bound up in wars like the ones being fought by the Sioux and their allies and the Wet’suwet’en. The United States was built on stolen land and is maintained through the theft of indigenous resources both at home and abroad. So, not only should mainstream environmentalists pledge their support to indigenous peoples to reverse genocidal historical trends, they should throw their bodies down next to indigenous peoples in order to survive.

The brutally brilliant Confederate cavalry general, Nathan Bedford Forrest explained the simple key to winning battles when he said, “Get there first with the most.” On a Civil War battlefield, this meant identifying strategic locations to be controlled and then arriving with more soldiers and firepower than your enemy. At the Battle of Gettysburg, for example, Union forces recognized the way two hills – Little and Big Round Top – on their extreme left flank commanded a view of the entire battlefield. Robert E. Lee and his right hand infantry general, James Longstreet, recognized it, too. Whoever controlled those hills could place artillery on their heights and rain deadly cannon fire on enemies in the fields below.

Ultimately, Union forces arrived at the top Little Round Top just minutes before Longstreet’s infantry and were able to beat off a Confederate attack, turning the tide of the battle in favor of Union forces in what many historians call the pivotal moment of the entire war.

The goals of these camps line up perfectly with Forrest’s idea to “get there first with the most.” The camps are being set up in strategic locations to stop the ability of the pipeline to function. If the oil is going to flow, big oil pipelines are going to have to defeat activists dug in at these camps.

Right now, indigenous peoples and their allies are there first with the most. They can win if we help them.


As so often happens, Native Americans are leading the fight to save the world. Battle lines are being drawn in British Columbia and South Dakota where indigenous peoples and their allies have vowed to prevent the construction of pipelines carrying fossil fuels across their lands.

In South Dakota, the Oglala Lakota and Rosebud Sioux (many of whom descend from the survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre) are building resistance camps to combat the Keystone XL pipeline. They are calling the pipeline “the Black Snake” and are operating the Moccasins on the Ground project where participants are trained in the skills, tactics, and techniques of nonviolent direct action. These skills include blockading heavy equipment, workshops on strategic media, street medic training, knowing your legal rights with respect to civil disobedience, and building solidarity and alliances.

In British Columbia, the Wet’suwet’en have dug into the path of seven proposed pipelines from the Tar Sands Gigaproject and LNG from the Horn River Basin Fracturing Projects in the Peace River Region at Unist’ot’en Camp. ( Unist’ot’en Camp is calling for volunteers to help patrol their land, build permaculture, and raise permanent bunkhouses in the path of the pipelines.


There’s another feeling I get when I think of the massacres of indigenous peoples. It is even stronger than the staggering sadness. It is the desire to do whatever it takes to stop this culture from destroying indigenous cultures and destroying the land.

I used to imagine that I could go back in time and offer my help. I would learn how to shoot and offer my rifle to Crazy Horse or learn how to ride and ask Chief Joseph if he could use my help. As I listened to the rhythmic thump of soldiers’ boots marching on where they thought my friends’ village was, I would imagine approaching a fat officer in a powdered horse-hair whig with a smile coming from my white face. I would tell the officer I knew where the Indians were, only to lead him on a wild goose chase while he trusted me because I was white.

I have grown up now. I realize that there are wars being waged against the land and those who would protect the land. I realize that I can work to stop the black snakes that are being built to slither through this land, to choke her original people, and to wring the last few drops of oil from her.

All of us who have benefited from the rape of the earth and the destruction of so many of her people are being called. We are being called to kill the black snakes by those already engaged in mortal combat. We must do whatever it takes to stand with indigenous peoples and stop the pipelines.

Canada’s energy officials take over job of protecting fish from pipelines

By John Upton, Grist

A salmon in Canada
Arthur Chapman

Move aside, Canadian federal fisheries and oceans officials. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration has decided that the nation’s fossil-fuel-friendly energy regulators would do a better job of protecting fish in streams and lakes that cross paths with gas and oil pipelines. Northwest Coast Energy News has the scoop:

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has handed responsibility for fish and fish habitat along pipeline routes over to the National Energy Board. …

DFO and NEB quietly announced a memorandum of agreement on December 16, 2013, that went largely unnoticed with the release three days later of the Joint Review Panel decision on Northern Gateway and the slow down in news coverage over the Christmas holidays. …

Enbridge no longer has to apply to DFO for permits to alter fish habitat along the Northern Gateway route. …

Fish and fish habitat along [that] pipeline is now the responsibility of the Alberta-based, energy friendly National Energy Board.

This looks to be another horrifying step in Harper’s efforts to quash any science (or common sense) that might slow down the extraction and transportation of gas and oil in Canada.

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants:

“My generation has stood up and said, ‘No more’”

Hundreds gather for 4th Annual Unis’tot’en Action Camp against pipelines in ‘BC’

Members of the Wet'suwet'en nation perform a welcoming song to open the 4th annual Unis'tot'en action camp. Photo: Aaron Lakoff
Members of the Wet’suwet’en nation perform a welcoming song to open the 4th annual Unis’tot’en action camp. Photo: Aaron Lakoff

By Aaron Lakoff, Vancouver Media Co-op

From July 10th to 14th, roughly 200 Indigenous and non-Indigenous people gathered in unceded Wet’suwet’en territory in central British Columbia for the 4th Annual Unis’tot’en Action Camp. The Unis’tot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation have maintained a blockade on the only bridge leading into their territory since July 2010 in an attempt to keep seven proposed oil and gas pipelines off their traditional lands. The pipelines would carry shale gas obtained through fracking, or bitumen oil from the Alberta tar sands, to the Pacific coast, where it would be exported on mega-tankers towards Asian markets

The action camp brings supporters of the Unis’tot’en to the blockade site in order to learn about the struggle, to network, and to bring action ideas back to their own communities.

Toghestiy, Hereditary Chief of the Likhts’amisyu Clan of the Wet’suwet’en nation, said he was very happy with the high proportion of Indigenous participants at this year’s camp compared to previous years.

“I would say about 40% of the population of the action camp was Indigenous, and they were Indigenous from different parts of Turtle Island,” Toghestiy told the Vancouver Media Co-op (VMC). “So it was amazing to have all these grassroots Indigenous people come together in solidarity with one another. We created an alliance, and it was a pretty beautiful experience. It will help us fulfill our responsibility [to the land] into the future.”

While most participants at the camp hailed from Vancouver and Victoria, people also travelled from as far away as California, New Mexico, and Toronto to lend their support. Amber Nitchman travelled up to the Unis’tot’en Action Camp from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“I want to support Indigenous rights and sovereignty everywhere, especially those who are opposing extractive industries,” Nitchman told the VMC while on a night-time security shift at the blockade site. At home, she is involved with anti-coal mining campaigns. “Some of the pipelines [here] are for the same industry, and it’s the land and water being destroyed in both places for profit, and destroying what little is left that people are able to live on in a sustainable way.”

Wet’suwet’en territory is located about 1000 km north of Vancouver. It lies on what has been described as Canada’s “carbon corridor,” a geographically strategic region where major oil companies such as Chevron and Exxon are seeking to connect the Alberta tar sands to the Pacific coast for export. The Unis’tot’en claim that these pipelines, requiring clear cutting and prone to leaks and spills, would threaten watersheds, forests, rivers, and salmon spawning channels—source of their primary staple food.

Some of proposed pipelines on Wet’suwet’en territory are intended to carry natural gas from hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) sites near Fort Nelson, BC, close to the border of the Northwest Territories. Wet’suwet’en activists are concerned not only for their own community, but also for communities at tar sands and fracking extraction sites.

“In those territories, those people are suffering from decimated water,” said Mel Bazil, a Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan activist who has been helping out with the Unis’tot’en blockade. “They have no clean drinking water left in their territories. All of their right to clean drinking water is delivered to them by truck. They allowed their responsibility to clean drinking water that already exists in their territories to be diminished, and in place of that, now they have the right of clean water being delivered to them.”

Water is central to this struggle. The pristine Morice River flows through Wet’suwet’en territory, and is still clean enough to drink and fish from. For contrast, local people often reference Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, devastated by the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history when an Enbridge tar sands pipeline burst in 2010.

At the action camp, Unis’tot’en clan members declared Wet’suwet’en territory to be the epicentre for struggles against the tar sands. The Alberta tar sands are the largest industrial project on Earth and the tar sands mining procedure is hugely energy-intensive. Extraction at the tar sands releases at least three times the amount of carbon dioxide as regular crude oil extraction, and uses five barrels of fresh water to produce a single barrel of oil, according to the activist research group Oil Sands Truth.

“My people have been on these territories for thousands of years, until about 100 years ago when the government forced our people off these lands and put them in reservations,” said Freda Huson, the spokesperson for the Unis’tot’en camp, in an interview under the food supplies tent. “And probably just about four years ago, my generation has stood up and said, ‘No more.’

“There’s too much destruction happening out here, because we grew up on these lands, coming out here all the time. And every time we came out here we saw more and more destruction. So we sat down with our chiefs and said, ‘We can’t just sit by any more and let them keep destroying the lands.’ There will be nothing left for our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We found out about the pipelines and which route they were planning to go.”

In May, the BC provincial government officially opposed one of the proposed pipeline projects on Wet’suwet’en territory, the Enbridge Northern Gateway. Premier Christy Clark cited environmental safety concerns. But Huson was skeptical.

“To me they’re just all talk. I don’t believe anything the government says,” retorted Huson. “They make all these empty promises, and they do exactly the opposite of what they say. Based on how Christy Clark has been talking pro-pipelines, that this is going to get them out of deficit, because we know for a fact that the BC government is in a huge deficit.”

Indigenous people from different nations across ‘Canada’ came to the Unis’tot’en camp to make links between struggles against oil and gas pipelines. One of them was Vanessa Grey, a 21-year old activist from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve in southern Ontario.

Aamjiwnaang sits on the pathway of Enbridge’s Line 9 project, which will carry tar sands bitumen eastward towards Maine. Demonstrators have attempted to stop the project through a variety of direct actions, including a five-day occupation of an Enbridge pumping station near Hamilton, Ontario, this past June.

“I feel that there’s a lot here that someone like myself or the youth who have come here can really learn from,” said Grey, sitting in a forest clearing near the Morice River. “Where we come from, the land has already been destroyed and we already see the effects. Here, they are trying to save what’s left of it, and we’re able to see what could have been without the industry.”

During the five days of the camp, participants attended action planning sessions and workshops on a variety of subjects, including decolonization, movement building, and the Quebec student strike. Participants also had the chance to help construct a permaculture garden and pit-house directly on the route of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.

On July 20, just days after the action camp had ended and all of the participants had returned home, a helicopter carrying pipeline surveyors was discovered on Unis’tot’en territory, behind the blockade. The workers were quickly confronted by Chief Toghestiy and were forced to leave.

“We were busy that day working on salmon that day, and locating berry patches to start harvesting for winter. Then all of the sudden we heard a helicopter fly over,” Toghestiy told the VMC over the phone.

Helicopters flying overhead is a common occurrence around the Unis’tot’en territory, but something seemed wrong about this one to Toghestiy. “This one sounded like it was slowing down, and you could hear the rotors ‘whoop-whooping’ really loud. I thought to myself, ‘This helicopter might be landing.’” Toghestiy and a supporter of the camp who was on the scene immediately drove down the road in the direction of the helicopter, and discovered it had landed not far away.

According to Toghestiy, the workers were wearing hard-hats, reflector vests, and had clipboards with them. When confronted, they confirmed that they were pipeline workers, but didn’t know that they had infringed on an Indigenous blockade site. “I told them ‘bullshit! Your company knows [about the blockade]!” said Toghestiy as he recounted the situation.

After he yelled at them to leave, they quickly got back in the helicopter and the pilot restarted the motor and took off. “As they were flying away, the helicopter pilot assured me that they wouldn’t come back, and so did the workers.”

Toghestiy said the workers did not reveal which company they were with, but he observed that “they were standing in the … proposed new alternative route of the Pacific Trails pipeline project.”

The helicopter visit was not the first infringement by pipeline companies onto sovereign Wet’suwet’en territory. In November 2012, surveyors were also found behind the blockade lines, and were issued an eagle feather, which is a Wet’suwet’en symbol for trespassing.

Toghestiy said that expelling these unwelcome workers from unceded Indigenous lands also has a deeper meaning. “We’re stopping the continued delusion that the government is putting out there that they still have right to give out licenses or permits on lands that were never ceded by the Indigenous people. There is no bill of sale that has ever been produced that says they have the right to do that,” he said.

Huson added that if a helicopter is discovered again on her territory, the company’s actions will have more severe consequences. “I’m planning to draft a letter to the helicopter company and other companies working for Apache right now, saying, ‘You’ve received your final warning, and if any more choppers or equipment comes across the blockade again, we’ll confiscate whatever comes in, and workers will be walking out,’” she said in a stern but calm voice.

Indigenous delegates at the camp decided to hold a Day of Action against extractive industries on August 14, 2013, and fundraising is already underway to support the blockade throughout the winter. Meanwhile, Toghestiy and Huson expect even more people to come up for the action camp in the summer of 2014.

For more information about the August 14th Day of Action and next year’s action camp, visit: or their Facebook page.

Click here for full audio interviews and a photo essay from the camp.

Aaron Lakoff is a radio journalist, DJ, and community organizer living in Montreal, trying to map the constellations between reggae, soul, and a liberated world. This article was made possible with support from the Vancouver Media Co-op.

Big Oil sued for destroying wetlands around Gulf of Mexico

John Upton, Grist

Coastal Louisiana would like its wetlands back. It needs them to protect itself from rising seas and raging storms.

The agency charged with protecting New Orleans-area residents from floods is suing Big Oil, claiming it should repair damages that it caused to wetlands that once buffered the region from tidal surges.

The oil companies have recklessly torn out the marshes and plants that ringed the Gulf of Mexico as they laid pipelines and other infrastructure to serve their decades-long oil- and gas-drilling bonanza. From The New York Times:

The lawsuit, to be filed in civil district court in New Orleans by the board of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, argues that the energy companies, including BP and Exxon Mobil, should be held responsible for fixing damage caused by cutting a network of thousands of miles of oil and gas access and pipeline canals through the wetlands. The suit alleges that the network functioned “as a mercilessly efficient, continuously expanding system of ecological destruction,” killing vegetation, eroding soil and allowing salt water to intrude into freshwater areas.


“What remains of these coastal lands is so seriously diseased that if nothing is done, it will slip into the Gulf of Mexico by the end of this century, if not sooner,” the filing stated. …

Gladstone N. Jones III, a lawyer for the flood protection authority board, said the plaintiffs were seeking damages equal to “many billions of dollars. Many, many billions of dollars.”

Mr. Jones acknowledges that the government, which has strong protection against lawsuits, might bear some responsibility for loss of wetlands. But, he noted, Washington had spent billions on repairs and strengthening hurricane defenses since the system built by the Army Corps of Engineers failed after Hurricane Katrina. By taking the oil and gas companies to court, he said, “we want them to come and pay their fair share.”

That seems only fair.

Occupy and Idle No More could team up to block pipelines going east

By John Ivison, National Post, June 27,2013

The failure of Canadian oil and gas producers to get world prices for their product costs the country $28-billion a year, according to the last budget, reducing federal government revenues by $4-billion. No wonder Ottawa has been so keen to push projects that would help get natural resources to Asian and European markets.

Part of the solution is to build new pipelines, but the news on that front has been decidedly mixed. The Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, B.C., looks as dead as a Norwegian blue parrot. The regulatory process is still ongoing, but negative public sentiment in B.C. makes it look a long shot.

The Keystone pipeline between Alberta and the Gulf Coast hangs in the balance, at the mercy of Barack Obama’s new climate change action plan. The President said Tuesday the project will only be given the go-ahead if it does not “significantly exacerbate” carbon pollution. Quite what that means remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Like Churchill’s famous quote about Russia, the key to that riddle may be America’s national interest. The Harper government argues this would be best served by North American energy security, where Canadian crude replaces equally high carbon imports from Venezuela and Nigeria. It’s not yet clear whether the President is convinced.

Such is the uncertain future of both projects that great store has been placed in nascent plans by both Enbridge and Trans Canada Corp. to transport crude eastward to refineries in Quebec and New Brunswick, from where it could be exported. (Enbridge is proposing to reverse an existing oil pipeline between Sarnia and Montreal. Line 9A from Sarnia to Westover, near Hamilton, has been granted regulatory approval; public hearings on Line 9B to Montreal will begin this fall. Trans Canada is proposing to convert existing natural gas pipelines for oil transportation between Alberta and tank terminals in Quebec City and Saint John, N.B.).

Politicians of all stripes have shown unusual solidarity in support of moving oilsands crude eastward. The good news for the pipeline companies is that there has not been concerted opposition from environmental and native groups to their proposals – until now.

Last Thursday, a group of environmental protestors took over a pumping station north of Hamilton. The action, dubbed Swamp Line 9, was aimed at blocking plans by Enbridge to reverse Line 9’s flow pipeline, which would allow it to eventually pump up to 300,000 barrels of diluted bitumen from the oilsands.

Early Wednesday, police raided the Enbridge pumping station and arrested 20 people.

But that is unlikely to be the end of the matter. The protest was supported by numerous environmental groups, Idle No More and the Occupy movement. This is the activist equivalent of a camel – the veritable horse designed by committee. Each group has its own agenda – the environmental NGOs want to make Energy East a proxy war for the oilsands and bottleneck production on the Prairies; Idle No More threatens more non-violent protests as part of its Sovereignty Summer, unless Ottawa recognizes the rights of native groups to say no to development on their traditional lands (among other demands); while Occupy calls for a “total restructuring of the political and economic system” no less.

Line 9 has been carrying conventional crude from east to west for 20 years without incident, but this protest has been sparked by claims that diluted bitumen from the oilsands is more acidic and corrosive, and thus more likely to spill
Line 9 has been carrying conventional crude from east to west for 20 years without incident, but this protest has been sparked by claims that diluted bitumen from the oilsands is more acidic and corrosive, and thus more likely to spill.

With uncanny timing, the protest culminated just as the U.S. National Research Council released its findings on the transportation of diluted bitumen, concluding that claims by such groups as Friends of the Earth are false. “Diluted bitumen has no greater likelihood of accidental pipeline release than other crude,” the report said.

However, as native environmental activist Clayton Thomas Muller pointed out, Enbridge’s track record on leaks has done the protesters a big favour. It was an Enbridge pipeline that spilled 3.3 million litres of oil in Michigan and the company reported another leak in northern Alberta last weekend.

“Their narrative is unraveling with every spill,” he said.

The Sovereignty Summer is still in its infancy – rallies in sympathy with the Swamp Line 9 protest across the country were sparsely attended Tuesday. But if unrest becomes more coordinated, this could be the start of a long, hot summer.

Line 9 runs through the traditional lands of the Six Nations of the Grand River in southwestern Ontario. As the Six Nations proved in the Caledonia land dispute, they are a far bigger impediment to development they consider unwelcome than a rag-tag band of environmentalists.

While the sea may refuse no river, the quest for Canadian crude to reach tidewater is proving a good deal more problematic.