The tar sands are an abomination. In a desperate move to counteract peak oil, Canada and the United States are waging war on Alberta’s ecosystem and indigenous communities, as well as on the planet as a whole.  This crime must be stopped.

Clayton Thomas-Muller also recently spoke on Democracy Now!, see the video. [alex]

Tar Sands: The World’s Largest Climate Crime
By Clayton Thomas-Muller

Published originally in Left Turn Magazine, Jan/Feb 2010

Often when one looks at the global climate crisis and the critical necessity of forests as carbon storehouses, we have visions of the Amazon rainforest in South America, or the vast rainforest cover in places like Malaysia, Indonesia, across south East Asia and Africa. What many don’t envision is the second largest carbon storehouse on Mother Earth located in Canada’s northern region known as the Boreal Forest.

This soggy, wet, biologically diverse region spreads across the continent east to west. It is home to hundreds of First Nations/Indigenous communities that have utilized these ecologically diverse regions for their livelihood from time immemorial. Many also do not know that the Boreal Forest is second only to the Amazon region in terms of daily forest loss due to industrial expansion. This tree loss is further exacerbated by an infestation of the spruce pine beetle, brought on by milder winters in the north, which has been destroying millions of hectares of trees from southeast Alaska all the way to western Alberta.

Also found beneath the pine-covered ground are vast stores of minerals and fossil fuel deposits, the most famous of which is known as Canada’s Athabasca Tar Sands in Northern Alberta. Second only to Saudi Arabia in terms of recoverable oil reserves, Canada’s tar sands have an estimated 177 billion barrels of recoverable oil. The main difference between these two sources is the fact that the tar sands in Canada are not a conventional form of oil; they are a tarry clay and sand like mixture that at room temperature is hard as a hockey puck.

To remove this oil, one of two methods must be used. The first is surface mining, where industry removes the top layer of muskeg, trees, clay and sand as well as lakes, streams and even rivers to depths of up to 300 feet. They then use the world’s largest steam shovels, earth movers and dump trucks (300 tons per load) to strip mine out the mix that is then hauled off to industrial upgrader facilities and processed into synthetic oil. In the end it works out to around 5 tons of earth for every barrel of oil. Every day they move enough earth to fill the famous home of the Toronto Blue Jays, the Rogers Sky Dome.

If the deposits are more than a depth of 300 feet, producers must use a deep well injection process called “In Situ” or Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAG-D). This process is six times more carbon and water intensive then conventional oil extraction. The industry must also utilize vast amounts of natural gas to superheat fresh water to be injected into Mother Earth to “melt” the bitumen that then is sucked out of the ground with uptake pipes for upgrading.

Thanks to the 600 million cubic feet of natural gas is burned every day for this type of extraction, the tar sands is the single largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in Canada, and the primary reason Canada is not fulfilling its legally binding emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol. By 2030 at the current rate of expansion, the tar sands will be responsible for an emission level between 100-187 million tons of CO2 every year.

Probably most disturbing part of this extraction process are the runoff streams created by the use of water in the separation process. Once water is no longer usable it is dumped into a vast network of ten tailings ponds that can be seen from outer space. Every day these tailings ponds leak eleven million liters of contaminated water into the Athabasca River and ground water in the surrounding area. By the year 2030 if the tar sands continue to grow at the current rate of expansion these tailings ponds volume combined will represent a body of water as large as Lake Ontario.

Frontline Nightmares

As a result of this “Tarmageddon,” many local Indigenous communities have seen an increase in the presence of deadly forms of cancers and other autoimmune diseases in their populations. Many have observed the negative effects on critical traditional food sources such as the fish, moose, muskrat, beaver and plants that they depend on for sustenance and cultural needs. Moose have been found to have levels of arsenic 400 times the acceptable level as well as sores and tumors. Muskrat have been found with bloody noses and their homes smelling of petroleum. Fish with lesions and deformities are a common thing for fisherman in the region. The effect this has on First Nations/Indigenous communities is amplified when considering our fundamental connection to the sacredness of Mother Earth expressed through our reliance on traditional hunting, fishing and gathering practices.

A disproportionate number of Indigenous peoples have been diagnosed with cancer in the region. Many suspect this to be linked to exposure to the bioaccumulation of compounds associated to tar sands extraction like mercury, arsenic, heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) in up to 21 varieties—all well-known carcinogens and nero-toxins. Since 2000, there have been over 100 deaths attributed to cancer and rare autoimmune diseases in Fort Chipewyan, a community of only 1200 located 250 kilometers downstream from the tar sands on the Athabasca River.

The situation playing out in downstream communities like Fort Chipewyan is the worst case of environmental racism in Canada. For many years the leadership in Fort Chipewyan have been calling for a government-funded baseline health study to confirm or disprove the communities’ concern about tar sands encroachment nearer to their lands and the effect this development is having on their health.

For many years First Nations and Métis have been raising concerns about the impacts of tar sands development on their treaty and aboriginal rights, recently, Canadian and American campaigns against tar sands development had been initiated by non-Indigenous groups including many environmental non-governmental organizations. In the last couple of years however a few organizations have begun working on the tar sands issue and there has been a shift to directly supporting First Nations and Métis in the region.

There is a great need for organizations to prioritize bottom up organizing and create spaces for First Nations to speak for themselves on this issue on a local, regional, national and international level. Accountability is a major issue as we move forward in terms of ensuring that messaging both in the US, Canada, and globally are in sync and accountable to the local First Nations’ position so that solutions being proposed do not further magnify social and cultural inequities faced by frontline and fence-line communities.

Many First Nations and Métis in the regions are demanding the Alberta government halt tar sands expansion, address environmental damages, initiate remediation, and address human health issues. There are also demands that the Canadian government recognize Aboriginal Treaties 8 and 6, legally binding and constitutionally protected agreements between the federal government and First Nations that define the unique land, water and cultural rights of First Nations including the right to hunt, fish and trap.

There is an emerging political will of First Nations to exercise their sovereign rights by implementing their own environmental and health infrastructure to regulate and enforce their own laws within their land and territory. This can be best expressed by the multitude of First Nations litigations being brought forward against the government of Alberta and the Federal government of Canada for failure to uphold their obligation to consult First Nations over potential impacts of the tar sands operation.

Copenhagen & Beyond

The Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), a recognized leader in the Environmental Justice movement, was established in 1990 and has been working since then to support Indigenous Peoples to protect the sacredness of Mother Earth from toxic contamination and corporate exploitation. IEN launched its Canadian Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign in 2007, after a delegation of First Nations from tar sands impacted communities attended our annual Protecting Mother Earth Conference and requested support. As a protocol of environmental justice, IEN does not engage on any issues unless a grassroots based organization or group asks for support.

Currently the campaign is working to support frontline Indigenous representatives from Fort Chipewyan, Alberta to travel to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December. Our primary goals are to strategically and forcefully ensure that the rights and perspectives of Indigenous peoples on climate change are reflected in the climate agreement expected at Copenhagen. We also hope to internationalize the tar sands struggle and highlight this government-sanctioned slow industrial genocide of First Nations in the “national sacrifice zone”.

Much of our work will be on messaging about the need to end business as usual for the fossil fuel regime in North America. We will also focus on the criminal role of the government of Canada in stalling the UN climate negotiations, particularly on legally binding commitments as part of a post-Kyoto agreement. We will highlight the fact Canada cannot continue to be an economic dependant to the US as its energy colony. To do so requires the country to continue suppressing any reference to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, specifically any reference to the right of free, prior and informed consent within the legally binding climate agreements. It also means Canada will never meet its international obligations under the original Kyoto Protocol due to its primarily mineral, fossil-fuel, and extractive industry-based economy.

Much of the work at the climate negotiations will also focus on calling out the false solutions and techno-fixes as clean coal, carbon capture and storage, agro fuels, nuclear, geo-engineering such as sulphates in the stratosphere, ocean fertilization, plastic-coated deserts, bio-char and genetically engineered trees. False market-based solutions such as emissions trading and forest offsets are not true mitigation solutions addressing climate change, but allow polluting industries to continue profiting from the expansion of fossil fuel development while “greenwashing” their image by appearing as though they are offsetting their emissions.

As mentioned in by Anne Petermann in this issue of Left Turn, the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) proposal, a scheme being pushed within the UN climate negotiations that would commodity the atmosphere (carbon) and privatize forests in the Global South is of great concern. The World Bank is gearing up to implement these REDD initiatives that could end up expropriating Indigenous peoples from their forested lands with potential for forced relocations and marginalizing the landless. An estimated 60 million Indigenous Peoples live within these forested regions of developing countries.

For First Nations communities living in the North who have been disproportionately impacted by fossil fuel development, this market scheme is highly problematic. These types of market-based offset schemes are a means for industrialized nations and the fossil fuel regime to buy their way out of compliance and will actually result in much of the same business as usual, creating local toxic hotspots, such as the tar sands area of northern Alberta.

Canadians and those in the US must educate themselves about false climate change solutions and demand real solutions rooted in climate justice. A just transition must be made away from an unsustainable fossil fuel economy, and to clean renewable energy, energy conservation, and nationwide action to reduce our high consumption needs in energy and production. Canada and the United States must sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, stop subsidizing dirty oil development with taxpayer dollars, and fulfill their Kyoto obligations. Canadians and Americans must also support longstanding Aboriginal treaty and inherent rights.

A coordinated and collective response led by First Nations and Métis to the tar sands development is essential for a just victory. The Indigenous Environmental Network calls for a moratorium on the tar sands development, and our campaign and efforts will be in effect until the concerns of First Nations and Métis are addressed.

Clayton Thomas-Muller, of the Mathais Colomb Cree Nation (also known as Pukatawagan) in Northern Manitoba Canada, the tar sands campaign organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network.