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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Capillaries of capital : space, power, and fossil fuel flows in the colonial present Simpson, Michael Phillip


In the spring and summer of 2018, opposition to the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline emerged as a frontline in the global struggle against fossil fuel industries. Opposition to this project had been simmering for years. In the face of planetary climate change, the Anthropocene, and the Sixth Great Extinction, pipeline developments across North America had become highly controversial matters, targeted by environmental activists, advocates of climate justice, and many Indigenous communities. This dissertation places conflicts over tar sands bitumen extraction and pipeline developments within a broad historical-geographical context of settler colonialization and capital accumulation in Canada. The chapters roughly follow the flow of crude bitumen along the pipeline, historically and geographically, from the first colonial encounters of this material oozing out or the banks of the Athabasca River, to present-day conflicts on the west coast of Canada. I begin by tracing the historical processes of settler colonial dispossession and the circuits of capitalist investment that remade tar sands bitumen into a 'natural' resource of Canada, and which have produced the landscapes of extraction that the tar sands are today. Moving along this supply chain from the sites of extraction to sites of circulation, I then consider the spatial-temporal logics with which crude oil flows across capitalist space. In the final chapter, I arrive at the site of Trans Mountain’s tank farm facility where Indigenous people and settler activists attempted to restrict the movement of tar sands bitumen by placing their bodies on the line to prevent pipeline expansion. Ultimately, I argue that the current expansion project can be understood as one that is bound up in, and reflective of, shifting constellations of capital, nation, and political authority. At stake in this conflict is not just a pipeline, but whether the material flows of the future are characterized by socio-ecological relations of reciprocity and mutualism, or relations of harm and violence.

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