Activists stage oilsands blockade

A Suncor oilsands upgrader kept working Wednesday despite attempts by an international group of Greenpeace activists — 20 of whom ended up being arrested — to block its supply of bitumen.

FORT MCMURRAY — A Suncor oilsands upgrader kept working Wednesday despite attempts by an international group of Greenpeace activists — 20 of whom ended up being arrested — to block its supply of bitumen.

But if the real goal of the group’s second such protest in less than a month was to draw attention to its concerns over the industry’s impact on climate change, the environmental organization was probably smiling anyway.

Hours after an extensive emailing campaign informed reporters that activists had climbed three-storey bridges to block the flow of bitumen into Suncor’s (TSX:SU) massive upgrader, the story was playing on Canadian newspaper websites from coast to coast.

It was also featured around the world, on sites including the London Stock Exchange and the Wall Street Journal.

Then came word that the RCMP had moved in to arrest protesters in kayaks and canoes who had unfurled a massive banner reading, “Dying for Climate Leadership” across the Athabasca River beneath a bridge linking two Suncor sites.

That was followed by the arrest of 10 others who were occupying a conveyor belt used to take bitumen to the upgrader.

Suncor spokesman Mike Hudema confirmed that Greenpeace’s executive director Bruce Cox was one of those taken into custody.

“It was definitely a very peaceful protest. The safety of everyone, including activists and workers alike, is one of our top concerns,” said Hudema, adding the conveyor belt was shut down for 10 hours.

“Every person that went in was prepared for the potential of arrest and believed it was important enough to get a real message out to our world leaders. People are literally dying for climate leadership, whether that’s downstream communities that are being poisoned by these operations, or whether it’s the hundreds of thousands of people that will die due to climate change.”

Live video from the protest, supplied by a Greenpeace crew, was being widely featured on newspaper sites and television broadcasts.

“We want (the oilsands) shut down and we want to send a message to world leaders that this is just not acceptable,” said Cox from the site before his arrest.

“Civil disobedience has a healthy and proud history.”

The protest began about 7:30 a.m. local time.

The protest began about 7:30 a.m. local time when activists from Canada, Brazil, France and Germany canoed and kayaked down the Athabasca River to the Suncor bridge.

“One of our teams successfully made their way to the open-pit mine and shut down their conveyors that transmit the bitumen across to the upgrader,” said Greenpeace spokeswoman Jessica Wilson from the site.

Greenpeace banners were draped from various points on the facility.

Production at the upgrader continued, however, said Suncor spokeswoman Sneh Seetal.

“Given the size and scope of our operations, there is some flexibility in how we operate,” she said. “There’s not just one area where things happen. There might be some minor short-term impact.”

Seetal said Suncor was mostly concerned about a safe end to the protest and initially said that while security had been beefed up, no action was being contemplated against the protesters.

She said that changed when the protesters started climbing onto the equipment.

“As the day has progressed, we have seen some extremely unsafe activity by the activists,” she said. “The activists have climbed on equipment using recreational climbing gear that does not meet provincial or company safety standards. We have tried to provide industrial personal protection equipment to the activists, to ensure their safety, but they have declined that offer.”

She also said the company has offered to meet and talk to Greenpeace, but that offer has also been declined.

Seetal referred to RCMP any questions on what charges had been laid. However, RCMP spokesman Cpl. Wayne Oakes said he did not have those specifics and could only confirm that some arrests had been made.

Hudema said his understanding was that the protesters on the river had been charged with mischief, but he was unsure about the charges against the others.