Canada is ground zero for the most environmentally destructive projects ever conceived - the tar sands oil extraction that now stretches into three western provinces. First Nations opposition to these projects is getting under the skin of carbon conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the oil cabal is getting restless. It takes near superhuman courage to go up against some of the largest and richest multinational corporations in human history.
First Nations peoples in Canada have been fighting the tar sands hydra since the first surface mine abscess erupted in 1967. And with good reason. Their land rights have trampled in the rush to expand operations as the price of oil has risen. They suffer the ill effects from the air, water, and soil contamination. Pollution has always been one of the most insidious and cynical forms of class warfare.
Awareness of the climate and environmental threats posed by tar sands oil in the United States has grown thanks to the efforts of organizations like Bill McKibben's 350.org and the National Resources Defense Council. The massive Keystone pipeline project was authorized by George W. Bush to bring diluted bitumen (tar sands sludge) from Canada to refineries in the United States and became operational in 2010. The Bush administration was pushing an extension of the Keystone pipeline (nicknamed "Keystone XL") to bring bitumen to refineries on the Gulf Coast where Big Oil can refine the sludge into transportation fuels and sell them on the global market.
China has recently become a big player in the great northern tar pit. Harper has pushed to expedite Enbridge's Northern Gateway Pipelines Project, which will entail a pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat on the coast of British Columbia and the construction of a tanker terminal to bring tar sands crude oil to Asian markets. The proposed route of this pipeline will cut through land controlled by First Nations as well as the Great Bear Rainforest. First Nations groups have led the fight against pipeline.
The past week has been a busy one in the fight to stop the Enbridge pipeline. Here is a summary of the good, bad, and ugly from that fight.
Before delving into the fight for eco-justice north of our borders, here is a little reminder of the reality of tar sands pipelines and refineries from our heartland. The original Keystone pipeline supplies tar sands crude oil to refineries in the midwest and southwest, including the Suncor Commerce City refinery outside of Denver. Last Sunday, a spill of refined petroleum, probably gasoline, was discovered by a fisherman near the refinery.
This morning was awful. I am looking for the words to describe it and can't. To put it shortly I am absolutely 100% positive I witnessed a petroleum discharge or dump of some kind in Sand-Creek flowing into the South Platte. Furthermore I am quite certain that whoever is responsible got off scott-free.
This morning at 9:00AM it smelled like a gas station at the Sand-Creek / South Platte confluence. There was also an oily sheen across the entire Sand-Creek side of the South Platte current. Every carp in the area (something on the order of 60?) was tightly grouped (alive but not very active) in a 20 foot section as far from Sand-Creek as they could get. And yes, I am very aware that it always smells nasty in the area. This was definitely very different.
I walked several hundred feet up Sand-Creek and there was an oil sheen the whole way and there was even a weird milky chocolaty sludge trapped in the small back-eddy below the confluence. My fly smelled like gasoline. My fingers smelled like gasoline. I could see micro-currents and upwells in the water column that you usually just can't see. Something was terribly wrong.
The fisherman reported the spill to the hotline number listed on nearby signs to no avail. The EPA and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment finally arrived the next day. Benzene and other volatile organic compound levels were very high in the creek and in the South Platte River when the creek empties into the it. Several days later, with much fanfare, the EPA and Suncor announced that the spill had been contained and did not involve tar sands crude. The Alberta government was miffed anyone even raised the issue of tar sands crude. Of course, the real issue is that pipelines and refineries spill. Period. Promises that they don't or won't are false.
The most interesting element in the story was a single line in the Denver Post story.
But there's no easy end in sight to the situation in this industrial zone — a situation that over the past year took a turn for the worse with new hydrocarbon and dissolved petroleum compounds moving in groundwater and surfacing as vapors in nearby Metro Wastewater buildings.
It is interesting that an established refinery would suddenly start to have spill problems. I wonder what could have changed...
At the Commerce City refinery, a $540 million (US $445 million) upgrade has enabled the refinery to meet clean fuels regulations and handle a wider range of oil sands products.
The day after the Suncor spill, the Natural Resources Defense Council, along with partners Pembina Institute and Living Oceans Society, released a new report on the risks posed by the Northern Gateway Pipeline ("Pipeline and Tanker Trouble" pdf). The report questions the need for the project, greenhouse gas emissions, First Nations rights, the safety record of Enbridge pipelines (including four major spills in the U.S. in the past 2 years), and the unique risks posed by bitumen transport. Enbridge was not pleased (Paul Stanway is the communications director for the Northern Gateway Pipeline project).
The report suggests that bitumen - the raw, tar sands crude that would be shipped through the Northern Gateway pipeline to a port on the B.C. coast - is more dangerous to transport than other oils because it is corrosive.
But Mr. Stanway flatly rejected that assertion.
“The bottom line is, nobody has been able to identify any additional risk or hazard involved with transporting oil sands crude,” he said.
Mr. Stanway said it is clear the environmental groups are trying to sway public opinion, but Enbridge remains hopeful that the project will get federal approved and win public support.
Mr. Stanway is either a liar or an idiot. The report used industry technical reports to evaluate differences in acidity, viscosity, and abrasiveness of diluted bitumen relative to conventional crude. The differences on these dimensions are so large that no one in their right mind would suggest they are not significant. Yet the engineering requirements for tar sands pipelines in Canada and the United States are the same as for conventional crude.
On December 1, it was formally announced that the number of First Nations groups opposed to the pipelines and terminal projects had grown from 61 to 130.
"I have news for you [Prime Minister Stephen Harper], you're never going to achieve your dream of pushing pipelines through our rivers and lands," said Chief Jackie Thomas, of the Saik'uz First Nation, and head of the Yinka Dene Alliance, a key spokeswoman for the group in B.C.'s interior.
"It doesn't matter what route you take, you can't get a pipeline around opposed first nations. The path is blocked, and it's going to stay blocked," Thomas said.
She added that the group will use whatever means it needs, from political pressure to legal action, to get in the project's way and if it comes to it she will "stand in front of bulldozers to stop this project."
There is no way to build the pipeline without going through First Nations territories opposed to the project.
"North or south, it makes no difference. First Nations from every corner of BC are saying absolutely no tar sands pipelines or tankers in our territories," said Chief Jackie Thomas of Saik’uz First Nation, a member of the Yinka Dene Alliance. “We have banned oil pipelines and tankers using our laws, and we will defend our decision using all the means at our disposal.”
It is impossible for oil pipelines to go around opposed First Nations, and their consent to pipelines and tankers in their territories is required by international law. Today’s announcement – on the first anniversary of the Save the Fraser Declaration – comes in response to recent calls from the Harper government and oil executives to push through pipeline and tanker projects against the wishes of British Columbians and First Nations.
“The government can talk all it wants about pushing tar sands oil pipelines and tankers through BC. There is no way our Nations will allow it,” says Chief Art Adolph representing the St'át'imc Nation. “If they’re serious about respecting our rights, the government of Canada must stop pushing the oil companies’ line that this is in the public interest, and the government of BC should step up to the plate to and begin protecting our rivers and coastlines from further environmental damages that violate our basic human rights. Especially now, when Canada is a global embarrassment for failing to address climate change and systemically ignoring Indigenous rights.”
Here is the text for the Save the Fraser declaration signed by 130 First Nations:
WE THE UNDERSIGNED INDIGENOUS NATIONS OF THE FRASER RIVER WATERSHED DECLARE:
We have inhabited and governed our territories within the Fraser watershed, according to our laws and traditions, since time immemorial. Our relationship with the watershed is ancient and profound, and our inherent Title and Rights and legal authority over these lands and waters have never been relinquished through treaty or war.
Water is life, for our peoples and for all living things that depend on it. The Fraser River and its tributaries are our lifeline. A threat to the Fraser and its headwaters is a threat to all who depend on its health. We will not allow our fish, animals, plants, people and ways of life to be placed at risk.
We have come together to defend these lands and waters from a grave threat: the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines project. This project which would link the Tar Sands to Asia through our territories and the headwaters of this great river, and the federal process to approve it, violate our laws, traditions, values and our inherent
rights as Indigenous Peoples under international law.
We are united to exercise our inherent Title, Rights, and responsibility to ourselves, our ancestors, our descendants and to the people of the world, to defend these lands and waters. Our laws require that we do this. Therefore, in upholding our ancestral laws, Title, Rights and responsibilities, we declare: We will not allow the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, or similar Tar Sands projects, to cross our lands, territories and watersheds, or the ocean migration routes of Fraser River salmon. We are adamant and resolved in this declaration, made according to our Indigenous laws and authority. We call on all who would place our lands and waters at risk – we have suffered enough, we will protect our watersheds, and we will not tolerate this great threat to us all and to all future generations.
The declaration by 130 First Nations was a public relations nightmare for Enbridge and the oil companies because it means the project cannot move forward without a legal battle. It was also an unbroken chain of First Nations opposition.
The industry was desperate for some positive news and a funny thing happened the very next day. The Canadian press was abuzz over an apparent break in First Nations opposition.
Enbridge Inc.'s embattled Northern Gateway pipeline proposal found an island of first-nations support in a sea of opposition to the $5.5-billion project on Friday with the Gitxsan First Nation's announcement it has signed on as an equity partner.
The announcement was made by Elmer Derrick, one of Gitxsan's 60 hereditary chiefs (the official governing council. Shortly after the announcement other heredity chiefs said there was no deal and Derrick had no authority to deal with Enbridge.
Noting that Derrick is employed as the chief treaty negotiator to settle federal and provincial land claims, it makes no sense that he is dealing with Enbridge, Stephens said Sunday.
“He has no authority actually to be making a deal with Enbridge on a pipeline. This is wrong,” said Stephens, a hereditary chief who has the traditional name Guuhadawk.
And what were other Gitxsan hereditary chiefs doing when Elmer Derrick was mugging for cameras in Vancouver?
Most of the hereditary chiefs heard of the announcement through the media as they were attending a funeral for a matriarch and hereditary chief Friday, which made the timing of the announcement disrespectful and in violation of Gitxsan law, Stephens said.
The cadre of radical B.C. First Nations that vowed this week to stop Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline — even by throwing themselves in front of bulldozers should the project gain regulatory approval — is hardly surprising. Whipped into action by a frenzy of disinformation and fearmongering about Alberta’s unfairly demonized oilsands, some First Nations groups were always expected to tie themselves to trees or do whatever it takes, even if every single environmental and safety regulation is exceeded.
Saner voices emerged Friday when the Gitxsan First Nation announced it is taking an ownership stake in the project. Still, bullheaded opposition remains.
Last month, voters in northern B.C. elected municipal governments that are opposed to Northern Gateway. In Terrace, Smithers and Prince Rupert, cities that fall near and around the project’s 1,140-kilometre route elected candidates who, for the most part, opposed the pipeline as part of their election platforms.
There are a few things you can do to help support the First Nations and other British Columbia residents to stop the Northern Gateway Pipeline and tanker farm projects.
1. Sign the Dogwood Alliance petition to support the Save the Fraser alliance: http://dogwoodinitiative.org/...
2. Learn more: Pipeline and Tanker Trouble
3. Listen to Ta'Kaiya:
Here is the poem she wrote and read at the Enbridge shareholders meeting. Note what she said during the Enbridge meeting directly to Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel (about 1:20 mark in the video)
Here she is performing her song "Shallow Waters" at the 2011 Swinomish tribal canoe journey:
Peace be with you.