Blockades, Strikes, and the Blowback of the Fossil Fuel Economy

It was said of Rockefeller as he built his prolific infrastructure empire of trains, pipelines, and refineries, that he would enter a community first with a promises of money, and if his kindness was refused, he would resort to other means. His oft-cited quotation speaks for itself, “the way to make money is to buy when blood is running in the streets.” Update this position to today, and you have the model for contemporary counterinsurgency (COIN) that plunges a growing pipeline and oil train network through dissenting communities.

As Warren Buffet, owner of Burlington Santa Fe Railroad, once stated, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” But with militant labor strikes shocking the oil industry and blockades halting oil trains throughout the Pacific Northwest and Canada, it would appear that the class war is finally starting to even out.

Burlington Santa Fe Railroad is the largest oil train business in the US, an infrastructural necessity sparked by the fracking boom in the Bakken Shale of North Dakota, and the popular uprising against the network of pipelines projected out of the Alberta tar sands. After an oil train explosion vaporized nearly half of the downtown area of a Canadian town, Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people, an outcry against oil trains arose throughout the country. Ensuing derailments of coal and oil trains, along with explosions propelling fireballs fifty feet into the air, highlighted the increasing urgency of direct action to halt the exploding “bomb trains,” as well as other fossil fuel infrastructure

From June to November 2014, around a dozen coal and oil train blockades emerged throughout the Pacific Northwest. From Seattle, where 300 people blocked an oil train after the Peoples Climate March, to Portland, where 100 protestors blocked a train in November, urban populations have increasingly mobilized to join rural dissent against fossil fuel infrastructure in numerous places around a Cascadian bioregion that stretches from Northern California to Idaho to British Columbia.

Many of these demonstrations are organized by a network called Rising Tide North America, which formed in 2005 out of the Earth First! Climate Caucus to combat “the root causes of climate change.” With its connections to Earth First!, a grassroots environmental group that has drawn the ire of the FBI and DHS on numerous occasions, Rising Tide has faced more than its share of interference from local law enforcement, federal policing agencies, and, curiously, even private contractors.

The Big Club

Among the most important fossil fuel infrastructure under construction today is an expansive natural gas pipeline network. The gas from wells in Idaho is set to pump through the “Pacific Connector” pipeline through Southern Oregon and across the Pacific, via a terminal in Coos Bay. The 234-mile pipeline would take land from some 300 private property-owners along the way while passing through pristine riparian areas and National Forest ecosystems.

Thirty-five percent of the landowners have taken deals, but 15 percent have said no. If they refuse to sign a deal, the Canadian corporation, Veresen, has threatened to work with local officials to use eminent domain to seize their property at a lower value.

Former TransCanada employee David Dodson calls the usage of eminent domain to seize private property a part of the “big club.” “Eminent domain laws were designed to get things built,” Dodson told The Oregonian in August. “It’s a very one-sided process, and it’s not in landowners’ favor.”

The Pacific Connector pipeline would end at the Jordon Cove LNG terminal, which has been praised by the Obama Administration. According to a White House statement issued in March, prior to the conclusion of the environmental approval process for the Pacific Connector pipeline, “We welcome the prospect of U.S. LNG exports in the future since additional global supplies will benefit Europe and other strategic partners.” These partners include allies against Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea.

The same statement continues, “We agree on the importance of redoubling transatlantic efforts to support European energy security to further diversify energy sources and suppliers and to allow for reverse natural gas flows to Ukraine from its EU neighbors.” The reference to Ukraine is crucial, because it suggests underlying reasons for the EU’s militaristic interest in Ukraine (gas pipelines). According to the American Petroleum Institute, which is deeply involved in the utilization of counterinsurgency strategy in the US, the Ukraine crisis is jeopardizing the future of natural gas in Europe, making the US all the more important of a producer.

In would appear from these statements that the White House views the LNG terminals in the Eastern Seaboard and the Pacific Northwest as a national security imperative on a global scale. At the same time, it is questionable as to whether or not profit even matters; as James C Scott notes with regard to the production of palm oil plantations in Indonesia, the construction of industrial infrastructure stands not so much to rake in profits for the nation, but to make its land and people “legible” to the maps and observers of the state.

In keeping with this connection between the national interests of the counterinsurgency campaign in Ukraine, geopolitical maneuvers in the South China Sea, and industrial interests in the Northwest, the “big club” deploys similar public relations networks set up by business and political elites to further the agenda of the gas industry. They are producing a narrative and a reality of legible, productive force at the same time, and it has already created a situation of war throughout the world.

Enter COIN

To advance the “interests of national security,” the Democratic Party developed an intricate PR system, which helps to disguise the iron fist of enforcement of political and economic interest in the velvet glove of social benefits and community participation.

According to executives in the energy industry, networks of private security and intelligence corporations are contracted by the energy industry and law enforcement agencies (from local to federal) to gather information on populations in keeping with COIN doctrine. These networks consist of Iraq and Afghanistan military veterans and psy-ops specialists, and generally hinge on the idea of monitoring populations in order to find out how to “win hearts and minds.”

Such militarized corporate PR tactics are often carried out in tandem with political elites, such as “Our Energy Moment” (OEM), an insta-PR campaign launched in February with the intention of promoting the Jordon Cove terminal, as well as other terminals around the US. Spearheaded by Blue Engine Media and Liberty Concepts, two PR groups that act as containers for key initiatives of the Democratic Party and the energy industry, OEM announces itself as a “growing coalition” including private security corporations, political organizations, and energy companies.

The founder of Blue Engine Media describes himself as a “recovering political hack and aspiring corporate hack” on his Twitter profile, having founded the quasi-NGO, Common Purpose, which helps the Democratic Party apparatchiks dictate media positions to third party groups like and Change to Win.

In every way, the LNG infrastructure of the Pacific Northwest is set up as a darling of the Democratic Party, and groups like Rising Tide that refuse to toe the PR line of the White House are repaid for exposing the uncomfortable conflicts of interest within such discreet public and private partnerships.

Upsetting the “Big Club”

While OEM is relatively new, their projection of an image that unites political, corporate, and private security together in one coalition is troubling for many anti-LNG activists given the recent history of harassment and politically-motivated witch hunts.

In 2010, a Department of Justice employee and opponent of LNG infrastructure in Oregon named Brent Foster was hounded into resignation through industry tactics. After being hauled before a grand jury for allegedly telling misinformation to his employer and giving improper LNG advice, a video surfaced on YouTube showing Foster allegedly smoking a joint with another LNG opponent in private. Though he was cleared of all charges by the grand jury, and the video was largely seen as a joke, Foster was forced to resign from his important position. The proposed Palomar LNG pipeline crossing through Mt. Hood that he had opposed, however, was cancelled.

Aside from being an obvious smear tactic designed to influence the public and a grand jury, the YouTube video came from a ghost account with no other videos. The evidence suggests that, barring a strange coincidence of factors, the two LNG opponents were being followed and monitored by private intelligence corporations working with a public relations group in the pocket of the gas industry.

The harassment and even criminalization of activists has not stopped at LNG and other fossil fuel infrastructure. In April of last year, the Oregon House of Representatives passed two laws declaring all interference with state forest management illegal, while enabling the DA to “charge these terrorists with a crime and make them accountable,” according to Rep. Wayne Krieger. This as the Pacific Connector is slated to cross through 234 miles of forest and riparian ecosystems. On top of the Pacific Connector, a new propane terminal is slated to be built in Portland, Oregon, and has faced strong opposition.

The political drive to produce fossil fuel infrastructure is such that the Governor of Oregon, John Kitzhaber, fired the chairwoman of the Oregon Transportation Commission, Catherine Mater, for casting the tie-breaking vote against subsidies to upgrade the Port of St. Helens and enable coal exports by Ambre Energy.

Whether the oil strike will extend to foster a world-historic event is an open question, but those responsible for coal and gas infrastructure will likely not be discouraged from their mission of “national security” absent the overthrow of current, militarized industrial capitalism. Who would lose out from this situation? Certainly not the workers.

Counterinsurgency and Infrastructure

Aside from the class war, according to executives with energy companies, there is already acounterinsurgency war being waged against protestors and civil dissent. This war includes the “hearts and minds” strategy, which extends conciliatory olive branches to populations, even as it launches into massive surveillance strategies of all those involved.

A recently leaked strategy document forged in the collaboration between Edelman Public Relations and TransCanada regarding attempts to build the Energy East pipeline out of the Alberta tar sands boasts a “strong heritage in the more aggressive politics and policy fights in the US.” Their “tactical elements” include “public relations, digital/social [media], grassroots advocacy communication, [and] paid media.” Their “perpetual campaign” involves working with third parties to “pressure Energy East opponents” and “build an echo chamber of aligned voices.”

According to the Edelman/TransCanada document, industry professionals are to work with proxy groups to attack environmentalists in the name of “national security.” Through “detailed background research on key opposition groups,” the energy industry seeks “an assessment of strengths and weaknesses” by “knowledge-sharing” with third parties regarding the financial structure, organizational affiliations, leadership, and political engagement.

As for their media strategy, they claim they prioritize “local > regional > national” in order to proactively reach out to smaller communities and separate the more-emotional opposition from a jobs-based position, while also meeting with the presidents of major newspapers in order to forge collaborative relationships.

Perhaps most ironic is their ideation of the “social media ecosystem,” which fits in line with what is called the “insurgent ecosystem” by counterinsurgency chief theorist David Kilcullen. Social media becomes the site of insurgency, where environmental NGOs, whether international or locally-based, must be monitored, mimicked, anticipated, and responded to in a shadow game of proxy third-parties.

But what do these third parties look like? In 2011, the ostensibly-grass roots organization Energy In Depth was outed for being financially backed by the American Petroleum Institute, which worked with Edelman PR to form another astroturfed quasi-NGO called Energy Citizens in 2009. So deeply ensconced in the counterinsurgency complex is Edelman that they were shortlisted by the Iraqi government in their search for a public relations team in 2013.

Quasi-nonprofits like EID, hoisted into the spotlight through industry funding, disseminate news articles, host community partnership meetings, and generally play a social media turf war with activists attempting to influence things like zoning ordinances to strengthen or maintain environmental regulations.

In fact, it is precisely because the energy industry has extracted its prize at the expense of democracy by means of war that the glut of supply and drop in demand plunged commodity prices into collapse. Had industry accepted accountability to citizens, its “middle and lower-level producers” may never have faced the shocks they are subjected to today. Under these ongoing conditions of counterinsurgency, an oil workers strike adds a level of agitation to the already-militant environmental movement; a sense that the pendulum is swinging back.

Burnaby Mountain and COIN

Although TransCanada has dumped Edelman since being exposed, claiming that they had not begun to implement the practices outlined in the strategic document, it was noted that Edelman had already been conducting meetings with the heads of the Energy East Pipeline. TransCanada insisted that Edelman’s approach was a particular to the US, and had no place among the Canadian people. Returning to Cascadian resistance against fossil fuels, however, the work of Kinder Morgan attempting to push the TransMountain Pipeline through Burnaby Mountain suggests that the strategy outlined and proposed by Edelman is, in fact, being deployed.

Facing a community of environmentalists, social justice activists, First Nations, and locals (more than 70 percent of whom opposed the pipeline), Kinder Morgan attempted to use the velvet glove on the iron fist approach. Headquartered in Houston, KM emerged in Cascadia only after a stint in the Marcellus Shale, where its operations were imbedded in the same system that produced Energy In Depth. In fact, EID features on the KM website as one of just seven linked groups that includes both astroturfed and openly-corporate groups like Laborers’ International Union of North America, The Coalition to Lower Energy Costs, and the American Gas Association. The TransMountain pipeline webpage also links to a vigilant Twitter presence that retweets promotional materials and attack opponents often using the snarky tone that they think is popular over social media.

At the same time as their public relations screen reached full spectrum, Kinder Morgan contractors turned more aggressive on the ground. Numerous activists reported seeing contractors monitoring, following, and filming them. At one point, an activist approached a KM vehicle to capture footage of the contractor in the act of filming him, the contractor accelerated his truck into the protestor, bumping him once as a warning, and then accelerating into him. According to the protestor, the driver was going to run him over had he not quickly moved out of the way.

The private-public collusion is also similar. The energy and natural resources industries overlap in a great many ways. Employees cross over, directors often sit on several boards of foundations and institutes fed by the same industries they work for, and go on to work within politics. In one example, JM Huber’s VP of Environment, Health, Safety, and Sustainability, Don Young, boasts in his LinkedIn profile of “working on quasi-judicial panels including for the TransMountain pipeline expansion project.” This quasi-judicial panel is also known as the National Energy Board, which is set to rule on the legality of the pipeline expansion program soon. The NRC as a “quasi-judicial” group is set up to represent corporate interests. Despite corporate pretensions to modern social network monitoring and media involvement, KM’s behavior and the Canadian government’s judicial and quasi-judicial involvement has presented the same old corruption.

JM Huber, which employs Don Young, is a multinational corporation, and its Board of Directors is stacked with industry leaders like Gideo Argov, a director at a large private equity firm, and W Lee Nutter, the former CEO, Chairman, and President of Rayonier, one of the biggest timberlands holders in the US. Huber and KM share a place in the energy/natural resources sector, and have employees like Liz Simonton, commercial manager at KM in Colorado Springs, who have experience working with both corporations.

The buddy-buddy relationship between industry and the “quasi-judicial panel” set to decide the fate of the pipeline seemed somewhat disrupted in April, when Young, ironically the only member of the three-person panel with any kind of environmental record, left the panel for “personal reasons.” Young was replaced by Philip Davies, a veteran of EnCana, which just pledged its support for KM’s $3 billion Rockies Express natural gas project. Another panelist, Lyn Mercier, comes to the National Energy Board from Gaz Metro, which is trying to force its own landgrabbing pipeline by claiming eminent domain over resistant farmers.

The clear corruption that permeates the “quasi-judicial” process is familiar to peoples’ movements around the world, as political and economic elites collude to force the productivity of industry through communities and critical habitat. If those who want to transform the current paradigm work to dismantle the propaganda of the state’s war against the people, rather than the integrity of labor agitation, solidarity could lead to radical potentials. What about a general strike?

Success Against the Militarized PR Machine

As First Nations continued to maintain the sacred fire of the encampment, insisting that their sacred lands remained unceded to the Canadian government, the legal team for the Burnaby Mountain land defenders found out that the injunction granted to KM was illegal from the start. After Kinder Morgan had received the illegal injunction against the TransMountain protestors Last November, the RCMP immediately began arresting as many protestors as crossed the “injunction line” while KM surveyors performed their tasks.

The RCMP performed their duties brutally, wielding less-than-lethal shotguns at a treesitter, and captured on film throwing an elder woman to the ground. It was not until more than 60 arrests occurred on the mountain and Burnaby Mountain Caretakers locked down to the Supreme Court building in Vancouver that the Supreme Court recognized the illegality of the injunction.

Until the point of mass public participation in civil disobedience, the judicial proceedings manifested the usual process of corporate takeover of Indigenous lands and subversion of activist movements through RCMP brutality. KM attempted to get an injunction extension and failed.

To restate: as KM’s public relations attempted to present the image of a benevolent financial backer of the community, they offered to pay the RCMP directly for enforcing an illegal injunction while their contractors monitored activists movements, threatened, and even assaulted them.

Since the RCMP has already averred that counterinsurgency strategy is necessary for the containment of a First Nations uprising, the fact that Indigenous peoples took the lead in the Burnaby Mountain encampment already foreshadowed that COIN would be at play. The extent of the resistance, the number of people arrested, including public personalities like David Suzuki, attested to the ultimate failure of COIN in the face of public scrutiny and nonviolent civil disobedience.

While counterinsurgency policing includes the militarization of police forces and the papering over of private-public collusion through quasi-NGOs and quasi-judicial strategies, the ability of activists working with social media, legal paperwrenching tools, and grassroots, nonviolent civil disobedience to halt massive industrial megaprojects throughout Cascadia is a testament to the will and the spirit of popular involvement in the socio-political processes of horizontal networking and direct action.

However, the US and Canada are digging in against social change, with Stephen Harper supporting new legislation in the Canadian government to increase funding to spy agencies and propagandists. Even with the decline of oil prices, it does not appear as though the priority on fossil fuels exports will abate any time soon.

The current oil strike in the midst of mass layoffs from unconventional extraction methods like the tar sands will likely produce greater divisions between the industry and its workers, while at the same time increasing the importance of natural gas. The fact of the most patriarchal circumstances of oil workers’ “man camps” in North Dakota is linked also to the racist, sexist environment maintained by supervisors in refineries like Shell’s in Martinez, California. Without a system change from fossil fuel economies, these tendencies will persevere unchecked.

It is tremendous that the steelworkers are striking, and the oil industry appears weaker than it has in years. Alternatives exist, and are becoming more important by the day. Labor could join the struggle against fossil fuels by collectivizing in the refineries, and rejecting the oil bosses who have waged class war against ordinary people, dispossessing Indigenous peoples, and spreading the specter of cancer throughout the world.

Can refineries not be re-purposed? Can the fossil fuel system, so important to waging aggressive, pointless international war throughout the world and at home, not be overcome?

Unless we can confront the vast edifice of militarized “national interest” presented by industry-led public relations, we will be totally incapable of asking these questions, let alone stopping the insane expansion of fossil fuels infrastructure, or supporting the advanced class struggle that the regime of extractivism known as the Global Land Grab has brought against itself in North America.

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). This article is also being published at

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.