(Note: Many links provided show maps which are helpful in terms of identifying places, First Nations, pipeline routes, etc.)

The Athabascan Oil Sands.

Indigenous people marching with a Dine Nation banner

First Nations activists at the 2014 Tar Sands Healing Walk, a direct action against Athabasca bitumen extraction.

In northeastern Alberta, Canada are the Athabascan oilsands, third largest oil reserves in the world. They contain bitumen which is found tightly combined with clay and sand.  Bitumen has to be separated out by a process (here and here) requiring great quantities of water at high heat, which, in turn, requires burning fuel and producing greenhouse gases. The resulting very thick bitumen can be transported to refineries and ports by rail, or it can be mixed with a diluent, a hydrocarbon, so it will flow through pipelines.

Large stretches of arboreal forests in the Athabascan have disappeared in the pursuit of the bitumen, replaced by open pit mines. The Athabasca River is tapped for the billions of gallons of water needed for oil extraction, with the resulting wastewater dumped into tailing ponds subject to leaks. An estimated 6.8% of Canadian greenhouse gases came from Athabascan oilsands production in 2010. Destruction of the landscape and environmental poisoning are affecting flora and fauna and are having negative impact on human health, as well. As US Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) summarized, “health miseries follow the tarsands–from extraction to transport to refining to waste disposal.”

According to newly released results from a  collaborative effort by the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the University of Manitoba, there are “generally high concentrations of carcinogenic . . . polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons . . . and heavy metals arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and selenium in kidney and liver samples from moose, ducks, muskrats, and beavers harvested by community members” due to bitumen extraction in the Athabascan oil sands. Those contaminants “have nearly eliminated the consumption of some traditional foods” because of the high cancer risk. In the past, the Alberta government has asserted there is no proof to the claim that Fort Chipewyan cancer rates are linked to  oilsands development. Their reaction to the new study should be interesting.

The oilsands industry does provide some economic incentives which can be difficult to resist given the poverty afflicting First Nations, particularly the  children. As one physician who practices in both Fort Chipewyan (on Lake Athabasca) and Fort MacKay (on the Athebasca River)—and who has conducted his own research into cancers among his patients—says, “‘I’m not advocating a shut down. You can’t shut it down.  Poverty kills faster than exposure to toxins.”

Alberta’s Department of Energy manages 81% of mineral rights to the oil sands (the remaining 19% are by a mixed bag of entities, including the federal government). Canadian companies predominate (here and here), followed by US, Anglo-Dutch, and some Asian investors. Almost all exports from the oilsands go to the US, though Asia is seeking a greater share. Pipelines are the primary mode of transport.

Enbridge and the Northern Gateway Pipeline.  

Transporting bitumen from Alberta to British Columbia where it can be transferred onto oil tankers is a key goal of Enbridge Energy Partners, via its planned Northern Gateway Pipeline. Enbridge, the “world’s longest crude oil and liquids pipeline system,” wants twin pipelines running between Bruderheim, Alberta  to Kitimat, British Columbia, a distance of 1,418 kilometers (or about 8 hours drive by car). One pipeline would carry natural gas east, from Kitmat to Bruderheim, while the other would carry Athabascan bitumen west, from Bruderheim to Kitmat and awaiting oil tankers. Government approval for the pipeline was recently granted, but with 209 conditions and amid much objection.

Opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline, already considerable among many First Nations, has been given a boost by a major court decision which confirmed First Nations’ rights of control “over vast swaths of land beyond specific settlement sites” (here and here). Over the past few days, the Haisla, Gitxaala, Haida, Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xaixais, Nadleh Whut‘en and Nak’azdli have “challenged Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s mid-June conditional approval of the $7.5 billion, 730-mile long pipeline. . . . The Yinka Dene Alliance and numerous other indigenous nations are also taking legal action, as have the environmental groups B.C. Nature and EcoJustice.” The Gitxaala First Nation has also warned “CN Rail, logging companies and sport fishermen” to quit Gitxaala territory along the Skeena River in British Columbia, while the Kwikwetlem First Nation on the Coquitlam River is making claims in Vancouver, too. (See BC First Nations map.)

Protesters among the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, located in the central interior region of British Columbia, have built cabins for obstructing the pipeline and are completing construction of a traditional pithouse at Unis’ot’en Camp, which is expected to be “the full-time winter home of the main family of defenders” against the pipeline. (Unis’ot’en Camp photos and videos here.)

Summing up the situation, Art Sterritt, Executive Director of the Coastal First Nations says the Northern Gateway pipeline will “never be built, because First Nations and others in British Columbia won’t allow it, and they have the legal power to prevent it.”

Part II continues with the Energy East pipeline and the Black Snake

Photo by Laura Whitney released under a Creative Commons license.