If it wasn’t for the cannons, the pond might be a tranquil sight: its rippling surface reflects the blue of the sky, diffusing the harsh midday light. But the cannons fire sporadically, a warning to migrating ducks not to land in this toxic soup of arsenic, mercury and carcinogenic hydrocarbons—1,600 ducks died after landing in one of these tailings ponds in 2008.
This is the epicenter of the Athabasca Tar Sands operation in northeastern Alberta, Canada, just outside the oil boomtown of Fort McMurray. It’s the third-largest proven deposit of crude oil and the largest industrial project on earth—so costly and environmentally destructive that it’s considered a frontier resource, viable only because conventional oil sources are in decline. I visited in late June as part of the Tar Sands Healing Walk, in which First Nations activists led 250 participants on a fourteen-kilometer loop of the oil producer Syncrude’s operations there. The air was noxious and the scale of the destruction nearly impossible to take in, but the Dene drummers steadied us with their constant beat.
Tailings are a byproduct of tar sands processing, a wastewater residue left to collect in pools so vast and numerous that they can be seen from outer space. These tailings ponds are not secure: an Environment Canada study from February confirmed that the ponds are leaking into the Athabasca River, which flows into the Mackenzie—the largest river system in Canada—before discharging into the Arctic Ocean. Fort Chipewyan, a remote hamlet downstream from Fort McMurray, emerged in the national consciousness in 2006 when its only doctor, John O’Connor, went public about the high rate of rare cancers in the community. Health Canada accused him of misconduct when O’Connor suggested that this might be connected to tar sands pollution.
Shell has now proposed the Jackpine Mine Expansion and the Pierre River Mine on the traditional territory of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, which includes Fort Chipewyan. “You’d be kidding if you thought that Shell hasn’t been offering sweet deal after sweet deal to our nation,” said ACFN spokeswoman and Fort Chipewyan resident Eriel Deranger. “But instead of making money, we’ve spent close to $2 million already to challenge these projects.” The ACFN asserts that the projects will destroy its cultural livelihood along with the ecosystem itself.
“We have a line that shouldn’t be crossed, as per our elders’ council, and we’re holding it,” Deranger continued. “It’s not about money. It’s about the protection and preservation of our land, culture and identity.”
While all eyes in America were turned to President Obama’s looming decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, Canadian regulators on Thursday approved their own, smaller version — a pipeline that would for the first time directly connect Alberta’s tar sands to Montreal.
Canada’s National Energy Board have approved a proposal by Enbridge Inc. to allow the reversal and expansion of their Line 9 pipeline. The “reversal” means that the pipeline can now carry crude oil east rather than west. The “expansion” means it can now also carry tar sands oil from Alberta — the same type of oil that would be transported by the Keystone XL pipeline if approved.
With the reversal and expansion approved, environmentalists say the controversial tar sands oil can now be pumped almost to the New England border. This is because on one side, Enbridge’s Line 9 connects to a pipeline that carries tar sands. On the other side, Line 9 connects to a 236-mile-long line pump from Montreal to Portland, Maine. The National Resources Defense Council says that Portland connection has been targeted by the tar sands industry as a way for getting the oil into the United States via New England.
Today in companies that clearly have their shit together and should be trusted to build all the pipelines everywhere: the vast majority of Enbridge pipeline pumps lack backup systems and emergency shutdowns. These have been requirements at all pipeline pumping stations for 15-20 years, but apparently Enbridge never got around to it.
Anyway, not only are they planning to take three years to upgrade everything, but their media people are questioning why pipelines need regulation in the first place:
In that regard, Enbridge still has questions with respect to the need, from a practical perspective, for installing power generation of this nature.
So yeah in conclusion the people who are currently on this massive PR and lobbying blitz to lay thousands of kilometres of pipeline through some super ecologically sensitive areas are totally willing to ignore long-established regulation and then when they’re found out they’ll take years to fix the problem and complain loudly the whole time. So that’s not super reassuring.
from Keystone: Down the Line in the Washington Post — check it out
David Francis makes about 45K per year as a painter, in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada on Conklin, Alberta, Canada on June 22, 2012. Most people in this oil boom town make over $100,000 per year. He says that he’s just barely making it in a town where a tract home costs $800,000. The local McDonald’s pays $19.00 per hour
VANCOUVER - First Nations along British Columbia’s north and central coast say it’s unfathomable that Transport Canada approves the use of oil supertankers in the province’s treacherous inlets and marine passages.
Coastal First Nations executive director Art Sterritt said Friday that the department ruling ignores safety issues such as poor weather, human error, and the narrow, unforgiving waterways.
Transport Canada filed its report on Thursday to the regulatory panel weighing Enbridge Inc.’s $5.5-billion proposal to ship Alberta crude to the West Coast by pipeline and export the oil to Asian markets via supertankers loaded in Kitimat.
The report does not identify any regulatory concerns and says residual risks are present in any project.
Sterritt said that’s nonsensical and shocking because a recent study by Coastal First Nations suggested a tanker spill could cost $23 billion, creating catastrophic economic, environmental and cultural damage.
This article is several years old but it tells the important story of the development of the Alberta Tar Sands
The majority of the tar sands, however, can’t be dug up like Appalachian mountaintops. About 80 percent of the reserves lie so deep under the forest that they must be steamed or melted out of the ground with the help of a bewildering array of pumps, pipes, and wells. Engineers call the process in situ (in place) thermal, and it burns up nearly twice as much natural gas as the open-pit mines. The Canadian government recently estimated that it might take 20 nuclear reactors to replace natural gas as a fuel source in tar-sands operations by 2015, and companies are already putting forth proposals to build them.
Like most environmental indicators in the tar sands, the river is ailing. Since the 1970s the total summer flow downstream of Fort McMurray has declined by nearly a third. Yet every year the tar-sands operations withdraw 250,000 Olympic-size pools of water from the Athabasca. That’s enough water to service a city of two million people. (On average, it takes three barrels of fresh, potable water to make one barrel of oil from the sands.) One company alone, Syncrude, uses enough water each year — 2.5 trillion gallons — to supply the needs of a third of the residents of Denver.
Fred MacDonald, a 72-year-old descendant of Scottish and Cree fur traders, used to hunt duck and moose on Tar Island as a kid. He now lives in a bungalow overlooking the Athabasca River in Fort McKay, an Indian community pretty much surrounded by open-pit mines. Sitting in his kitchen drinking a glass of rat-root juice, an old aboriginal remedy made from a plant favored by muskrats (“It’s good for everything”), MacDonald told me how he loved that island. He recalled the days when Syrian fur traders on the Athabasca exchanged pots and pans for muskrat and beaver pelts. Back in the 1920s and 1930s aboriginal families lived all along the river and frequently enjoyed feasts of rabbit and moose meat. They netted jack fish and pickerel all winter long. “Everyone walked or paddled and the people were healthy.” Now, he said, very few people bother to travel the river much. “There is nothing in the river. It is polluted. You could dip your cup and have a nice cold drink from that river, and now you can’t.”
MacDonald, like many aboriginal elders, fears the tar sands are draining the surrounding forest of its life-sustaining fens and bogs. “It’s our future source of water and it’s drying.” And he, like Schindler, can see the impact of climate change every season. Rising winter temperatures, he said, have transformed the once clear ice of the Athabasca into slush.
A certain powerful North American country has been brazenly meddling in Europe’s affairs, bullying and twisting arms to advance a corporate agenda on the most pressing environmental issue of our time. A phalanx of its lobbyists has descended on European capitals to covertly scheme with oil companies and menace EU parliamentarians who would dare address climate change.
It’s not who you might think … but Canada. If any illusions remained about this country’s behaviour abroad, they should be put to rest. Newly released government memos have exposed a secret war that Canada is waging in Europe to kill clean energy policies and ensure no market closes to the dirtiest crude in the world – the tar sands of Alberta.
The decline of easily accessible oil has set in motion not a shift to renewable energy but a frantic race for the filthiest, hardest-to-extract and most geographically remote fossil fuels. The prize resource are the tar sands: a sludgy bitumen found in northern Alberta whose conversion to oil requires a uniquely destructive, energy-intensive and costly process. To extract the vast deposit – trailing only Saudi Arabia’s in reserves – the industry is stripmining a pristine Boreal forest the size of England, guzzling one of the planet’s largest watersheds, poisoning downstream native communities, and emitting three times more carbon than conventional oil production. The planetary scars from the largest industrial project in history can already be seen from outer space.
The dream of the tar barons scouring new frontiers should be familiar to the British: that the sun never sets on their pipeline empire. Canada’s laboratory has provided an environmentally disastrous but extremely profitable model – which they now want to export everywhere: Congo’s rainforests, Russia’s remote basins, the US desert, Jordan, Venezuela, Madagascar and even Trinidad and Tobago.
But the road to these spoils leads through Europe. While the continent doesn’t import any Canadian crude, the oil giants and their government backers realise a European fuel quality directive that would slap a dirty label on tar sands to promote cleaner transport fuels could set the global standard – and effectively shut the door on Alberta’s exports. “Our fear is that if something happens in the EU and it is spread in other countries … we could have roughly one third of the world’s population subscribing to regulation or legislation that mitigates against our oilsands,” a provincial minister in Alberta said last year. It is also sure to raise the heat on European oil companies to withdraw their enormous and growing investment in tar sands industries.