What Happens After a Kinder Morgan Pipeline Approval? Anger, Then Strategy

In a moment like this, direct action needs to call attention to a moral crisis that demands intervention, much like what we’re seeing at Standing Rock.
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Photo by Mark Klotz / Flickr

OK, so Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion on Nov. 29. Are you angry? So am I. But anger alone will not stop this project.

Anger is a fuel that burns fast and hot, and while useful for short bursts, it will not carry us through the tumultuous time ahead. We need a strategy that acknowledges how long and difficult a fight we have before us.

To build that strategy, let’s start with what we know.

Anger alone will not stop this project.

First, the only other pipeline that was stopped after being granted government approval was the Northern Gateway. In that case, a federal court found that the government, under then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, failed to consult First Nations, and overturned the Cabinet’s approval of the project. While we can hope for something similar with Kinder Morgan, we can’t bank on it.

The Trudeau government has doubtlessly studied the Gateway decision and countless like it in order to determine the bare minimum needed to pass a consultation sniff test. And consultation is apparently the only measure it thinks it needs to meet. Despite the Canadian government’s commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr told Ottawa reporters in early November that the consent of First Nations was not required to approve the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Does this mean legal cases won’t be effective? Not at all. In fact, there are already several in the works that could create more barriers to Kinder Morgan ever being built. But, since most of us aren’t lawyers, there is little we can do to influence these cases beyond providing support, financial and otherwise, to move them forward.

That leaves us with people power. While it is tempting to think that our only recourse now is somehow to physically stop the pipeline construction, hopefully costing the company so much money that it abandons the project altogether, that strategy has one major challenge: It hasn’t really ever worked.

In fact, in researching for this piece, I could not find a single example of a North American campaign focused solely on intervening in the construction of a fossil fuel project of this magnitude that delivered the kind of financial blow needed to stop it. Kinder Morgan may have some financial challenges that increases its vulnerability, but it has also staked much of its future on this pipeline, as have many of the tar sands players lining up behind this pipeline.

Direct action needs to be about more than just impeding the project.

The financial forces backing Kinder Morgan measure their profits in the tens of billions of dollars; on our best day, we might cost them a few million. And the expansion is so important to the fossil fuel industry as a whole that it will likely be willing to suffer astronomical losses to ensure the project’s completion. Winning this battle with a strategy that depends on a financial lever will be tough, if not impossible.

This is not to say that direct action is not called for. The opposite is true. Direct action needs to happen. But rather than in a series of random spurts, it will need to rise like an ever-growing wave before crashing upon the shore. In a moment like this, direct action needs to be about more than just impeding the project—it needs to call attention to a moral crisis that demands political and social intervention, much like we’re currently seeing at Standing Rock in North Dakota.

That leaves us with a political target, and the good news is that Trudeau can still stop this pipeline. Kinder Morgan was initially approved by the National Energy Board with 157 conditions, and Trudeau has accepted those conditions. That means this government now has 157 ways it can reject Kinder Morgan.

Also, the NEB approval comes with timelines and permits tied to those timelines. Through mobilization, legal cases, and more, it may be possible to delay the project enough to invalidate these permits, like what happened with the Keystone XL pipeline. But, let’s not be naive: The federal government will only revert an approval if it is forced to do so.

In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out that “nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” That is what a moment like this requires: to create such a crisis that the prime minister is forced to step in.

We will need a scale of action and strategic escalation that Canada has never seen before.

It’s happened before in British Columbia. Former Premier Mike Harcourt warned Justin Trudeau of what might happen if he approved the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Harcourt, who was premier during the tumultuous “war in the woods,” was faced with a crisis wrought by mass direct action and was forced to act against his own desires.

It’s also happening right now in North Dakota, where the water protectors have captured not just the imagination of the country, but also the attention of the president of the United States.

But we need to be careful not simply to attempt a carbon copy of these two examples. Instead, this movement will need to force Trudeau’s hand in such a way that will make him choose between climate leadership and the fossil fuel industry. If that is accomplished, this moment will not simply be about stopping a singular pipeline—but about shifting the direction of Canada’s energy future.

If we act now, motivated solely by our anger, we can mobilize hundreds, maybe even thousands of people. But absent a strategy, I doubt we could mount enough pressure to win. To go beyond simply defeating Kinder Morgan and to make this a fight about the direction we’re headed as a country and a planet, we will need something more. We will need a scale of action and strategic escalation that Canada has never seen before.

We have already built a powerful base and national opposition to this pipeline. Now comes the hard part: We have to transform what we are today into a true nonviolent uprising. That means organizing, talking to our neighbors, friends, and colleagues. It means connecting across Canada to link fights opposing pipelines, extraction, and other fossil fuel infrastructure in recognition of this moment. And, perhaps most of all, that means forming a strategy for the long haul, because the timeline for the fight to stop Kinder Morgan will be measured in months and years, not weeks and days. This is a fight we can win, and it’s not just going to take all of us—it’s going to take more than us.