Western Canadian Synthetic Crud

Josh Fox, the creator of the whistle-blowing documentary that made flaming faucets famous, GasLand, made a sequel short film called The Sky is Pink. In it he chronicles the difference between “investigative” journalism and “he said/she said” journalism.

Inspired, I’ve decided to textually mimic his process. I will respond as directly and as frequently as possible to writing that I find dangerously, willfully misleading.

Dear Megan McArdle,

After reading your recent article in the Daily Beast, I was delighted, though for reasons that I suspect will surprise you. Allow me to explain?

First a quick haggle: Could you kindly remove the term “Environmentalist” from your lexicon and never again refer to my friends or me as such? If you need to reduce us to a stereotype please know that we prefer “Climate Justice Workers.”

Here is some of our reasoning:

Climate Justice is a struggle over land, forest, water, culture, food sovereignty, collective and social rights; it is a struggle that considers “justice” at the basis of any solution; a struggle that supports climate solutions found in the practices and knowledge of those already fighting to protect and defend their livelihoods and the environment; a struggle that insists on a genuine systematic transformation in order to tackle the real causes of climate change… Climate Justice addresses four key themes: root causes, rights, reparations and participatory democracy.

Oh, and the word “workers” comes from our recognition of the integrated relationship between labor and land, a relationship which we know is not new and we hope to deliberately foster.

Capiche? Grazi.

Moving onto the meat…

I’m going to be honest, I found your prose to be highly incoherent and it doesn’t surprise me that you now are a ‘special correspondent’ for Newsweek and the Daily Beast,” when once you were a senior editor at the Atlantic and a writer for the Economist. Remember that part of Tarintino’s Jackie Brown when Samual L. looks at Dinero and says, “what the hell happened to you man? You used to be beautiful.”

Anyway, forgive the insult; I was really happy to find this chart:


Pretty official looking huh? The green line is the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate Crude. The red line is the average break-even point of a tar sands producer.

Now you write “the average price of oil is so much higher than the break even price of tar sands production that producers can simply absorb the extra transportation costs imposed by blocking the new pipeline without slowing down extraction.” But here’s the thing, Western Canadian Synthetic doesn’t sell like Western Texas Crude. According to mining.com, “The price oil sands producers receive fell to $44.92 a barrel…on Thursday,” while the black gold of Texas was going for $91.60. Why the discrepancy? Well, “over 99% of Canadian exports end up in the US,” and the “U.S. is awash with oil.” That’s why the pipe is so crucial for tar sands producers, so that their product can be sold at a global rate. Because as it stands now, I’m getting squinty eyed looking at your graph, I’d say that tar sands producers are only averaging 15 dollars a barrel above their break even point.

Do you know what a war of attrition is? No? Well I’m fighting one. The hope is to wear down the ability of my enemy (the fossil fuel companies listed in the carbon tracker report) to operate. In order to be successful in a war of attrition, one must damage and deplete the enemy’s assets quicker than the enemy can replace them. Eventually, this drawdown reaches a critical, break-even, point and the enemy loses the ability to function as a force or they alter their behavior (B.p. -> Beyond Petroleum). Two important factors to consider: first the speed at which we (Climate Justice Workers) draw down the assets of the fossil fuel companies and secondly, the speed with which they are able to replace those resources.

So how are we drawing down assets? Well, we are using a diversity of tactics and are engaging a diversity of targets, as this is a struggle with a multitude of fronts and a multitude of combatants. We are guerrillas, normalizing non-violent direct action. We look for the advantageous opportunity, maximize damage, and then dissipate, only to rematerialize at another time, at another point of weakness.

The lynchpins in our fight are information and reportage. We need information to identify and implicate our targets. Thankfully, much is readily available to the savvy Googler, for instance the top investors in TransCanada. Yet also, we have the good fortune of being allied with an Internet underground resistance that can obtain data such as the home addresses, phone numbers, hell, even fax numbers of the individuals at the helms of corporate bulldozers.

And in terms of implication, that’s an easy one. We have whistle blowers. We have scientific consensus and leadership. We have first hand evidence. We have the industry’s own studies, “For Canadian producers, pipeline constraints have the potential to strand this increase in production growth.” And on occasion we have really helpful visuals from mainstream news sources.

Reportage? We’ve learned that we must account for ourselves. So we don’t just send out press releases, we maintain our own presses, from the DeSmog Blog to Earth First! News Wire. And the advent of social media, like Facebook, like “Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance,” or Twitter, @Ethannuss, #nokxl, #rlblockade, has been a welcome addition to our toolbox. But perhaps nothing has been more useful than the proliferation of video cameras and livestream technology. Now even more than in the days of Rodney King, police know that they aren’t the only ones documenting and they know that documentation is an important recruiting strategy that helps our movement grow.

So back to that war of attrition? How are we doing? Well the war isn’t over, and we’ve had our losses, For instance the State Department Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed Keystone XL released last Friday, which was “not only inaccurate but also incredibly cynical.”

But we have had our wins. TransCanada’s earnings were 47 million dollars less in the fourth quarter of 2012 than the fourth quarter of 2011. And I’m betting heavily that that downward trend will turn into a slippery slope terminating with the tripping of that red break-even line. I dream of the day we reallocate the 8 billion dollar a year subsidy our government gives to Fossil Fuel companies to support small farm start ups. I dream of the day we make the extraction of carbon intensive fuel a punishable offense. And I am taking meaningful steps towards actualizing my dreams.

So while you might interpret our struggle as being on the wrong side of an asymmetric war, I see things differently. I think that Western Canadian Synthetic is destined to be priced right out of the market, and believe it will be one of the first dominoes to fall in a global chain reaction, which will mark the end of the Fossil Fuel Cartel, as we know it.

As to your closing bit about supporting “global carbon taxes that would actually cut down on the amount of worldwide carbon emissions,” what in the past 50 years of human behavior leads you to believe that that is a remote likelihood?

Here’s an MLK quote I think you could benefit from:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate… who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

— Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Ya Basta!

Peter Jefferson Nichols

Peter Jefferson Nichols is a poet, rock climber and activist originally from Toledo, Ohio. He is currently a graduate candidate at the California Institute of the Arts where he is lobbying diligently for fossil fuel divestment. Follow him @bumlogic and look for his words in The Weather on Tropmag.com. Read other articles by Peter.