Last night I attended an event which included three first nations women speaking on the topic of the Albertan Tar Sands. I did not expect to learn anything new, or for the event to be particularly ground-breaking, but I wanted to attend to show solidarity with the organizers, speakers, and because such events are often good places to meet other people with similar ethical concerns (which in this case are concerns in the realms of climate justice and indigenous land rights). I was taken aback, therefore, when I learned important novel things about the tar sands and the kind of problems they are producing – and also when the talks gave the issue a moral weight I had not felt before.
While there were in fact many new things I learned about the tar sands, I’m going to concentrate on three: the new in situ mining method, the leakage from tailings ponds into the Athabasca river system, and the impact of tar sands on food sovereignty for northern communities. “In Situ” extraction occurs in places where the bitumen is more than 100 meters below the surface – where removing the “overburden” (a geological term for “the boreal forest and marshlands”, which sounds more than a little newspeak to my ears) is considered too difficult. Instead, hot steam is pumped underground, which melts the bitumen in place (“in situ“), and the bitumen is then pumped back up to the surface.
In Situ mining appears at first to be more environmentally friendly because it does not require the removal of the forest in order to extract the oil. But, it isn’t – partially because there are significant dangers of contaminating the groundwater, partially because it requires much more water be used to produce a single barrel of oil – but mostly because it allows the extraction of far more tar sands than are suitable for conventional open pit mining extraction. This means more stress on the climate, but it also means destruction of the local animal habitats – since plans for in situ mining will literally cover huge swaths of the province with infrastructure, which, according to Melina Laboucan-Massimo, will displace wildlife out of their current habitat. I don’t have a graphic to link to, but according to the presentation, leases which have already been granted will polka dot a huge portion of Aberta with in-situ mines.
The leakage of toxic tailings into the Athabasca river is something you can’t really imagine until you see the photographs of tailings ponds on the shores of the river, and hear the numbers of liters per day from these ponds which are leaking into the river system. It has now been demonstrated that these leaks have resulted in elevated levels of heavy metals in the river. These studies, while crucial, do not have the emotional impact of this photo which clearly shows just how close (about 500 meters) toxic tailings ponds sit from the Athabasca river. I don’t think I can convey the emotional weight which these pictures had in the talk, but I think the gravity that they appeared to have in that context was their true significance, and we are usually simply unable to perceive the importance of these facts because they are too horrific, and the demands they place on us are more difficult than we can stomach.
Food sovereignty doesn’t really make much sense for people who live in cities – to us, food is incredibly abstract. We can try to imagine the relationship we have with the farmer who grows it, but really, it’s difficult to imagine your organic broccoli actually being in a field somewhere (especially when it comes from Mexico). But, for communities like Fort Chip, where there is one grocery (the infamous Northern Store), locally sourced food is not hipster chic, it’s the difference between eating and not eating. People eat fish, berries and game not simply because it’s the local tradition – but because it’s what there is to eat. So, when the fish and game become dangerous to eat it’s not possible for the residents to simply stop eating them. There are therefore serious questions we need to ask about the rights of corporations to pollute river systems which affect people hundreds of miles from the tailings sites. We should also think carefully about the various ways Canada is in violation of the UN convention on the rights of Indigenous people, when it consideres sufficient various coercive forms of consent from first nations stakeholders, rather than free prior and informed consent. Coercive methods which are standard consist of the oil firm building community centres and completing infrastructure projects (some of which, such as the water projects, are likely by international law the responsibility of the federal government) – and then asking the community if they consent to a destructive project. The sad truth is it is simply not possible to have free prior and informed consent from a community which has been impoverished by Canada’s genocidal and colonialist treatment of first nations – a community which is not strong can not fail be coerced by a major corporation which can so easily provide funds a community desperately needs. Free prior and informed consent in these cases seems completely impossible, and if it is a requirement, the tar sands projects simply should not be approved.