On Tuesday morning, over 100 protesters gathered front of Secretary of State John Kerry’s Georgetown home, urging him to stop a pipeline that would carry thousands of barrels of tar sands from Canada into the United States.
But the pipeline in question wasn’t Keystone XL — it was the Alberta Clipper, an expansion project that would increase the capacity of an Enbridge-owned pipeline from 450,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day to over 800,000. Environmentalists have accused the State Department of allowing Enbridge — the Canadian company responsible for the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, the Kalamazoo River Spill — to push forward with expanding the Alberta Clipper pipeline without undergoing necessary regulatory process, including presidential approval required for all cross-border pipelines.
“This expansion is going to be expanding this pipeline to 880,000 barrels of tar sands a day, whereas the Keystone pipeline is proposed to 830,000 barrels a day,” Kieran Williams, a protester and student at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, told ThinkProgress. “We think it’s absolutely absurd that there has been the environmental review and delay of the Keystone pipeline, but that Enbridge can continue this illegal expansion.”
Enbridge applied for a presidential permit to expand the pipeline, which runs from Hardisty, Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin, in 2012. But obtaining a presidential permit from the State Department is a lengthy process — it involves parties at a local, state, and federal level, and requires assessment of a pipeline’s environmental impact, among other things.
CREDIT: U.S. DISTRICT COURT MINNESOTA
While awaiting a presidential permit for the Alberta Clipper expansion, Enbridge decided to build connections on either side of the border between two existing pipelines — Line 67, or the Alberta Clipper, and Line 3, an older cross-border pipeline. Because Line 3 is an older pipeline — built in the 1960s, under a different, vaguely worded presidential permit — Enbridge felt that it could send more barrels of tar sand through its pipelines by capitalizing on unused capacity on Line 3, without having to apply for the same permit required for the Alberta Clipper. In August of 2014, the State Department approved Enbridge’s plan to move forward with certain elements of this connection scheme.
That decision garnered vehement criticism from environmentalists, who accused the State Department of “secretly approving” the pipeline project. In April, a coalition of tribal and environmental groups sued the State Department for allegedly allowing the construction of these pipeline connections — and the expansion of Line 3 — without conducting necessary environmental assessments.
Some of the groups involved with that lawsuit were present at Tuesday’s protest, which was organized by Energy Action Coalition in cooperation with several youth organizations throughout the Midwest. Participants held signs that featured quotes from Secretary Kerry speaking out on the Vietnam War, or pictures of Enbridge’s previous pipeline failures. The protest began with a rally at Georgetown’s Volta Park, followed by a march to Secretary Kerry’s home. There, a group of about twenty protesters climbed police barricades to sit in front of Kerry’s home, while others remained behind the barricades, chanting and singing. That group of protesters remained in front of the house for more than four hours — some with arms linked by foam cylinders to make a human pipeline — before being arrested by police. The protesters that were arrested were led away without handcuffs and cited and released on the scene.
CREDIT: Natasha Geiling
To some protesters — many of whom vocally fought against approval of the Keystone XL pipeline — the lack of environmental review for the Alberta expansion project was baffling.
“Why should one pipeline get that treatment and another be ignored?” Kenny Bruno, campaign coordinator at Corporate Ethics International, told ThinkProgress. “Keystone XL would have been approved if we hadn’t screamed and yelled, so we have to scream and yell to force them to explain that decision and walk it back.”
The protest took place exactly one month after the five year anniversary of the Kalamazoo River Oil Spill, which is still the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. It was also the first major pipeline rupture involving diluted bitumen — the combination of tar sands crude and natural gas that allows the normally thick tar sands to flow through pipelines. When the pipeline ruptured, the natural gas component of the diluted bitumen (also known as dilbit) vaporized, while the tar sands bitumen sank to the bottom of the river, making cleanup especially difficult. This May, Enbridge agreed to pay the state of Michigan $75 million for its role in the spill, on top of the $9.95 million it had already paid in previous settlements.
“The bitumen that spilled five years ago remains in the Kalamazoo even today,” Greta Herrin, a student from Kalamazoo, Michigan, told a crowd at a rally before the protest. “This is a corporation that has shown a complete disregard for people and the Earth. If any company should undergo layers of scrutiny, it’s Enbridge.”
Williams — who was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan — echoed Herrin’s sentiment.
“This company spilled one million gallons of toxic tar sands into the Kalamazoo River, took 17 hours to shut it down, and is still cleaning it up,” he said. “Enbridge will never be a responsible company and we shouldn’t be trusting them with this pipeline.”
Other protesters worried about the consequences that expanding Enbridge’s pipeline operations could have on climate change. In June, more than 100 scientists from the U.S. and Canada published a statement calling tar sands expansion “incompatible” with limiting climate change. A January study also argued that to avoid warming above 2°C, the majority of Canada’s tar sands would need to remain in the ground.
To Greg Mathews, a Minnesota native who attends college in Wisconsin, the protest was about envisioning a future beyond fossil fuels.
“Pipelines spill. It happens. Everyone knows that,” he told ThinkProgress. “I believe in, and I’m fighting for, a future where these tar sands will stay in the ground and we don’t have to take them out.”
Organizers could not confirm that Kerry was at home during the protest, and the State Department did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment at the time of publication. But for Bruno, the stopping the Alberta Clipper expansion would be a way for Kerry to preserve his climate legacy.
“John Kerry is such an incredible climate champion,” he said. “To allow this to happen — the dirtiest oil in the world — it just doesn’t make sense.”