Hacking the Tar Sands: Some Early Thoughts

BLOG Hacking the Tar Sands

tar sands
One of the projects I’m proposing to undertake over the next few months is facilitating the organization of opponents to the Alberta Tar Sands and holding Open Space brainstorming sessions to identify creative, clever ways to disrupt and ultimately close down the Tar Sands without anyone getting hurt or arrested. This will take a lot of ingenuity, and I think I can contribute to that, but I also thought it might be useful to use a combination of Donella Meadows’ “ways to intervene in a system”, and business process analysis and risk assessment methodologies, to list some of the vulnerabilities of the Tar Sands, that we might be able to exploit.

The chart below lists all of the resources that (to my knowledge) the Tar Sands need to stay in operation. Beside each I’ve tried to identify vulnerabilities using the 14 major business risk categories:

  1. business interruption (interr)
  2. reputation/market share challenges (rep)
  3. financial/fraud losses (fin)
  4. new regulatory/legal issues (reg)
  5. insurance problems (ins)
  6. compliance failures (compl)
  7. competitive threats (compet)
  8. governance failures (gov)
  9. physical/system security threats (phys)
  10. economic threats (econ)
  11. political problems (pol)
  12. environmental threats (env)
  13. social/human resource threats (soc)
  14. technological threats (tech)

Here’s a quick list of about 50 obvious vulnerabilities, in either obtaining, using, maintaining or managing resources essential to Tar Sands operations. A combination of a few unfortuitous (for the Tar Sands operators) economic or other uncontrollable events, and a few ingenious interventions to exploit other vulnerabilities, would be enough to stop operations. Prolonged and frequent stoppages would quickly have investors, lenders, major customers and politicians bailing out. The recent greed-induced financial and liquidity collapse was almost enough to do it all by itself (the resultant depressed oil prices made Tar Sands development economically non-viable, even with the massive subsidies they’re receiving from taxpayers).

Needed Resource Vulnerabilities Obtaining, Using, Maintaining & Managing Resource
Cash, Loans, Credit, Subsidies, Concessions interest rate spike (econ)
liquidity squeeze (econ)
currency instability (econ)
low energy price (recession)(econ)
very high energy price (growing shortages of cheap oil)(econ)
investigative reporting on subsidies (pol)
Land & Mineral Rights first nations treaties  and opposition (pol, soc)
environmental laws and challenges (pol, rep)
new government philosophy (pol)
property security (phys)
cost (econ)
Assays uncertainties of value (econ)
recoverability questions (phys, econ)
Equipment – Excavating, Bitumen Processing, Operating Systems, Premises cost (econ)
technology development (tech)
security (phys)
Equipment – Distribution (vehicles, pumps, pipes and roads) cost (econ)
technology development (tech)
security (phys)
Workers – Operating, Management, Sales lack of skilled people (soc)
unwillingness to do work (conditions, dangers, fears, conscience) (soc)
absenteeism (individual, collective, illness, emergency) (soc, env, phys)
cost (econ)
Energy – Natural Gas, Nuclear, Electrical cost (econ)
energy project approvals (pol)
availability (econ, phys)
reliability of supply (econ, phys)
Water cost (econ)
access project approvals (pol)
availability (env, phys, reg)
Polluting and Dumping Rights cost (fin)
public outrage (rep, pol)
government regulations (reg)
Transportation to the Pipeline security (phys)
route access (phys, reg)
cost and distance (phys, econ)
Transportation through the Pipeline approval of pipeline projects (pol, env)
security (phys)
cost and distance (phys, econ)
Customers (need, affordability) trade agreements (pol)
demand (econ)
price, affordability (fin)
Application (customer uses) product quality/grade (tech)
alternative sources (tech)
proximity to customers (phys, econ)
Customer Payment state of economy, liquidity (econ)
interest rates (econ)
price (fin)
Information and Communication Systems infrastructure stability (phys, tech)
information security (phys, tech)

Activists usually focus on trying to change customer behaviour (boycotts) or regulator behaviour (fines) towards irresponsible and destructive corporations. While these are worthy holding actions, I have seen few cases where this type of action has been sustainably effective, beyond a brief flurry of PR. Just as photos of factory farms and slaughterhouses (“we don’t want to know”) haven’t changed customer behaviour (most people eat meat anyway), photos of the Tar Sands holocaust are shrugged off by customers at the gas pumps. And politicians get huge campaign contributions from oil companies (just like they get them from factory farm agribusiness), and aren’t willing to discourage consumption through taxes for fear of voter retribution.

If we really want to stop the Tar Sands, then, political and customer-driven (reputational) solutions will not be enough, and demonstrations and sit-ins will likely only have temporary effect. We cannot rely on politicians, customers or the media. We need cleverer, more direct actions, actions that can be measured in immediate and absolute terms in reduced carbon emissions.

I’ve marked some of the vulnerabilities that I think have particular possibilities in bold above.  Imagine this:

  • the US dollar finally and inevitably collapses, bringing about a Great Depression and requiring all energy products to be redenominated in a new gold-backed non-fiat currency
  • economic studies showed that oil price of under $80/bbl would be insufficient to justify the huge cost of Tar Sands development, and oil price over $120/bbl would cause prolonged recession and reduce demand to the point Tar Sands development was not needed, so the viability of the entire project depends on long-term price stability in this narrow price band
  • the courts decree that the massive use of water by the Tar Sands is a threat to Canada’s water security and sovereignty, and ration it
  • leaked security reports confirm that securing the length of arctic gas pipelines to the Tar Sands is impossible, and that any systematic sabotage of the pipe could prevent prevent a single cubic foot of gas from ever flowing; insurance companies bail
  • construction equipment is constantly gummed up with sugar or other contaminants in fuel and oil tanks
  • there are enough plausible but fictitious threats to the health of Tar Sands workers (contamination of water supply from the toxic Tar Sands wastewater ‘tailing’ ponds, industrial disease, viruses) that the workers refuse to show up for work
  • the US Congress, politically grandstanding to “protect domestic markets and discourage foreign dirty oil”, passes protectionist legislation prohibiting import of Tar Sands oil
  • commodity markets (oil prices, interest rates, $CAD/USD exchange rates) are whipsawed so much by speculators that lenders refuse to advance development funds until/unless they stabilize
  • production goes offline so often due to inexplicable electrical and telecom infrastructure outages that profits are affected and investors start selling off holdings, starving the operations of cash
  • information systems are hacked with such precision and regularity that essential reporting and processing functions (filings, payroll) become seriously delinquent and reports become wildly unreliable
  • the Yes Men make a film/TV show ridiculing Tar Sands companies and affiliated governments that is so successful that the euphemism “oil sands” becomes a standing joke across the continent, and no one is willing to publicly admit they are associated with bitumen sludge mining (Tar Sands) operations

These are just ideas off the top of my head. I’m sure that a substantial group of bright people, dedicated to the safe but immediate stoppage of Tar Sands operations, could come up with a lot more ideas, and ideas with more finesse than this list. And of course I’m not advocating anything illegal. I’m just imagining possibilities. Yours are welcome too.

That’s what I’m thinking so far, anyway. When I talk to business executives, even in polluting industries, even in Alberta, they’re aware of and really unhappy with the free ride Big Oil is getting and the horrific destruction the Tar Sands are causing. This atrocity has few real supporters — just a small, tight group of huge oil companies, corruptible politicians, and resigned citizens.

It wouldn’t take much to end this. And if we can end this, imagine what we could do in other areas to stop the excesses of the industrial growth economy.

Category: Activism

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2 Responses to Hacking the Tar Sands: Some Early Thoughts

  1. John Banfill says:

    It is good to start this as a blog but if you want it to grow and receive other ideas turn it into a wiki where all can add to the collective knowledge and the different facets can be developed.I guess there are a couple of observations that I would make. It is totally all about the money – so anywhere you can affect this aspect from law suits to bad public relations will be the right target. Secondly, it will take a large public education campaign to let people know what the toxic tailings ponds etc are actually doing so they will be encouraged to be your ally. Make it easy for people on the ground in the industry that actually know what is going on to report on it anonymously. Not everyone working for the tar sands companies is a loyal friend of the companies.

  2. Hi DaveI read through this again, and noticed a reference to The Yes Men. Have you read the latest additions to my “100 Ways To Undermine The Industrial Machine” (http://earth-blog.bravejournal.com/entry/40952)? I have been adding some ideas that you might find useful. Some of the more relevant ones are:· Pretend you work for a company, and call up radio and TV stations to speak on their behalf. Expose the truth behind the company.· Call up politicians posing as company representatives, offering them funding in exchange for political favours. Record the conversations and if they suggest impropriety, send them anonymously to media outlets.· Buy the domain name of a fictional PR company, and send out

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