Indigenous groups say Big Oil’s pollution threatens their existence in Canadian forest

This article was printed in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, impartial information outlet that covers local weather, vitality and the surroundings. It is a part of “The Fifth Crime,” a collection on ecocide.

FORT McMURRAY, Alberta — The land round Jean L’Hommecourt’s cabin was as soon as miles away from the noise of the world. On lengthy summer season days, she would come together with her mom to collect berries from the forest and to hunt moose when the leaves turned yellow and the air crisp.

But during the last twenty years, the cabin has been surrounded by the increasing mines of Alberta’s tar sands, the place oil firms have dug huge open pits to extract a heavy type of crude known as bitumen. L’Hommecourt and her Indigenous neighborhood of Fort McKay, about 35 miles north of Fort McMurray, have watched as the businesses have changed their conventional lands with a 40-mile string of mines, stripping away subarctic boreal forest and wetlands and rerouting waterways.

“It’s an invasion of our territory, invasion of us trying to be out on the land,” L’Hommecourt mentioned. Over the years, increasingly staff have proven up in the realm, stopping her alongside the street to inform her that she couldn’t hunt moose or that she was trespassing.

“‘You’re the trespasser,’” she tells them. “‘I shouldn’t have to be answering your questions — you answer mine.’”

Jean L’Hommecourt warms on the hearth exterior the cabin she has constructed close to the Fort McKay First Nation’s village, about an hour’s drive north of Fort McMurray, in Alberta, Canada.Michael Kodas

Oil and gasoline firms like ExxonMobil and the Canadian large Suncor have reworked the tar sands — additionally known as oil sands — into one of many world’s largest industrial developments, protecting an space bigger than New York City. They have constructed sprawling waste pits that leach heavy metals into groundwater, and processing vegetation that spew pollution into the air, sending a bitter stench for miles.

The mines’ ecological impacts are so huge and so deep that L’Hommecourt and different Indigenous folks right here — largely from the Dene and Cree First Nations — say the business has challenged their very existence, even because it has offered jobs and income to Native companies and communities. People in this area have lengthy suspected that the tar sands mines had been poisoning the land and every thing it feeds.

The financial advantages of the event are immense: Oil is Canada’s high export, and the mining and vitality sector as an entire accounts for almost 1 / 4 of Alberta’s provincial economic system. The sands pump out greater than 3 million barrels of oil per day, serving to make Canada the world’s fourth-largest oil producer and the highest exporter of crude to the United States. But the businesses’ energy-hungry extraction has additionally made the oil and gasoline sector Canada’s largest supply of greenhouse gasoline emissions, based on a authorities report. 

The largest oil sands firms have pledged to scale back their emissions, saying they’ll rely largely on government-subsidized carbon seize tasks. Yet oil firms and the federal government anticipate output will climb effectively into the 2030s. Even a brand new proposal by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to cap emissions in the oil sector doesn’t embrace any plan to decrease manufacturing.

Some legal professionals and advocates have pointed to the tar sands as a major instance of the widespread environmental destruction they name “ecocide.” They are pushing the International Criminal Court to outlaw ecocide as against the law, on par with genocide or conflict crimes. While the marketing campaign for a brand new worldwide legislation is prone to final years, with no assurance it’s going to succeed, it has drawn consideration to the shortcoming of nations’ current legal guidelines to include industrial growth just like the tar sands, which can pollute the land for many years or centuries.

Mike Mercredi, who’s Dene and lives in Fort Chipewyan, about 100 miles north of Fort McKay, famous that the identify of his folks interprets as “people of the land.”

“It’s in our name of who we call ourselves,” he mentioned. “We are the land. So when you’re destroying that land, when you’re committing ecocide, you’re committing genocide.”

Julie King, an Exxon spokeswoman, mentioned that “ExxonMobil is committed to operating our businesses in a responsible and sustainable manner, working to minimize environmental impacts and supporting the communities where we live and work.”

Leithan Slade, a spokesman for Suncor, pointed to agreements the corporate has signed with First Nations, including that “Suncor sees partnering with Indigenous communities as foundational to successful energy development.”

L’Hommecourt is intimately conversant in these partnerships by means of her work as an environmental coordinator and researcher for the Fort McKay First Nation, of which she is a member, and in that place she’s fought to guard no matter shreds of land she may. 

Her cabin is just 20 miles from city because the crow flies, however the drive takes greater than an hour, as a result of the street has to loop round a number of mines. The land, she mentioned, is the place she will assume in her language, Dene, “where in the outside world it’s all English.”

“You get that sense of belonging here,” she mentioned, “and that’s what I want for our peoples, to have their land back.” She added, “If you have your land back, you have everything.”

The tar sands

The solely technique to totally admire the scope of the tar sands is to see the mines from the air. Flying throughout the area from the north, the twisting channels of the Peace-Athabasca Delta dominate the panorama, snaking by means of forest and marshlands with not a street or energy line in sight.

That terrain offers technique to a mix of forest, muskeg and drylands, the place the sandy soil rises to the floor. Out of nowhere, straight strains emerge — a large, unpaved freeway and paths resulting in squares carved out of the forest, the place firms have explored for oil.

Then the mines become visible. Billowing plumes of smoke fill the sky. Flames shoot out of flare stacks. The forest’s inexperienced is changed by huge black holes pockmarked with large puddles. From the air, the dump vehicles and shovels seem like toys, hauling mounds of bitumen from newly dug pits. As the aircraft nears its descent, the cabin fills with a tarry stench.

“It’s just the most completely ludicrous approach to industrial and energy development that is possible, given everything we know about the impact on ecosystems, the impact on climate,” mentioned Dale Marshall, nationwide program supervisor with Environmental Defence, a Canadian advocacy group.

To extract bitumen from the sand, oil firms warmth it after which deal with it in a slurry of water and solvents. In different elements of Alberta, the place the sands are too deep to mine, the bitumen is melted in place and extracted by means of wells by pumping high-pressure steam underground. These deeper deposits cowl a a lot bigger space than the mines, greater than 50,000 sq. miles.

The Syncrude Operation north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.Michael Kodas

The extraction requires monumental quantities of vitality: In 2018, the most recent yr for which figures can be found, oil sands producers consumed 30 % of all of the pure gasoline burned in Canada. Collectively, the mines’ and deep-extraction tasks’ greenhouse gasoline emissions roughly equal these of 21 coal-fired energy vegetation, and that’s simply to get the crude out of the bottom.

The operations additionally pump out nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and polycyclic fragrant hydrocarbons, traces of which have been detected by scientists in soils and snowpack dozens of miles away.

The mines guzzle huge portions of water, with almost 58 billion gallons drawn from the area’s rivers, lakes and aquifers in 2019, based on authorities figures. Much of that finally ends up as poisonous liquid waste laced with hydrocarbons, naphthenic acids and carcinogenic heavy metals. Oil firms have been amassing these “tailings” in waste ponds, which have grown exponentially in dimension and now cowl greater than 100 sq. miles. Regulatory filings present that the ponds are anticipated to proceed to develop effectively into the 2030s. While firms are required by legislation to finally reclaim them, solely a fraction have been reclaimed thus far.

Next to 1 pond, a coal-black mountain of particles towers over the water. High voltage strains buzz overhead. Air cannons ring the pond and blast a number of instances every minute, creating a continuing explosive din. Industrial iron scarecrows are dressed with security vests and helmets. The noise and show are supposed to scare off the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that arrive in northern Alberta every year.

North of Fort McMurray, scarecrows dressed like staff and gadgets that produce loud explosions that sound like gunshots are unfold out round a Syncrude tailings pond, which has poisonous water that might kill birds that land on it.Michael Kodas

Sometimes even these defenses fail, nonetheless, or the birds ignore them and land anyway — tens of hundreds every year, based on a 2016 report back to provincial regulators, obtained this yr by The Narwhal, a nonprofit Canadian information group.

Ottilie Coldbeck, a spokeswoman for the Alberta Energy Regulator, which oversees the business, mentioned the analysis in the report “was not considered complete.”

The historical past

White explorers set their sights on the tar sands as quickly as they arrived. In 1789, Sir Alexander Mackenzie reported seeing veins of “bituminous quality” uncovered alongside the Athabasca River. Within a century, prospectors and geologists had recognized “almost inexhaustible supplies” of petroleum in the realm. The solely impediment appeared to be the folks dwelling above it.

In 1891, the superintendent normal of Indian Affairs advisable drafting a treaty “with a view to the extinguishment of the Indians’ title,” to open entry to petroleum and different minerals. Within eight years, First Nations leaders had signed Treaty 8, in which they surrendered title of some 325,000 sq. miles of land to the British Crown, whereas retaining the suitable to hunt, fish and entice freely all through the realm.

The tar sands remained largely past attain for many years, nonetheless, till Americans, pushed by nationalistic ambitions, invested huge sums of capital.

When J. Howard Pew, of the Sun Oil Company, opened the primary industrial mine in 1967, the folks of Fort McKay weren’t blissful, mentioned Jim Boucher, who led the First Nation as chief for 3 a long time, till 2019. Sun Oil, now Suncor, took over an essential summer season looking floor known as Tar Island, he mentioned. “There was no discussion, no consultation,” Boucher mentioned.

The fur commerce had offered the nation’s members with certainly one of their few sources of earnings. But it collapsed simply because the oil business was taking maintain, and so they had few alternate options however to show to the oil firms’ quickly increasing mines.

“We had no choice,” Boucher mentioned.

After turning into chief in 1986, Boucher shaped the Fort McKay Group of Companies to work with the oil business, and over the next a long time he oversaw partnerships with vitality firms that may finally internet a whole bunch of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} for the neighborhood.

This earnings has allowed Fort McKay to construct sponsored housing and to pay for schooling and elder care, achievements that Boucher rattles off proudly. Enrolled members obtain quarterly dividends.

Jim Boucher was the chief of the Fort McKay First Nation from 1986 till 1994 and once more from 1996 till 2019.Michael Kodas

Some First Nations have fought the event with lawsuits. The Beaver Lake Cree Nation, to the south, sued the federal and provincial governments in 2008, saying its treaty rights had been violated by the cumulative results of growth. Despite receiving a ruling 5 years later permitting the case to proceed, the case continues to be awaiting trial, with a courtroom date scheduled for 2024.

Each of the realm’s First Nations has signed “impact benefit agreements” with the oil firms that may embrace limits on sure practices, like water withdrawals, quotas for hiring Indigenous folks and direct funds to the nations. But even because the influence agreements have secured advantages, they’ve deepened reliance on an business that’s consuming the land that was as soon as the bottom of the Indigenous economic system and tradition.

​​L’Hommecourt, who’s Boucher’s cousin, mentioned she holds no resentment towards the previous chief for tying their folks’s destiny to the business.

“He did what he had to do, and as a chief I commend him,” L’Hommecourt mentioned. “They call us the richest little First Nation in Canada.”

Boucher misplaced his grandfather’s cabin, the place he discovered to hunt and entice as a boy, to a mine dug by Syncrude, a consortium of oil firms. A cabin Boucher later constructed for his father, to the north, now sits on a postage stamp of land, he mentioned, surrounded by newer mines.

“It’s empty, that’s how the cabin is to me,” Boucher mentioned. “So I don’t go there anymore. No joy.” 

The results

While the mines cowl an expansive space, their influence on the surroundings reaches a lot farther.

The city of Fort Chipewyan sits the place the Peace and Athabasca rivers empty into Lake Athabasca, about 90 miles north of the closest mine, and the land right here gives a glimpse of what existed earlier than. The largely Indigenous residents can nonetheless hunt and entice in unbroken stretches of boreal forest.

But whereas the nights are quiet and the air smells clear, the business’s presence is powerful. Kids zoom round city on ATVs, whereas the native grocery store shows bins of 87” flatscreen TVs —  ”toys,” as some residents name them, that solely those that work in the business can afford.

And regardless of the lake’s distance from the event, the flesh of some animals that drink from it’s laced with a few of the identical heavy metals that accumulate in the waste pits.

In 2010, a paper printed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discovered elevated ranges of mercury, lead, nickel and different heavy metals in the river downstream of oil sands growth, in addition to in Lake Athabasca. Three years later, one other research in the identical journal examined lake sediments surrounding Fort McMurray and located {that a} group of chemical compounds that embrace cancer-causing compounds began rising in the Sixties and ʼ70s, when oil sands growth started.

The Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations commissioned Stéphane McLachlan, an environmental scientist on the University of Manitoba, to check the tissues of animals, and in 2014 he launched a report discovering elevated ranges of poisonous pollution — together with arsenic, mercury and polycyclic fragrant hydrocarbons — in the flesh of moose, geese and muskrats in the area.

Provincial officers acknowledge that the mines’ waste ponds leak into groundwater. To “limit the risk” that this seepage will unfold farther, the Alberta Energy Regulator requires firms to put in drains, wells, sumps and underground partitions to seize and include the contamination, mentioned Coldbeck, the company spokeswoman.

An oil sands mine in Alberta, Canada, adjoining to boreal forest exterior of Fort McMurray.Michael Kodas

Both federal and provincial officers have disputed analysis that has linked groundwater contamination to the waste pits, citing different research that point out the compounds could also be naturally occurring in groundwater as a result of they’re contained in bitumen.

But final yr, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an environmental physique created alongside the North American Free Trade Agreement, assessed all of the printed research of water contamination and concluded that there was “scientifically valid evidence” that the waste pits had been leaching contaminants into groundwater. The evaluation famous that some analysis has concluded that the contamination reached the Athabasca River, however that scientists had been nonetheless debating the findings.

Asked in regards to the report, Coldbeck mentioned her company “does not have any evidence” that contaminated groundwater has reached the Athabasca River. In response to a query about well being considerations, she mentioned that the company “is committed to ensuring that Alberta’s oil sands are developed in a safe and responsible manner,” and referred inquiries to Alberta Health, the province’s public well being company.

A spokesperson for Alberta Health didn’t reply to requests for remark.

A spokeswoman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers declined to remark, pointing as an alternative to studies the group has issued on engagement with Indigenous communities and on greenhouse gasoline emissions.

Meanwhile, printed surveys of most cancers circumstances in Fort Chipewyan carried out in 2009 and 2014 got here up with combined outcomes. Both confirmed greater than regular charges of sure cancers, together with biliary tract cancers. One research decided that general most cancers charges had been elevated. The different didn’t.

Alice Rigney, an elder with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, blames the oil growth for her nephew’s dying from bile duct most cancers, whilst she acknowledges that there’s nothing to show the connection.

“They took it all away,” she mentioned of the oil firms, talking not nearly her nephew but in addition the broader environmental impacts. “What else is there to take?”

The future

The world oil business is more and more below assault, and Canada’s tar sands, due to the developments’ excessive greenhouse gasoline emissions, are a major goal of local weather activists. Because new tar sands tasks require billions of {dollars} of funding up entrance, many monetary analysts say the period of opening new mines is over.

But even when manufacturing from the mines holds regular or declines progressively their huge footprints are prone to develop for many years, as a result of firms should proceed to clear land to maintain up manufacturing.

And each time the mines do decline, the business will face the problem of what to do with the waste it has produced. The provincial authorities has secured $730 million from firms as collateral for a clean-up, however that won’t even start to cowl the prices. While regulators’ official estimate of the present legal responsibility for Alberta’s mining business is $27 billion, an inside report obtained in 2018 by Canadian journalists estimated clean-up prices of greater than $100 billion. 

Jean L’Hommecourt visits a river close to the Fort McKay First Nation’s village about an hour’s drive north of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada.Michael Kodas

L’Hommecourt mentioned she is torn about whether or not she’s going to stay right here. “My heart is in the boreal forest,” she mentioned. But her youngsters need to transfer away, and in the event that they do, she would possibly, too. The mines are coming nearer to the cabin, and extra roads are being blocked off.

Regulatory filings present that Imperial Oil plans finally to reroute the creek that runs previous her cabin to make means for its Kearl mine. If it does so, the land the place the cabin sits can be buried by land cleared from elsewhere inside the mine.

A spokeswoman for Imperial, Exxon’s Canadian affiliate, declined to remark particularly on the filings, however mentioned the corporate “has collaborative and unique relationship agreements with these local communities that provide mutual benefits.”

The cabin itself has been an emblem of L’Hommecourt’s resistance. It sits on an outdated trappers’ path that Imperial’s staff started utilizing about 10 years in the past as an unpaved entry street for exploration, marking it off with a “No Trespassing” signal. L’Hommecourt constructed her cabin in the center of that street.

“I just said ‘I don’t care,’” L’Hommecourt mentioned. “I’m gonna put my house right here and this is where it’s going to be.” When firm staff come by, she mentioned, “I just tell them, ‘turn around and go back, and if you have a problem with it, get your VP or whoever it is that you report to and then tell them to come and see me.’”

So far, nobody has proven up.

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