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‘Directly Affected’: Timely Film Looks at the Madness of Trans Mountain

Pipeline, climate change and governments examined in documentary.

By Dorothy Woodend 20 Apr 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about culture and film for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

When Zack Embree started production on his film Directly Affected: Pipeline Under Pressure, he had certain notions about his country.

“I grew up believing a story about Canada,” he says. “That we were a caring country that prided itself on being fair, democratic, and responsible… And that when it came down to it, we as a nation would do right by the world, even if it wasn’t easy.”

When Embree lost his job teaching art to people on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, he began to research climate change.

The correlations between drug addiction and fossil fuel might not seem immediately clear, but Embree explains many of the people who suffer from addiction describe the process of getting clean as “thawing out. The moment when the numbness from addiction subsides, and the pain of trauma begins to resurface.”

As the increasingly insane rationalizations around oil continue to rack up, the rhetoric starts to sound not unlike someone in the grip of a substance abuse problem. Except that this particular addiction is a global pandemic. As Embree says, “The pleasure of the high eventually devolves into a degrading search for a quick fix… Let the future deal with the hangover.”

Directly Affected, which focuses on the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, is an excellent primer and a wee bit of a history lesson on Canada’s oily problem, starting with former prime minister Stephen Harper’s intention to make the country into an energy superpower. Bill C-38 opened the floodgates by removing hurdles to the oil and gas industry and gutting policies that took decades to enact.

Prior to the 2012 federal budget, oil company lobbyists met with public officials some 2,733 times. This intensive campaign paid off big time. Dramatic changes slashing the time for public intervention in energy industry approvals and limiting the right to intervene to people who were deemed directly affected by a project effectively shut down the public process. Even as the phrase “responsible resource development” was being echoed to the point of lunacy, Bill C-45 and Canada’s National Energy policy began to take on an even darker hue.

But with the 2015 election and the new Trudeau government, it looked as though there might be a tidal change. Our newly elected PM, with his smoothie looks and sunny ways, promised a new kind of government. “Canada is back!” he proudly proclaimed at the Paris climate talks, and all the delegates duly leapt to their feet and went “WOOO!!”

But all those bright and shining promises shattered like piecrust, and here we are currently in a cage match with B.C. in one corner, Alberta in the other and the federal government playing some extended game of chicken with climate change.

So, what the hell happened?

I asked Embree if he could provide some insight.

“When I first started working on the film with my co-director Devyn Brugge in 2014, I had a strong sense that this pipeline project would represent a make or break moment for Canada in terms of the politics of climate change and First Nations reconciliation,” he said. “Of course I didn’t foresee the current situation. But I think it confirms some trends we have been seeing for while. One trend I see is this, as the twilight of the fossil fuel era approaches it is becoming fraught with fear, denial and anger. The energy infrastructure that underpins our society and economy is quickly becoming obsolete.”

“Change at this scale is anxiety producing for everyday people, and of course there will be politicians and powerful interests ready to take advantage. We saw that south of the border with the promise to revive coal mining. I think a similar dynamic is playing out in Canada. The second trend is the powerful fossil fuel interests that guide decision making at the highest levels. I was truly inspired and relieved when I saw Justin Trudeau speak in Paris. He talked about the federal government having a lot to learn from First Nations and cities in how to respond to the climate crisis. Now, two years later, he is threatening to use legislation to ram the pipeline through the greenest city in the country, ignoring UNDRIP [United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] commitments and has found a spare couple billion dollars in public funds to bail out a Texas-based pipeline company.”

But the earlier indicators were clear when the new Liberal government made moves to release the political pressure on the proposed pipeline expansion. The National Energy Board’s recommendations on the project were accepted, and suddenly 895,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen and some 400 tankers a year on the West Coast were on the table.

The project stood in direct opposition to Canada’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement. As Simon Fraser University professor Mark Jaccard says, if the intent is to keep global temperature under a two-degree change, “You can’t justify expanding the oil sands.” The more than 1.3 billion barrels of Alberta’s bitumen would need to stay in the ground if there was any real hope of maintaining Canada’s commitment to climate change action.

Embree set out to speak to people most directly affected by the Kinder Morgan expansion, including residents from a Burnaby neighbourhood who were forced to flee their own homes after an oil spill in 2007. The oil ran into storm drains and then into the Burrard Inlet.

But as Carleen Thomas of the Sacred Trust Initiative of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation says, the lack of oversight that led to the disaster was not particularly unusual. There was no consultation with the First Nations community when Kinder Morgan expanded its Westridge Terminal in Burnaby, she says.

While local people have borne the brunt of these kind of events, many other species like seals, killer whales and salmon are also at risk. If the additional tankers resulting from the Kinder Morgan expansion reaches more than 400 ships per year, it could push the killer whale population into extinction.

As Ussif Rashid Sumalia, director of the Fisheries Economic Unit at the University of British Columbia, tells the filmmakers, there is an economic argument being made, but more importantly there is a moral imperative to protect the coast environment. If a tanker lost even 20 per cent of its payload, Burrard Inlet could be covered in oil.

Since 2005, Kinder Morgan has been responsible for four major spills. In Abbotsford, a spill forced the local elementary school into lockdown. People thought it was a Bhopal-like disaster.

It’s not surprising really, when you consider who is in charge. When Kinder Morgan bought Trans Mountain, Richard Kinder, former CEO of Enron, staffed his new company with former Enron executives (the ones who weren’t in jail) and carried on with business as usual. But business as usual meant no longer replacing sections of leaky pipelines, but patching the aging equipment. Burnaby MP Kennedy Stewart says many former workers quit, citing the fact that the quality of repairs had dropped so significantly that they couldn’t work there any longer in good conscience.

This becomes somewhat terrifying when you consider what is actually being transported, namely diluted bitumen. As author Rikki Ott, a woman who survived the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster explains, the toxicity of bitumen has largely been underplayed. Although a Liberal government report made it explicitly clear that this stuff can kill you, the film reports. Maybe now, or a few years down the road.

The Kalamazoo, Michigan, spill (3.8 million litres) and the Mayflower, Arkansas, oil spill (507,245 litres) devastated the communities in which they took place. Ott notes that after the Mayflower spill, poor air forced an evacuation. Even in houses that were not directly oiled, she says, the curtains, carpets, toys, all soaked up the toxic emissions, and many houses had to be destroyed.

Extrapolate this to a bigger sense of home — the waterways, salmon-bearing streams, aquifers and populated areas that the pipeline route traces on its way to the West Coast. All are at risk. This is before taking into account that the proposed route is also situated in an earthquake zone. The film reveals communities have little to no information about the risks, and even folk in authority have a hard time getting straight answers from the company.

The expanded tank farm that will handle bitumen from the expanded pipeline will be located on a slope on Burnaby Mountain. Chris Bowcock, Burnaby fire chief, says in the film he couldn’t get information about the proposed plans. But the effects of dropping crude on a densely populated area would be catastrophic.

The current conflict kicked into high gear when Kinder Morgan began chopping down trees on Burnaby Mountain, investigating the possibility of running its pipeline under the park. Residents protested, and the company initiated SLAPP suits against five Burnaby residents. As the film explains, SLAPP suits — Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation —  are designed to intimidate people and drain their resources fighting expensive legal battles.

But people weren’t scared off so easily and, as the struggle picked up steam, First Nations activists led the charge. While local NDP MP Kennedy Stewart pleaded in Parliament for common sense to prevail, more than 100 people crossed the police line. The protests galvanized the community and engaged citizens embarked on a campaign of civil disobedience. SFU microbiology professor Lynn Quarmby said “I am going to be the best citizen I can be,” and marched resolutely off to get arrested.

The reality of oil extraction is not pretty. The residents of Fort McMurray and Fort McKay in Northern Alberta have lived for a long time with environmental degradation that has transformed large sections of boreal forest into what looks like a moonscape, dotted with toxic tailings ponds. The upstream effects include spiking cancer rates, tumour-riddled fish and a visceral manifestation of the sickness between First Nations people and the government of Canada.

But as the climate continues to slide into chaos, access to fresh water will be the real issue. As the film notes with a deluge of newscasts about the warming planet, the scale and speed with which these changes are taking place is staggering, even to scientists who are paying very close attention. The impact will be on future generations, our grandchildren and great grandchildren who will live an existence that scientist David Schindler calls “Nasty and brutish.”

Experts like Gwynne Dyer weigh on the loss of food supply and the waves of refugees who will be forced to leave their countries in search of food and water. Severe weather, ocean acidification, droughts and wildfires have profound effects on people, but also on governments. As Dwyer drily notes, the other result of climate change is failed states. “Governments who cannot feed their populations do not, on the whole, survive very long,” he says.

Even as Fort McMurray burned, the past precedents were clear. The Atlantic fisheries failure, the collapse of the forest industry and the mining industry’s decline all took place without any real plan or solution in place. As the Paris climate agreements made explicit, you can make all the plans you’d like, but it doesn’t do much good if people don’t honour those promises.

The economic arguments for pipeline expansion also made little sense. Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan explained that the promise of jobs was laughable, an opinion reiterated by economist Robyn Allan, who explains that shipping raw resources to Asia, where there are fewer environmental controls, is cheaper than refining them here.

Meanwhile, investments in new technology and renewables like solar power by First Nations communities show a different approach.

Given that there are so many better alternatives, it seems distinctly odd, if not downright malevolent, that the oil industry is still going strong.

Embree has his own thoughts on the matter.

“In my film I interviewed Gordon Laxer, author of After the Sands, renewable energy entrepreneurs from Alberta, Mayor Gregor Robertson, and I conducted at least a dozen other informational interviews with renewable energy leaders from across the country and around the world,” he said. “Everyone said the same thing. If you want jobs, investing in renewables will create two to three more jobs per dollar than investing in fossil fuels! Buildings are the largest contributor to climate change, all of them need to be retrofit for increased efficiency. And those jobs would be in communities instead of two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off in a remote camp in Alberta.”

“Do I see something perfidious going on? You bet I do. What is happening seems to reveal the extent of regulatory capture the fossil fuel industry has been able to achieve in Canada. And I think we are also seeing that at least half the country is still in denial or ignorant of the extent of the climate crisis and the massive opportunity that currently exists to create safer, future ready investments in distributed energy networks.”

The Liberal government’s past rhetoric claiming “governments grant permits, only communities grant permission” sounds feeble and capitulating given its failure to acknowledge fierce opposition to Kinder Morgan’s plans.

The shovels were breaking ground even as Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, led protestors in a chant against corporate greed — “In the courts, or on the streets, on the water, or the land. Whatever it takes we will stop the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion.”

The story continues to unfold on a daily basis. But the film makes clear this is a long fight, akin to the great battles for human rights and the fate of the planet.

Embree also has the big picture in mind.

“When I started to reflect on the issues related to oil in our society, I noticed some significant parallels. We all know that our ongoing use of fossil fuels is polluting the land, water, and air. Why? Because as I witnessed with individuals struggling with addiction, it is hard to imagine life could be different or healthier. We as humans are so resistant to change, yet we are in a time of unprecedented change. I think it is now clearer than ever that many of our politicians are governing under the influence of fossil fuel interests. I thought that Trudeau would make good on his promise to shift Canada towards a low carbon economy. His current hardline approach threatening heavy-handed legislation and willingness to shovel billions of taxpayer money towards a Texas-based pipeline operator seems truly bizarre for a self-proclaimed climate leader.”

It is fitting that the film winds up with Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, speaking at the Vancouver Walk for Reconciliation in 2013.

I remember it well. While the rain pelted down, King spoke in rising cadences that brought to mind her late father.

“This is no time for apathy or complacency,” she said. “This is a time for vigorous and positive action. We are all in this together, we are tied in an inescapable network of mutuality. Caught in a single garment of destiny. What affects one person here in Canada, no matter their background, directly affects all indirectly.”

Directly Affected: Pipeline Under Pressure screens this Sunday, Earth Day, at 4:15 p.m. at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver and May 9 at 6:15 p.m. at The Vic Theatre in Victoria. Additional screenings across the province are also taking place in the coming months; more information is available here.  [Tyee]

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