A Canadian-American Tells All About the KXL and Much More: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet!

Dr. Harvard Ayers-Interviewer
Ben Schreiber-Respondent

My name is Ben Schreiber and I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, the suburbs of Washington, DC, but I was actually born in Ottawa, Ontario. So, just by a quirk of fate, my dad having worked for the Canadian government, I am both Canadian and American, and that is relevant because it is a bit of how I got into fighting Keystone XL pipeline.

I got into this work really as a Sierra Club type environmentalist, a naturalist. My parents took us on vacations to the national parks. I love wilderness, the forest. I did a lot of camping and backpacking, and I took up climbing. I really love nature and out of college I did an internship with an organization that doesn’t exist anymore, called The National Environmental Trust-- I was working on the Roadless Rule. I found the Roadless Rule really amazing, but one of the biggest threats was energy production, and I realized that if I wanted to protect the natural places I really cared about that energy production was a huge threat, and that climate change was an even bigger problem than things like logging. And so I quickly moved into working on climate change.

At first, I didn’t really see the connections of my love for trees and my great concern about climate change. Concerns that trees were the natural filters, the Earth’s lungs if you please, that moderated effects of climate change. That realization came much later when I started working on bioenergy, proposals to cut down trees for energy production. I got into the absurdity of this idea that we are going to cut down these natural filters that are providing us all with clean air and capturing carbon, and then we are going to use them as a source of energy?? I was at first really much more focused on the fact that here we are strip mining, mountain top removal, I mean here are these pristine areas that were being absolutely gutted for coal and other fossil fuels.

At one point, I was taken on a tour of eastern Kentucky and the coal mines out there. I got to see first-hand the decimation. The coal mines are not really mines, more like sacrifice zones. And those communities! What’s been left now that the coal companies are gone is saddening, or is it maddening, maybe both.  The impact it had on the people of Appalachia is, I think, part of the story we too often forget.

After working for the National Environmental Trust, I went to law school for three years at Washington University at St Louis.  I was fortunate enough to go there, for we had a great environmental clinic where we were taking on things like lead smelters and lead paint. As I worked more and more in this area, I have become less and less of a forest person and more and more concerned about people. And I realized every day just how important fighting climate change is, and how important it is for Americans and people all over the globe. And also, I began to see more and more the impact that our energy infrastructure has on far too many communities.

I came to Friends of the Earth in 2009. I found Friends of the Earth to be an uncompromising organization that wasn’t willing to take half measures in this problem of climate change-- we are running out of time to deal with it. I thought that’s where I wanted to be, and so I applied for the first job that opened up at Friends of the Earth. It happened to be as a tax analyst. I knew nothing about the tax code but I was lucky enough that they hired me anyway. I found that it’s been a great fit as an organization. I’ve been here seven years. Since then I’ve worked on all kinds of amazing issues including Keystone, a carbon tax, we are doing “keep it in the ground” work now, and we are fighting nuclear power. I direct the climate program for FOE now. I have done some work outside of climate change but largely my work has been focused on it.

While I was born in Canada, I have never actually been to the tar sands. I was inspired to really get involved in that KXL campaign by pictures that I saw, and it looked horrific. I mean it’s embarrassing! I remember growing up I was proud to be Canadian in this land of Americans. I mean, here was Canada, the country that declined to get involved in places like Vietnam, which has an environmental conscience, which is more progressive with healthcare, a more progressive kind of country. Then all of a sudden we had Prime Minister Harper digging up the tar sands in Alberta-- it was incompatible with my vision of what it was to be a Canadian.

I must say, I am delighted to have Justin Trudeau in the Prime Minister’s seat right now.

It’s amazing the shift. I think anyone who has been fighting tar sands projects is thrilled that we no longer have Harper. Trudeau has also been a really amazing spokesman, but unfortunately, he still supports Keystone XL, but no one is perfect I guess. Perhaps, he was almost forced to do that, but in any case he can’t be nearly as bad as Mr. Harper. I mean Mr. Harper, not only did he promote Canadian tar sands, but he really criminalized environmentalism and environmental organizations.

From an American perspective, President Obama’s rejection of the tar sands permit is the key to what happens next in Alberta. However, I think it’s really clear that the current campaign to keep fossil fuels in the ground is having a real impact as far as Canadians are concerned. I see the Keystone decision as secondary to the keep it in the ground plan. Keystone XL was the precursor to the campaign. What we’ve seen is projects cancelled, a slow-down of new projects, and we were seeing this before oil prices tanked.

And so, everyone said oh they are just going to ship it west or ship it east. If you don’t build Keystone, the tar sands are going to get out somewhere else. That was a key part of the original flawed environmental impact statement from the State Department contractor. But the reality is that it’s not true, these pipelines are dirty, dangerous, and people don’t want them through their backyards, actually and they are having a hard time getting them out. So we have significantly slowed down the development of the Canadian tar sands.

[ Editor’s note—In early May, 2016, a massive forest fire exploded in the bone-dry boreal forests of the Alberta tar sands from Fort McMurray north to Fort MacKay and to the east into Saskatchewan. The mega-fire has shut down about half or more of the tar sands production. By May 30, 2016, Ft. McMurray, the headquarters of the tar sands mining fields, has now been abandoned for about 4 weeks, and no firm date is set for citizen return. As of May 30, 2016, the Ft McMurray fire is still out of control and has burned about 1.2 million acres of forest (480,000 hectares). It is expected to be burning out of control for several more weeks. Firefighters have come from as far away as South Africa in what some are saying is the most costly fire of all time on Earth. Climate change is a likely cause of the super-arid conditions in the Alberta boreal forest that made this fire extent possible.]

Another factor in the demise of the tar sands industry, was the explosion of a train loaded with synthetic Alberta “crude” in the town of Lac Megantic, Quebec in 2013, which killed 47 people. That was a new front in this campaign, and it really highlighted the scourge of the bitumen trains. Many in Canada were unprepared for the sort of plan B which was these trains instead of pipelines. That has definitely slowed down the development of the tar sands.

Since crude oil prices have dropped below $50 per barrel, we see another major factor in the slowdown. We calculated that the price of oil had to be between $65 and $80 per barrel for it to make sense for them to produce tar sands crude. There is no doubt that if we continue to see oil prices around what they are today, Canadian tar sands does not make any sense without massive subsidies. [Editor’s note: Crude oil is currently (May 30, 2016) selling for $49.33 per barrel.]

So there is a major problem with low oil prices, and a great deal of pressure from the climate change perspective to keep 80 percent of all fossil fuels in the ground not only in the Canadian tar sands but also in the Bakken shale, in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela as well.

Speaking of pipelines from the Alberta tar sands, we have not heard much about them because they are “pipe dreams.” The Canadian government and Canadian people do not want them built, and you have First Nations people who have never wanted them going through their land. You have a more hostile government and you have lower oil prices and it makes far less sense now that they did five-six years ago and they couldn’t get them through then.

Actually, from a Canadian perspective, we had made significant progress in stopping the Northern Gateway pipeline to the BC coast before the denial of the Keystone XL, and I think actually the success the Canadians had in stopping those pipelines helped us in our Keystone XL campaigns. Because you know if the Canadians are not going to ship it out of their own country, why should we have a pipeline running through the full length of the country. Further, it also showed that the idea that if you stop one pipeline, it is just going to pop up somewhere else is simply false. It’s not true.

In a sense, one could see synergy working between the opposition to the Canadian Northern Gateway and the KXL. Each setback for the tar sands industry aided and abetted the other. I think that’s right, and I think the global nature of the “keep it in the ground” movement has made the whole thing stronger. We realize that we all have to stop fossil fuel extraction everywhere, and it can’t be a situation where if we stop it just here in the United States that Canada just picks up the slack or Saudi Arabia just picks up the slack. What we are seeing is there is actually global demand for these types of policies, and that is really important for all of these fights.

Back to Trudeau— When he was running for Prime Minister, one of his campaign platforms was to support of the KXL pipeline. But obviously that decision was made shortly after he came into the office, and we continue to see important cooperation between President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau. What was to me the most telling evidence of that cooperation was Prime Minister Trudeau’s speech when he came to Paris. He basically announced Canada’s is back in the climate change fight, and we are ready to lead on climate change. That is a huge shift from where Harper has been, and I think it also puts pressure on the United States to be more aggressive as well.

That Trudeau-Obama cooperation has extended further than this. The two have talked about a series of steps to reduce emissions on both sides of the border. But, there is the Canadian/US agreement and some of the details benefit things like carbon capture and sequestration, something that US environmentalists see as a boondoggle. It’s also clear that this agreement is not requiring the United States to do all that much. So, I don’t want to tout the agreement as a kind of end all, be all. What they are is a signal that Canada is actually not going to be a climate pariah. Remember that under Harper, Canada actually removed themselves from the Kyoto Protocols, and refused to deal with emissions from the tar sands.

Taking us a step back to the KXL, one of the things that has been fascinating to me is that the more that I work on climate energy, the more I recognize the biggest hurdle that we have right now is the wealth of the fossil fuel industry, and that they use that wealth to have influence on all levels of society and government.

For instance, in Ontario what we have seen is the US subsidiary of a Canadian company has actually sued the Canadian government for enforcement of Ontario’s feed-in tariff laws-- laws that are meant to promote increasing renewable energy use. So, in effect what happened after Keystone XL is that we all knew that TransCanada might try to use the North American Free Trade Agreement to get damages from the United States. But shortly after the Canadian election, TransCanada announced their intention to file a claim under NAFTA for $15 billion in damages because President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline.

So basically Trans-Canada is now demanding one hundred dollars from every US tax payer because we have the audacity to protect our air and our water from a pipeline. I just think it is audacious of them, I mean it is really shocking and I think most people don’t understand what these trade agreements demand.

And then the Trans Pacific Partnership, which we are negotiating with countries on the Pacific Rim, would actually increase the number of companies that have access to these types of provisions by a hundred. And so it would not be just NAFTA countries but it would be countries all over the Pacific Rim that could sue the United States for damages for basically enforcing our own environmental laws!

Then you have the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership which is with Europe.  When you consider those two, I mean you are talking about a massive, massive percentage of the world’s economy. And so you are actually putting corporate investor profits above environmental regulations and above the good of people.

Another very important thing to note is these trade agreements are more enforceable than the climate negotiations are. The deal that was reached in Paris, COP21, has no real enforcement mechanism, it is literally just “name and shame.” And yet here we have corporations that can demand enforceable payments for damages in international tribunals. So, the trade agreements actually have more enforcement mechanisms for corporations than we do to protect society from climate change! Basically, we can’t have any hope of dealing with climate change if we can’t defeat the idea that trade deals are more enforceable than climate change protection.