Can You Occupy a Pipeline?

Nika Knight is an editor at Full Stop, an online literary review. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she’s become even more concerned about the environment due to her proximity to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Thousands of us — yelling, chanting, singing — surround the White House in protest of the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would transport crude oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas. It’s November 6, 2011, and President Obama has promised to decide whether to approve the pipeline by the end of the year.

The term “tar sands” — as the mining operation in Alberta is most widely known in the U.S. — refers to deposits of bitumen, a dense, degraded form of oil, that lie in the earth’s uppermost layers, heavily mixed with sand. This form of petroleum is difficult to mine and even more difficult to refine into a usable form. The sands are such an expensive source of oil that it wasn’t until the 1990s that technology had advanced enough for the project to be economically viable. But with the reality of peak oil looming, the sands are now mined in earnest. According to the Sierra Club, the process of mining tar sands releases three times more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than does conventional oil production. James Hansen, climate scientist and head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has predicted that construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would be “essentially game over for the climate.”

I’m not radical by nature. To protest is to say to the world: This is what I believe. This is what I know to be right. It is to implicitly frame the opposing view as non-negotiably wrong. It is also to take a stake in something; to declare a self. I have a persistent tendency toward non-engagement, to the point that even a Facebook status update inspires many minutes of second-guessing. This is a statement that will define me, I think. This will live on the Internet for my entire adult life. I have always found it easier to simply not speak.

Photo by Ryan Meehan

But I go to protest the oil pipeline. I go because, despite my deeply-held desire to stay out of things, climate change is one issue that makes me incredibly angry. (Sometimes I feel like channeling Walter, from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: “We are a cancer on the planet!” Other times, dizzy with guilt, I choose to push forward, grimly, drinking heinously wasteful bottled water and flushing the toilet with a terrible frequency.) I also go to the protest because I want to know if I am who I fear I am; I go in defiance of myself.

At the protest — surrounded by a group chanting “We don’t want your dirty oil/keep your tar sands in the soil!” — I find it difficult to speak. My friend, who is a far more experienced protester than I am, exuberantly joins the chanters. “This is what you do,” she explains to me. “You find a good group like this, and they carry you along.” And despite my silence, they carry me along — the crowd of us move to encircle the White House. There, we lock arms and become a long, snaking human chain; I become one of 10,000 people making a single political statement.

In an article in the New York Times’ Lede blog about the pepper spraying of students at an Occupy protest at U.C. Davis, a participant is quoted as saying, “When you protect the things you believe in with your body, it changes you for good. It radicalizes you for good.”

*      *      *

On Thursday, November 10, President Obama announced that he would delay his decision on the pipeline until the end of 2012, pending further review of the project. That day, the environmentalist Bill McKibben, who worked with the political group Tar Sands Action to help organize the protest, wrote:

But a few minutes ago the president sent the pipeline back to the State Department for a thorough re-review, which most analysts are saying will effectively kill the project. The president explicitly noted climate change, along with the pipeline route, as one of the factors that a new review would need to assess. There’s no way, with an honest review, that a pipeline that helps speed the tapping of the world’s second-largest pool of carbon can pass environmental muster.

He continued, “It’s important to understand how unlikely this victory is. Six months ago, almost no one outside the pipeline route even knew about Keystone.”

On November 19th, the threat of a massive protest — also organized by Tar Sands Action — caused the Delaware River Basin Commission to cancel a meeting in which they were to decide whether or not to build 20,000 additional hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — gas wells in the Delaware River Basin (the source of drinking water for 15 million people). Occupy Oakland successfully shut down the port in Oakland, CA for several hours on November 2nd. In New York City, on November 10th, Occupiers joined Teamsters to protest the lock-out of many art handlers at a Sotheby’s auction. Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports recently published an open letter to Occupy Wall Street, authored by several port truck drivers in response to Occupy’s efforts to shut down three West Coast ports in defense of port workers’ rights. The truck drivers wrote: “Thank you ‘99 Percenters’ for hearing our call for justice. We are humbled and overwhelmed by recent attention. Normally we are invisible.”

Photo by Ryan Meehan

Drew Veysey, who has taken an active role in Occupy D.C., has worked to combat climate change for several years. About the tar sands protest, he said, “about 5,000 people RSVPed and between 10 and 12,000 people showed up — which has never happened with online organizing but it did, that’s very, very large… this was the manifestation of a consciousness that was building for a very long time.” He went on to note that the question of whether Occupy D.C. would participate in the tar sands action or not wasn’t a question at all — “It’s like, of course.”

*      *      *

With the rise of Occupy, suddenly even the most anemic of leftist political battles find themselves with a ready model for political action and participants eager to join their ranks. But it’s perhaps obvious to point out that while the protestors’ General Assemblies operate on consensus, this does not necessarily mean that all protestors agree. So when it comes to specific political issues like Keystone XL — issues whose answers may not lie directly within the statement, “shit is fucked up and bullshit” — how does Occupy’s inclusiveness adapt?

When I arrived home from the Keystone XL protest and checked, I found this post mentioning the tar sands, and the contentious comments it had generated. The comments, while mainly from supporters of the Occupy movement, are divisive on the topic of Alberta’s oil sands. One of the most level-headed comments came from someone with the username “peebeegee”:

I support the occupy movement. I really do. I’m Canadian (East Coast). I understand that oil companies are the 1%. But I also understand that the economy in Alberta is BOOMING. Many eastern canadians are going “out west” for jobs, including my husband. This year, he will make what me and he did last year by himself. I understand the occupy movement, but I have to disagree with the occupation of Edmonton. We are sending our loved ones there to make us prosper. The oil companies against popular belief treat their employees like gold. They offered my husband 80k/year, free flights to work and back home when he’s off so he can see his family, they offer room, board and ask that he waits on call to clean machinery.

Another OWS and oil sands-supporter pleads, “Framing the oil-sands in this way makes the 99% of Alberta harden against the movement. ‘Oh, you’re those idiots that want to impoverish our province, I’m going to ignore you now.’ This is not optimal.”

Photo by Ryan Meehan

At the protest in D.C. on November 6th, there appeared to be no conflict over whether or not the members of Occupy D.C. would lend their support to our separate protest against the Keystone XL pipeline. As Veysey noted about the joining of movements, “It feels…like convergence and confluence.” It was natural: in the U.S., where most people do not feel (or believe they will feel) a direct economic benefit from Canada’s oil, most Occupiers in D.C. seemed to think that supporting the fight against further mining of oil — particularly tar sands oil — was a no-brainer. In contrast, Occupy Edmonton’s description of themselves as “less than 200 km from the tar sands the largest and one of the most destructive energy developments on the planet,” resulted in heated arguments among Canadian Occupiers. In one of the few areas of North America in which jobs are booming, the question of whether or not to support the source of those jobs is a complex one.

After reading the exchange, I emailed my cousin, who lives near the oil sands in Alberta. I was surprised to discover that she, too, was positive about the sands. My cousin wrote:

All I really know is that either way the oil is good for our economy. The oil will be mined and produced anyway. So if the protests and environmental issues with pipeline construction stall the project, then it is more likely that we will end up processing the oil here in Alberta. If this the case, it will keep the work here at home giving us more jobs for both construction and operation of the processing facilities as well as more ownership and a better resale value for the finished product. There is also some talk of a pipeline to British Columbia. This would allow the oil to be sent to other markets overseas. Either way our consumerist society is so oil-focused that the oil will be mined and processed regardless, whether it happens here in Alberta, in the States or somewhere else is the only question.

Suddenly forced to consider the real complexity of the issue at hand, I found myself in a bit of a crisis. I had gone to that protest; my presence framed my position as non-negotiable. Black-and-white. Yet here, from my family, were the shades of gray. I found myself with a familiar lament: everything is so complicated.

A recent essay by Roxane Gay in The Rumpus about participation in political issues and events has stuck with me. In the beginning, she states:

For a good part of my life, I was staunchly apolitical. I aggressively avoided taking a stand on much of anything and worked hard to articulate my disinterest. During my twenties, taking a stand felt complicated and overwhelming. This is not to say I was ignorant of all the trouble in the world. I knew a lot about it and that, in part, was why I wanted to avoid getting involved. I had enough going on. Anything else would have been too much.

That’s me, I thought. I felt stuck in my choice to stay out of things. And I was stuck for the same reasons as Roxane Gay — these issues are truly complicated, and to recognize that fact isn’t necessarily a result of intellectual inertia (it is, in fact, the result of the opposite). But the rallying cry of Occupy could be summarized as: this, the state of things, is what’s going on. You’re already in it. And so the political rhetoric of “we are the 99%,” more effectively and succinctly than any other in recent memory, invests the protests’ participants in its message; it drives us to consider our place in the world, and what that means.

Photo by Ryan Meehan

Having attended the Keystone XL protest, I found myself feeling similarly invested in the outcome of the pipeline decision. I couldn’t return to my former state of inertia — to do so felt like a betrayal. And so I considered my cousin’s arguments: I understand that currently, as a culture, we are wholly dependent on the consumption of oil, and these jobs and the development of the oil sands are a result of that dependency. I don’t want anyone in Alberta to lose his or her job, and I certainly don’t want to impoverish the province. But to say that one site of oil mining is categorically less “bad” than another (the tar sands, environmentalists argue, are the most environmentally destructive mining project on the planet; oil wells in the Middle East, many Canadians counter, are engaged in enormous human-rights abuses) is, I think, to distract oneself from the real statement being made when thousands of people join hands around the White House in protest of an oil pipeline: we don’t want to be stuck between two less-than-ideal choices. We want this world to be a fundamentally different one. And, perhaps, “shit is fucked up and bullshit” might also apply.

*      *      *

Maybe there is truth to my previous doubts; a certain validity to that pull of inertia: perhaps, even if I spent all my time reading and listening and watching news about climate change and oil production, I would never fully understand the multitude of complexities involved in a single project like the Keystone XL pipeline. But even if that were true, as a collective, our group knowledge means something. Our individual participation also means something. As a member of a protest, I’m not just me — I’m not only declaring my own position; declaring the importance of individual action. Protest is also demolition of the self: it is to declare oneself a smaller part of a larger whole. It is to declare a “we.”

This is the singular power of the rhetoric of the Occupy movement and its continuing effect on the political conversation in the U.S.: it includes us all, and yet it allows us to adapt it to our own, local concerns. In its inclusiveness it has managed to invest hundreds of thousands of people around the world in its message. While internal conflicts and misunderstandings are inevitable in such an amorphous movement, the broad message of Occupy has made an enormous number of formerly apolitical people believe in sweeping systemic change. This, in itself, is radical.

Update 1/18/12: This afternoon, President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline proposal. While the project may still be approved at some point in the future, many environmentalist groups in the U.S. consider this decision at least a temporary victory.