By Bill McKibben, April 2, 2020. The New Yorker.
Around the world, people are rising to the occasion of the coronavirus pandemic with acts of kindness, sacrifice, and love that remind us why we’re a species worth fighting for. And then there’s the oil industry. Over the past few weeks, it has been working to push through construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The effort began in earnest in mid-March, when several states—including, crucially, South Dakota, which is on the KXL route—passed laws designating pipelines as “critical infrastructure.” South Dakota’s governor went further last week, signing a law that could charge anyone who, with three or more others, acts to cause “damage to property” as a rioter, and made it a felony to “incite” such behavior.
On Monday, Jason Kenney, the premier of Alberta, where the pipeline originates, announced that his government would hand over $1.1 billion dollars to TC Energy, the company building the pipeline. That is enough to cover construction costs for the rest of the year. In addition, Kenney put forward $4.2 billion in credit guarantees, and that was enough for the company, which had been unwilling to commit to the project, to go forward. Now, the company says, construction will begin immediately, both in Canada and across the border. Indeed, it appears that construction workers began arriving in Montana before the state announced a fourteen-day quarantine on travellers arriving from out of state.
So here’s the situation: in the middle of a pandemic, construction workers will move into isolated rural communities with already strained hospital resources. The “man camps” where many such workers in the industry live are associated with violence against women and other crimes, even in the best of times. Now, with the pandemic, many of the Native communities that live along the pipeline route fear for the worst. “This causes eerie memories for us with the infected smallpox blankets that were distributed to tribes intentionally,” Faith Spotted Eagle, a leader of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, said. (The coronavirus is already wreaking havoc on isolated reservations in other parts of the country, and the chronically underfunded Indian Health Service is struggling to meet the crisis.)
I don’t know if corporations can be evil—I don’t think so, even if the Supreme Court insists on describing them as people. But this is capitalism at its most naked, willing to endanger people in the COVID-19 crisis and to heat the earth in the climate crisis, all in search of a bit more profit. In a world running right now on bravery and love, it’s hard to imagine anything much darker.