A version of this article originally appeared in The Tyee.

On the night of April 12, 2014, I was a long way from the North Coast. Surrounded by a ballroom full of grey-haired guys in camo vests and stone-washed Levis, I drained another can of Bone Beer and checked my raffle tickets. I had that lucky feeling. My friend and I were volunteering at the B.C. Wildlife Federation annual meeting in Kelowna and I just knew we were going to win something.

I spotted reporter Robin Rowland’s tweet just after nine o’clock: “Kitimat votes NO,” it read.

For the first time, B.C. citizens directly in the path of a heavy oil project had been asked to vote on it. Kitimat is the proposed end point for the $8-billion-plus Northern Gateway project. A twin pipeline would carry bitumen 1,177 km from Alberta to a supertanker terminal there at the head of Douglas Channel.

The non-binding plebiscite was set up by the local municipality, which until than had avoided taking a position on the project. Many felt the question itself was confusing. Haisla Nation members next door were barred from voting and the proponent, Enbridge, had no spending limit. But in the end none of that was enough to tilt the outcome.

The final tally was 41.6 per cent in favour, 58.4 percent opposed. “The people have spoken,” said then-mayor Joanne Monaghan.

The results prompted a roar of cheers and drumming outside Kitimat’s City Centre mall. Speaking through a megaphone, former Haisla chief councillor Gerald Amos delivered this prescient political analysis: “I think Enbridge, and the government, really don’t understand what happened here tonight. But I think all of us do. What we witnessed was a community-building exercise that should scare the shit out of them.”

Why Goliath loses

The key to that night’s victory lies in a simple tactical fact: Energy companies have not, so far, figured out how to move votes. They can easily outspend opponents in the ‘air war,’ but they don’t have the lists, the organizing tools or the volunteer strength to get large numbers of people to the polls.

If the battle is fought on their field — the world of advertising, political donations, lobbying and strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPP suits) — ‘Big Oil’ will win every time. But if a corporate giant like Enbridge can be drawn into an electoral skirmish, the odds are less certain.

Like Goliath shuffling down to the Valley of Elah in heavy armour for his fight with a young shepherd, energy companies are ill-equipped for asymmetrical conflict.

The group in Kitimat that went toe-to-toe with Enbridge was about as grassroots as it gets. Douglas Channel Watch is a kitchen-table coalition comprised of, among other people, retired Alcan workers, local teachers, a shy postal worker, and a self-described “radical Baptist grandma.”

They had $200 dollars in the bank. Their master plan was this: Knock on doors, talk to neighbours, encourage them to vote.

The weekend of the vote last April, Dogwood staff hastily built an online pledge called Let BC Vote. We bet on a win in Kitimat, and we bet that once British Columbians heard about it, others would demand their democratic say. We issued a challenge to people feeling shut out of the power game in Ottawa: “Join us in reclaiming our decision-making power.”

When the results came in I grabbed my phone and pushed my way out into the courtyard of the lakeshore Delta Grand, where jolly hunters and anglers stood puffing on flavoured cigars. I fired off emails through a haze of smoke and manly laughter. The first pledge signatures started trickling in. Up at the head of Douglas Channel, a fresh breeze was blowing. As Gerald Amos rightly noted, Enbridge was in deep trouble.

It’s not that the company didn’t understand the importance of voter contact. Enbridge employees flew in from Calgary and rented every black SUV in the Northwest. They set up a mobile command centre at the local rod and gun club. They prowled through the town’s rainy cul-de-sacs carrying souvenirs and glossy “Yes” pamphlets. They just didn’t have a very good story to tell.

They also clearly misjudged British Columbians, even after 10 years of sales trips. The best anecdote I heard from the Kitimat campaign concerned a resident with a very big truck. An Enbridge employee knocked on his door, hoping for an easy mark. But the guy looked past the clipboard down to the bottom of the driveway, where one of the black SUVs sat idling on the curb. Shaking his head, he said to the Enbridge employee, “Man, don’t you care about the environment?”

Douglas Channel Watch won because several hundred people who didn’t participate in the previous municipal election, many of them young people, decided the plebiscite was important enough to vote. Voter turnout rose to 62 per cent, compared to 56 per cent in the previous municipal election. The difference would suggest the Enbridge issue triggered a deeper set of values than are accessed by conventional electoral politics.

In a nutshell, the Kitimat residents who canvassed house to house were working in service of the broader public interest. Enbridge’s staff, on the other hand, were there to represent their employer’s corporate interests. Corporations may be a form of legal person, and they can certainly spend unlimited money in B.C. elections. But they can’t actually vote – so an organized group of citizens can still beat a corporation at the ballot box.

The emperor’s best clothes

Polling conducted two months prior showed that by a majority of two to one, British Columbians continued to oppose “allowing crude oil supertankers through B.C.’s northern inside coastal waters.” But the same survey also found 64 per cent of respondents believed Enbridge’s project would be built anyway. Only 12 per cent thought the pipeline would likely fail.

Enbridge executives knew long beforehand that the project was exceedingly vulnerable. But the federal government’s shock-and-awe campaign on behalf of any and all pipelines had temporarily clothed the emperor. That public sense of inevitability was Enbridge’s greatest weapon.

It’s also what drove me to join Dogwood Initiative, a scrappy Victoria-based NGO with a penchant for issuing grandiose political threats. If the provincial government went along with Ottawa and approved the Enbridge project, Dogwood organizers said they’d run a citizens’ initiative — the same process that eventually defeated the Harmonized Sales Tax.

It was a nutty plan, but I didn’t see a lot of better options. Two thirds of people in the province believed the federal government was getting ready to ram through a pipeline opposed by dozens of First Nations and a democratic majority of voters. When I visited communities along the right-of-way, people openly predicted another Oka Crisis. They fully expected to see troop carriers rolling through reserves.

Premier Clark was the last line of defence before blockades went up, but I wasn’t sure she’d stand up to Harper for long.

The real problem was that the power relationship between citizens and their representatives was broken. People expected to be betrayed by their politicians. On this issue, even seasoned activists expected to lose. I heard the same grim joke over and over: “see you in front of the bulldozers.”

We needed something to reverse that sense of helplessness, and we found it in the Kitimat plebiscite.

That said, citizens seeking to block provincial pipeline permits would need signatures from more than just one town. B.C.’s unique citizens’ initiative law allows any registered voter to bring forward a bill, but success would require support from 10 per cent of voters in each of 85 ridings.

A proponent seeking to halt a pipeline proposal would have to secure those signatures in just 90 days. Fortunately they wouldn’t be starting from scratch. Dogwood Initiative organizers have been gathering contact info from supportive voters ahead of time, in case we’re forced to launch abruptly.

Walking dead

Northern Gateway was first conceived more than a decade ago. In 2005 Enbridge signed a deal with PetroChina, China’s biggest state-owned oil producer. Beijing would kick in the cash to get it built, in return for dibs on pipeline capacity. Ten years later, despite federal government approval, Enbridge CEO Al Monaco now says the earliest the pipeline could be up and running is 2019.

Even that seems optimistic. Enbridge still has no firm shipping agreements with oil producers. One of the 209 conditions attached to the certificate issued by the National Energy Board is that 60 per cent of the pipeline’s capacity be confirmed, six months before shovels can hit the ground. If Enbridge can’t sign transportation shipping agreements by June 2016, the NEB certificate expires.

Preventing that means winning the confidence of the oil patch at a time when head offices in Calgary are preoccupied with a long, deep price crash. From investment newsletters to energy conferences to the halls of the Alberta government, people who follow pipeline politics are now talking about the likelihood that Northern Gateway will never be built. In fact, in energy circles the project has become a cautionary tale.

One major reason is Enbridge’s longstanding enmity with some of the most powerful Indigenous groups on the continent. Eight First Nations are currently challenging the project’s approval in federal court: Gitga’at, Gitxaala, Haida, Haisla, Heiltsuk, Kitasoo Xai’Xais, Nadleh Whut’en and Nak’azdli.

Together Sierra Club BC and RAVEN, a charity that raises money for First Nations litigation, have crowd-funded more than $350,000 for these court cases. The “Pull Together” campaign has now set its sights on another quarter million.

Four other NGOs are mounting their own court challenges, as is Unifor – the private-sector union that represents energy workers.

It seems likely that one of those court cases will eventually stall Northern Gateway indefinitely. However, the axe could fall much sooner through the actions of elected lawmakers. Three federal opposition parties have promised to kill the project if they hold the balance of power in the next parliament. In other words, Enbridge needs the Conservatives to win 170 seats just to hang on past October.

It’s no wonder the project lead, Janet Holder, retired quietly at the end of last year.

The long haul

Even if the stars align for Enbridge — a friendly government is elected in Ottawa, Premier Clark reverses her government’s rejection of the project and every attempt to secure a legal injunction fails — the project will have to get past the people of British Columbia.

Winning an official citizens’ initiative would still be an enormous challenge, especially in the ridings where we don’t have canvassers working yet. But we’re many months from having to consider that step. In the meantime, the sense of inevitability around these projects is crumbling. The court cases plus the scale and stamina of organizing efforts across the province have combined to change the political math. Where will we be in another twelve months?

Kinder Morgan’s proposal to expand its existing Trans Mountain pipeline proposal, nearly tripling its oil flow, was once seen as a shoo-in. But it has encountered headwinds of its own. The Texas company mounted a slick, far-reaching ad campaign during last fall’s municipal elections, reminiscent of Kitimat. It backfired badly, motivating Dogwood organizers to get young, issue-driven voters to the polls in key communities along the southern tanker route. Turnout spiked and candidates swept into office on platforms of staunch opposition to the project.

Last week’s bunker fuel spill in English Bay served as a small but graphic illustration of the risks involved in turning Vancouver into a global oil port. Just 17 barrels of spilled oil proved too much to contain for Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, the private spill-response company majority owned by Kinder Morgan. Federal officials were pilloried over their slow and poorly-coordinated response.

Now the provincial government is under pressure to boycott the Kafkaesque joke that is the National Energy Board’s review of Kinder Morgan’s expansion. Seven local mayors have declared “non-confidence” in the National Energy Board. A high-profile intervenor — former BC Hydro CEO Marc Eliesen – already withdrew in frustration and others are considering joining him.

Meanwhile the Gitga’at Nation is in B.C. Supreme Court seeking to overturn a 2010 equivalency agreement under which the province signed away its powers of review to Ottawa. What most voters don’t know yet is that B.C. can launch its own independent assessment of the Kinder Morgan project at any time. What’s missing so far is political backbone. If the Gitga’at case proceeds and the NEB continues to alienate intervenors, Premier Clark may be left with no other choice.

What lessons can citizens draw from Douglas Channel Watch and other grassroots victories? If you’re working to defeat an opponent much bigger and stronger than you, don’t fight on their terms. Start by finding your allies closest to home. Build trust and shared purpose through stories that connect to deeper values. Knock on doors. Grow your list. Pick skirmishes you know you can win. Over time, draw Goliath down to the valley bottom.

The lesson for energy companies? First of all, never underestimate the strength and determination of people who are defending their home. Don’t confuse your shareholders’ interests with the public interest. Don’t rely on the federal government to do your dirty work. Ultimately, if your project puts you in conflict with a democratic majority of people in the place where you hope to operate – just walk away.