Meeting the tar sands face-to-face

Recently, I was invited to participate in a trip to the tar sands, and to Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta for meetings with people affected by tar sands development, along with representatives from other environmental organizations. We had been asked to come so that we could brief people on legal questions in relation to oil exploration and oil infrastructure, but also so that we would have the opportunity to witness what’s happening in the tar sands first hand. (Story continues below photo).

Soon after arriving in Fort McMurray we were picked up in a tour bus owned by Suncor for a guided visit to their massive Millennium mine site just up the highway. We were escorted on our tour by Suncor executives that had come up from Calgary for the rather unusual occasion of hosting tar sands opponents. They joined the local tour guide crew and they were generous with their time in coming to answer questions and explain things that we saw. Naturally they took the opportunity to showcase what they feel is some of the best work they are doing to reduce environmental damage, and for the most part, they acknowledged and didn’t try to dodge the criticisms that members of our group raised.

As we entered their site and rounded a corner to descend into the Athabasca River valley, I was not prepared for what I saw. The sight of Suncor’s upgrader facility north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, was arresting. The two-kilometre long industrial installation of pipes and towers and flame-belching stacks sits immediately adjacent to the Athabasca River, which flows north into Lake Athabasca and onward into the Mackenzie River system.

The upgrader – the pipelines and towers are an immense machine to upgrade tarsands bitumen into synthetic crude oil – is at the epicentre of an truly massive collection of open pit mines and tailings lakes, operated by Suncor and Syncrude, stretching roughly 40 kilometres wide – or about the same distance as from downtown Vancouver to the US border crossing at White Rock (or for readers of an eastern persuasion, the entire width of the City of Toronto from Mississauga to Pickering). The place is just huge! And this is, of course, just the open pit mining operation in one location – there are others, and there is a much wider area occupied by both surface and in situ mining beyond that (wider tar sands extraction area: July 2010 map | Google Earth plot).

The sheer immensity of the tar sands was what struck me more than anything else on my recent visit. After more than two years working with communities in BC to stop the expansion of tar sands infrastructure through our province, I had the chance to go see the tar sands for myself a few weeks ago. I spend a lot of time talking with people about tar sands expansion and its implications for British Columbians. To see and smell the operations myself was an eye-opening (and nose-closing) experience.  

“Why us”?

Suncor’s representatives started things off with a presentation, much of which seemed to ask “why us?”, as in, “why are environmental groups seemingly singling out the tar sands when there are lots of other sources of greenhouse gas emissions in North America, like the coal industry?”

This kind of deflection argument was a little bit funny, because there are scores of community groups and environmental organizations working to reduce the use of coal power both in Canada and the US. More importantly though, the tar sands are Canada’s fastest growing source of domestic greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions from the tar sands are projected to triple from 2005 to 2020, and as other sectors of industry see their emissions grow more slowly or even decline, the tar sands will start to break away from the pack, generating more emissions than every province except of course, Alberta as a whole, and Ontario  (see Pembina’s piece in the Huffington Post, and underlying sources).  The GHG emissions growth of the tar sands will offset emissions cutbacks in other sectors – including, as the Globe and Mail reported, the potential emissions savings from moving away from coal-fired electricity generation, and make it way more difficult for Canada to meet its emissions targets. The tar sands will also have significant and lasting environmental impacts in terms of water, land, wildlife, and human health (see Pembina’s report on the environmental liabilities of the oilsands).

Our tour group raised both of these points. Suncor pointed out that they have succeeded in achieving marked reductions in the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for each barrel of oil produced (often called a reduction in GHG emissions intensity). However, they agreed when we pointed out that that given they have plans to continuously expand their operations, their overall GHG emissions are going to grow over the next number of years: in fact, by 2015, Suncor projects their GHG emissions to be 37% higher than in 2010, and 446% higher than in 1990. To read more of Suncor’s contribution to the debate on oil sands/tar sands, you can visit their blog, Osqar (Oil sands question and response).

Touring Suncor’s operations

After the presentation, we toured portions of the Suncor site. We were not allowed to see any of the open pit mines, with safety cited as the reason for keeping visitors away. We did, however, see a tailings pond and visited the repair shop for their positively huge heavy hauler trucks.

A fair bit of the of the tour and discussions with Suncor representatives was a teaser for the tour’s finale: a visit to Wapisew Lookout, the first reclamation of a tailings pond in which the surface is now solid enough to be re-vegetated. Reclamation, of course, doesn’t mean restoration back to the boreal forest that stood there before. For the moment, the reclaimed area looks more like a treeless prairie grassland. At 220 hectares in size, it is somewhat smaller than downtown Vancouver, and as seen in this satellite shot, is cheek-by-jowl with the upgrader in the middle of the mine site (it’s the brown and green expanse at the middle of the image).  

Seeing the reclaimed area was somewhat promising – and Suncor and other companies are working on ways to accelerate the current tailings reclamation process from about 30 years to 10 years. But it can’t be forgotten that Wapisew lookout may never return to the way it was before and, of course, there are many years of GHG emissions and tar sands pollution lying ahead between now and the day when tar sands surface mines are exhausted and potentially reclaimed. (Learn more about Wapisew Lookout in Suncor’s video and see their own Flickr photoset).

Tales of injustice

The next day we flew in a small aircraft up to Fort Chipewyan. The flight let me see the tar sands operations in their geographic context. First we flew low over the tar sands surface mines closest to Fort McMurray, so I was able to have an aerial view of the mine that had been denied the previous day (the trailer for Petropolis gives you a taste of what this is like). Leaving the surface mines behind, for mile after mile we flew over forest that had been disturbed to build in situ tar sands mines, or by “seismic lines” – environmentally destructive in and of themselves – used to survey for future mines. The forest was fragmented as if someone had taken a giant sheet of graph paper and carved a seemingly endless grid out of the trees, with smaller and larger lines stretching to the horizon. Eventually this changed to burn-out from a massive forest fire this year that took the better part of an hour to fly over, before we reached the Athabasca River delta – a labyrinth of waterways and wetlands where the Athabasca, Peace and Slave Rivers come together in a halo around the western end of Lake Athabasca. 

Fort Chipewyan is the oldest European-founded settlement in Alberta, and is the main settlement for both the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation, the population consisting of a mix of Dene and Cree people, as well as later arrivals.

We were welcomed by members of both First Nations, who talked about the ways in which the tar sands mines up river are affecting their communities and their homelands. Stories of people who have passed due to rare cancers, of deformed fish that people are afraid to eat, of caribou whose meat is discoloured, and waterfowl that no longer visit the delta the way that they used to because they appear to avoid the water. The people of these Nations rely on all of these resources for their sustenance, their livelihoods and their cultures, and these changes strike at the heart of their community and their identity.

They also strike at the heart of their constitutionally-protected Treaty rights, as the Athabasca Chipewyan are currently arguing in court, along with the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, and the Enoch Cree Nation. They argue that the federal government has acted unreasonably in failing to protect endangered caribou herds in the area affected by tar sands development, and that Canada must act honourably in accordance with its Treaty with these Nations and manage caribou in a way that safeguards their Treaty right to carry on important traditional hunting practices.  This legal fight is just one aspect of the ongoing struggle of Indigenous peoples affected by tar sands against what is happening to their water and their people. As has been seen in BC where the Enbridge pipeline is concerned, Indigenous Nations in northern Alberta are using all the means they have to protect their environment for themselves and everybody else living downstream of the tar sands.

Members of the Athabasca Chipewyan were very generous of their time in taking us on a boat tour of their reserve, in the heart of the delta that we had flown over in the morning. For more than 2 hours we sped through the twisting, narrow waterways of the delta that might remind people of images they’ve seen of the Everglades, stopping briefly at some of the Nation’s communities interspersed throughout the delta along the water’s edge.

In West Coast’s work, we treat water rights as central to Indigenous rights, and this has never been more visually clear to me than in visiting the wetlands of the Athabasca Chipewyan people – as you can see in the centre of this map, the heart of their territory is as much water and wetland as it is solid ground. Our host told us how fluctuating water uses upstream, including BC’s hydro dams up the Peace, have a significant impact on water levels in their territories. He said that some former islands, which sat in open water, are now locked in swampy wetlands as water levels have gone down over the years.

The homeland of the Athabasca Chipewyan was unlike anywhere I’ve ever seen in Canada and I was fortunate to be welcomed in for a look. They, along with the Mikisew Cree and other First Nations living downstream of the tar sands, are bearing the brunt of the environmental impact of Canada’s largest industrial development. Oil companies and the North American population in general – including me – take the benefit as we use fossil fuels in our daily lives and for our work.


Yet another reason to oppose Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline

Seeing both the tar sands operations themselves, and one of the communities most closely affected by those operations, provides a stark reminder of one of the reasons that we’re all fighting so hard in BC to stop the expansion of tar sands infrastructure – like pipelines and tankers – which will facilitate 30% more tar sands production. In BC, job number one is for us to protect our coast and our rivers from the risk of oil spills. But in doing this, we will also be doing the climate, and people living downstream of the tar sands, an important favour.

By Josh Paterson, Staff Lawyer

Unless otherwise noted, aerial shots courtesy of Jennifer Grant, Pembina Institute, whose camera is much better than Josh's.