Canadian Activists Show There’s a Very Easy (But Dangerous) Way to Shut Down Pipelines

Earlier this month, activists shut down Enbridge's controversial Line 9 not long after it was reversed to flow east to Montreal.

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Dec 17 2015, 5:09pm

Activists lock themselves in part of the Enbridge pipeline. Still via subMedia.tv on Vimeo.

"Shutting down pipelines is way easier than anyone thought," wrote "Will," one of three experienced activists who temporarily halted the flow of Enbridge's Line 9 pipeline near the Quebec-Ontario border. On the morning of December 7, they broke into a fenced-off area to attempt to manually close a valve of the Enbridge pipeline, and two people locked themselves to the valve with u-locks around their necks.


Line 9, the target of this action, is a controversial 40-year old pipeline that had its flow recently reversed to carry western crude oils, including tar sands, from Sarnia, Ontario, to Montreal, QC

In 2010, a different Enbridge pipeline, Line 6B, ruptured in Michigan and spilled over 3,000,000 litres of tar sands oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. The cleanup has cost over $1 billion dollars and is not yet complete. That pipeline runs south of the Great Lakes and connects to Enbridge's Line 9 in Sarnia.

In recent years, a concerted opposition to Line 9 grew in municipalities along its route, which included First Nations, concerned residents, and NGOs. Concerns have ranged from lack of consent from First Nations communities (the Chippewa of the Thames First Nation is taking the issue to the Supreme Court), lack of safety precautions and emergency plans, and worries about the impact on water sources for millions of residents. And of course, Line 9 is criticized for being part of the fossil fuel infrastructure used to expand carbon-intensive tar sands operations.

Despite the opposition, on December 3, 2015, Enbridge began pumping product through the length of the 639 km pipeline. The National Energy Board (NEB) gave the final OK during the federal election campaign, and the pipeline became operational under Trudeau's Liberals who, at the same time, were negotiating a global climate deal in Paris at COP 21.

Dissatisfied with this development, on December 7 three activists went to a valve site along the Line 9 route just west of Montreal, in the town of Sainte-Justine-de-Newton, Quebec, very near the Ontario border.

A couple of videos from subMedia show activist Jean Leger inside the fence manually turning the wheel on the valve round and round. An account of the action from participant, Will, reads:

"6:45 a.m. Jean Leger calls Enbridge emergency number and tells them that he is closing the valve. This is filmed by a co-conspirator journalist. The whole valve and the ground starts vibrating. To avoid a potential explosion, the valve is opened slightly. The ground continues to vibrate, and sound of pressurized flow is audible."

This is how you shut down a pipeline. Video via subMedia.tv on Vimeo.

Soon after, Patricia Domingos, the former mayor of the town and a Francophone, arrived, happy that the action was happening, and began acting as the spokesperson for the rest of the day. She called Enbridge around 7:30 AM (video), but the company was unable to connect her with a fluent French speaker at that time.

We asked the National Energy Board (NEB), the organization in charge of pipeline safety oversight, about this and whether after this incident they were confident Enbridge had emergency responders available 24/7 who speak French. According to spokesperson Katherine Murphy, part of NEB safety requirements "includes the necessity for capacity [for those affected by a pipeline] to communicate with individuals in a language appropriate to the region. If the company is not meeting this requirement, the NEB will take the appropriate action. At this time, the NEB has not received correspondence or notice of what you have stated."

Ontario Provincial Police showed up at 8:24 AM, according to Will, to deal with an incorrectly parked car, but since the valve was located on the Quebec side of the border they left after a short conversation.

Photo via Camp Ligne 9.

Around two hours after the original call to Enbridge, according to Will:

"Approx. 8:45 – A francophone Enbridge employee calls Mme. Domingos and finally, they get the message. They tell her that the pipeline isn't closed, that everything's showing up as normal on their monitoring system."

Will's account reads that at 9 AM, after hearing this:

"Activists unlock and the valve is firmly closed. The vibration reaches a fever pitch, but once the valve is wrenched as far as humanly possible to the right, the vibration stops altogether. Activists lock back onto the valve."

By contrast, a media report from Reuters, stated protesters "tampered with a pipeline valve" and that "Enbridge shut the pipeline . . . as a precaution." Enbridge did not respond to VICE (surprise!) by press time for comment on if and when Enbridge shut the pipeline that day.

Shortly after Leger turned the valve all the way, the SQ (Quebec provincial police) came on the scene. Enbridge staff arrived around 10 AM.

Several hours later, around 4 PM, firefighters broke pieces of the valve in order to remove the activists locked to it. Enbridge employees quickly re-opened the valve, according to Will's account.

"Shutting down pipelines is easy," Will wrote in his report, "and [Enbridge's] security is woefully inadequate to prevent either direct action or disastrous spills."

From the calls they received, Enbridge likely knew this was a protest action and not a spill, and so may have been cautious in their response to avoid causing political turmoil.

But a closed valve along a pipeline is a safety concern. The momentum of the contents in the line running into a shut valve, especially one shut very quickly, can cause major pressure build-up and that pressure could release in unpredictable ways. Yes, it is within the realm of possibility that something could burst and cause a spill. It's a pipeline, they can and do break. However, valves closing on pipelines is not exactly an unforeseen occurrence. Engineers test that very action to make sure that in the case of a valve closing, the pipeline will retain its structural integrity, and its oily contents won't shoot everywhere.

Photo via Camp Ligne 9.

In the aftermath of the action, the three activists say they are being charged with mischief, trespassing (breaking and entering), and obstruction. Until the specifics of those charges are presented by the Crown prosecution (which may take a while), it's hard to know the severity of the consequences the protesters could face.

The charges listed so far include criminal offences, so if there are convictions they could face jail time and would have criminal records. "A criminal record has major implications for everything from travelling to getting jobs to joining a professional order (i.e. becoming a lawyer)," said Max Silverman, a self-identified social justice lawyer in Montreal still defending people from charges from the 2012 Quebec student strike.

According to Will's report: "This whole action was a test of Canada's new anti-terrorism law C-51, which expands the definition of terrorism to include tampering with critical infrastructure, specifically naming pipelines."

Silverman said that the effect of C-51 "remains to be seen" because it is so new, but his understanding is "it doesn't create new infractions like say the post-9/11 anti-terrorism law did [in Canada.]" Silverman emphasizes that C-51 amps up the surveillance state with the effect that, "planning civil disobedience will be far easier to intercept and stop under the new police powers." On whether this case will have C-51 provisions specially applied to, Silverman states, "as much as I don't have the most faith in the Canadian public to stand up and fight for civil liberties at a time like this, I don't think Canadians would stand by and let a bunch of (white) environmentalists using non-violent tactics be charged with terrorism."

In the meantime, it appears Line 9 will be the subject of a separate court case, one being brought to the Supreme Court of Canada by the Chippewa of the Thames First Nation. The First Nation claims they were not adequately consulted about the Line 9 reversal, which would be a violation of constitutional and treaty obligations on the part of Canada. Their case was heard at a Federal Court of Appeal this summer, and in the fall the judges made a 2-1 decision against the Chippewas.

This case being heard by the Supreme Court could be a major thorn for the NEB and Enbridge. Media attention aside, if the Chippewas are granted a "leave to appeal" (a momentary legal measure applied until an issue is resolved), this would put the legality of Enbridge operating the pipeline in jeopardy. And if more judges on the Supreme Court bench side with the Chippewas rather than Enbridge and the NEB on the case of this already operating pipeline, we could be seeing serious dollars and delays. There's an outside chance such a decision could shut the whole project down. This case is likely the only way that could happen at this stage, unless the avidly pro-pipeline Liberals stun everyone and step in to turn off the taps.

"In opposition to the lack of consultation and in solidarity with the Chippewas of the Thames", one woman, 22-year-old university student Rachel Thevenard, is currently running the length of Line 9. Stopping in communities along the route, Thevenard is doing it as part of a fundraiser for the community's legal fees.

The controversy around Line 9 has not gone away. But can fossil fuel infrastructure that is already built and operating really be stopped? Some climate activists have given up on Line 9, seeing the Chippewas case and courting the Liberals as dead ends, and are focused squarely on the yet unbuilt Energy East and Northern Gateway pipelines. There are demands being made for those projects to be subject to the newer more stringent requirements Liberals have promised pipelines will face, like climate impacts. The estimated cost of Energy East, a Transcanada project, was just bumped up from $12 billion to $15.7 billion, and Enbridge's Northern Gateway faces a tough challenge after Trudeau called for a moratorium on tanker traffic on BC's north coast.

Meanwhile, Liberal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr is assuring the oil industry that climate policy is good for pipelines, and the government has just concluded climate negotiations in Paris signaling a global commitment to end the fossil fuel era. It's a confusing time with Harper out and the smiley, caring Trudeau in, championing essentially the same ol' pipeline plan. The contradictions may drive people to take more direct action. It's unlikely manually shutting down existing pipelines (a dangerous procedure) will be a long-term winning strategy, and activists are trying to learn how to effectively engage the Liberals.

As Will, who locked down to Line 9, predicts in his account: "It would be wise to prepare for a wave of repression and infiltration, though it's hard to imagine them slowing the momentum of our movement at this point."

VICE was not able to reach "Will" by press time.