Report on the Powershift BC conference, Victoria BC, Oct 4-6, 2013

By Roger Annis and Ann Grant, Oct 7, 2013 

The Powershift movement in Canada was launched at a conference in Ottawa in 2012 attended by 1,500 people. The movement began at a conference in Washington DC in 2007 and came to Canada several years later. It will hold six regional conferences across Canada by 2015, including one in Victoria BC from Oct 4 to 7. We attended the conference on behalf of the Vancouver Ecosocialist Group hope that readers will find the following report informative. Since it was a very large event, our report is necessarily partial.

Powershift in Canada is a youth-led revolt against the deterioration of capitalist politics and the consequences for social and environmental justice. Its periodic gatherings bring together large numbers of youth, First Nations activists, sections of the green NGO movement, the direct action environment movement, professional researchers and writers, and some of the Big Green organizations. Powershift has a strong environmental and Indigenous rights message.

The conference in Victoria was a decentralized format of dozens of keynote panels, workshops and campaign meetings. There were two gala evenings, featuring science broadcaster David Suzuki on Friday, Oct 4 and Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians on Saturday, Oct 5.
Both gala evenings featured speeches by young, First Nations leaders and activists. Saturday night’s gala event was attended by 600 people. It featured Indigenous activists Caleb Behn, an articling lawyer from BC northeast and a leading voice against gas fracking, Melina Laboucan Massimo of the Lubicon Lake Cree (in Alberta, badly affected by tar sands), and Jasmine Thomas of the Yinka-Dene Alliance.

The decentralized nature of the conference planning creates some duplication of presentations. Most panel and workshop sessions were 75 minutes long. In our experience, that often did not leave enough time for discussion from audience members. Altogether, some 1,000 people took part in the conference and related events.

More than half of the workshops and panels were devoted to tactics of campaigning. Fewer numbers of workshops addressed strategic issues of what needs to be done to build environmental, Indigenous rights, etc. movements.

The conference provided lots of information and afforded lots of opportunities for activists to meet and plan. There were several days of solidarity action planned before and following the big event, including in Victoria on Oct 7 (and a second report, here). Most discussion of campaign strategy took place at two “break-out” sessions of campaign groups on Oct 5 and 6. The campaign groups were: electoral organizing; gas fracking, pipelines and LNG; tar sands and tar sands pipelines; high school organizing; and campus organizing.

There was one discussion on coal mining and export from BC. It was a small workshop but very informative and inspiring. It was led by Kevin Washbrook and Kathy Harrison of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change and Sam Harrison of  Kids for Climate Action. There is a growing campaign of high school students in Vancouver against coal.

There were many panels and workshops on natural gas/LNG and tar sands. On natural gas, the class divergences that have emerged within the First Nations communities along the gas pipeline routes and on the coast where the LNG plants are to be built were not addressed. There is a view that the band councils and other agencies within the First Nations communities that have signed onto gas projects are unrepresentative and illegitimate. We view this approach as simplistic. The issues are serious and require attention and discussion, not least because this is the only way to build greater unity in opposition to the fossil fuel offensive.

An example of this approach was the speech by Jasmine Thomas of the Yinka-Dene Alliance to the Oct 5 evening gala. She made a very strong speech against the tar sands pipelines (“they shall not pass”) but she didn’t say a word about gas fracking and LNG. Member councils of her alliance have bought into LNG. Similarly, the group’s recent submission to the UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples makes no reference to natural gas.

Another example, as reported in The Common Sense Canadian, is the decision of leaders of the  Grassy Point First Nation territory near Prince Rupert to offer a joint venture with an oil company to build a tar sands refinery on its land. The group has already bought into the building of an LNG plant on its territory.

Yet, the conference affirmed throughout its proceedings that natural gas projects in northeast BC and the related pipelines and LNG plants-to-be-built are highly destructive to the environment and a gross violation of Aboriginal rights, in particular the rights of those living in the northeast gas fields.

One of the important events of the conference, in our view, was the panel discussion on Oct 6 featuring four past and present union members, attended by 100 people, including newly elected NDP MLA and former BCGEU president George Heyman. Some frank exchange took place during the discussion period that we introduced. This included some evaluation of the BC election campaign earlier this year in which NDP leader Adrian Dix was pilloried by members of his party as well as the union movement for correctly opposing the Kinder Morgan tar sands pipeline; the support being offered by many of BC’s unions and the Federation of Labour for LNG projects in northern BC*; and the policy of the Unifor union favouring constructing tar sands refineries in Alberta instead of advocating that the tar sands be shut down as rapidly as possible and that meaningful transition policies for workers employed in the fossil fuel industries be developed and fought for.

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Appended below is a summary of the in-depth discussion on gas fracking and LNG that took place at the conference.

The Vancouver Ecosocialist Group had an information table at the conference and several of us were registered participants in the conference on behalf of the group. The table featured our introductory brochure (‘who we are’) brochure, which we distributed widely at the conference, as well as copies of six key articles on aspects of ecosocialism and political strategy, and a book display.

The Powershift conference occurred on the eve of the very important arrival and visit to Canada of James Anaya, Special Rapporteur of the United Nations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  One of us wrote an article on this, published in Rabble.ca and in the Vancouver Observer.
On Oct. 7 in Victoria, a rally by conference participants was held at the BC Legislature to voice Powershift’s message.
End report

* Background on BC unions and the fossil fuel projects:
BC Federation of Labour and B.C. and Yukon Building and Construction Trades Council stand with Premier Christy Clark to champion gas fracking and LNG:
News article here

Op-Ed: ‘Skills training key to providing enough workers for construction boom in B.C’, op-ed by Tom Sigurdson and Jim Sinclair, Vancouver Sun, September 25, 2013

Appendix
The New Boom: Fracking and LNG in BC and beyond
(What follows is a brief summary of this panel presentation at Powershift BC, Victoria, Oct 6, 2013)
With: Andrew Nikiforuk, Caleb Behn, Ben Parfitt

Andrew Nikiforuk gave a spirited and informative account of how fracking in BC North East was “economic lunacy!”  The population of BC is heavily subsidizing the industry with royalty credits for road building and repair. The whole thing is a money losing proposition as the resource will quickly run out.

Premier Christy Clark is selling LNG big time. She says it’s a “clean” fuel with a big market abroad. Are the claims of high available prices for LNG true? No.
Company revenues from natural gas reached $1.2 billion in 2010/11. But gov’t revenue (royalties as well as the sale of drilling licenses) are low (less than $200 million in 2012.

From a Nov. 2012 report by Marc Lee of the CCPA:
For the 2012/13 year, expected natural gas royalties are a mere $157 million, 0.3% of Budget revenues, and way down from the heady days of 2005/06 when gas royalties brought in a record $1.9 billion to the Treasury. This shortfall comes even as BC experiences way higher production levels — in 2011, a record high total of 41.4 billion cubic meters, one-third higher than 31.9 billion in 2005 (current data here and historical data here).

Australia has already invested $200 billion in LNG, Nikiforuk reported. He gave the example of a project titled ‘Gogon’ that was budgeted at $9 billion but came in at $50 billion due to the high CO2 content of the gas, greatly increasing the cost of refining.

LNG will cause the rise of electricity prices in BC, as it has happened in Australia and vast quantities of new electricity will be required. The proposed Site C hydro-electric dam in northern BC is largely geared to powering the proposed LNG plants on the BC coast.

Record numbers of wells were drilled in BC in 2005. Today, the number of new wells is very low due to depressed gas prices; this will take off with LNG. The duration of production from the fields is greatly exaggerated by the industry. So the number of wells has to grow if production is to remain high or expand.

Gas assets of the big co’s have been devalued in recent months as prices of gas in North America have stagnated.

Ben Parfitt
Ben Parfitt from the CCPA talked about the effects of gas fracking on fresh water supplies in the BC northeast, explaining that the industry is using enormous amounts of water without paying a cent and that the waste water is permanently contaminated.

He suggested we need a comprehensive compulsory water tracking system in the province – a single agency collecting all water use. And the province should charge fees for the use of water for industrial purposes. Currently, as an example, Nestle company is taking large quantities of water from BC for bottling and not paying a dime for it. But this pales compared to what a gas fracking operation consumes.

Immense quantities of water are required in order to frack gas. Billions of liters. And the waste water from fracking is highly polluted and toxic, requiring permanent storage in pits.

A huge number of wells, some 6,500 wells, will need to be drilled to meet the initial supply demands for the proposed LNG plants. But this will need to grow as the production cycle of those wells declines.

(Here is an earlier article by Ben Parfitt on the economics of natural gas and LNG. And here is an Oct 3, 2013 article by Marc Lee of the CCPA looking at the environmental consequences of LNG. ).

Caleb Behn, an Aboriginal lawyer from the BC northeast, described first-hand evidence of the highly destructive and polluting natural gas drilling and fracking currently taking place in the northeast. He noted that without charges for water, the industry will ravage the country.

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