Earth Island News
Alberta oil extraction hurts native people
The most gripping fact about the business of extracting oil from the
sands of northeastern Alberta is that no one seems to know how bad it
is going to be for the boreal forest. Even less is known about the
potential impact on the local First Nations and Metís people who live
there. University of Alberta ecologist David Shindler believes that the
boreal forest is already in dire straits. This is troubling news: the
oil sands industry claims that less than two percent of the reserves in
the area is being mined. Shindler writes that the impact of the carte
blanche for development in the north is an assault on the boreal
The government of Alberta, on the other hand, portrays the oil sands industry as a commercial success story, won through the hard work of early visionaries. Sitting in the multimillion dollar "Oil Sands Discovery Centre" above Fort McMurray, I watch a short film about the history of the oil industry in this region. The story goes like this: some people noticed that tarry puddles of oil bubbled forth from the ground. Word got out and, by the turn of the century, enterprising engineers and entrepreneurs paddled down the Athabasca River to seek their fortune.
Unfortunately, the oil was exceedingly difficult to separate from the sand with which it was tightly bound. Now that we've learned to extract the crude oil profitably, the industry is set to produce two million barrels of oil per day by the end of this decade. The region is thought to contain 1.7 to 2.5 trillion barrels of oil. Everybody who is anybody in the oil and gas world has a finger in the sand.
The problem with this narrative is that it is a remarkably biased version of history. Based on this version, it appears reasonable that the aboriginal people of Fort McKay - surrounded by over a dozen existing and planned oil sands projects - should live in trailer parks while billions of dollars are pocketed by faceless investors from around the world. Chipewyan, Cree, and Metís people who lived along the Athabasca River long before the arrival of cars, oil cartels, and international capital are now dealing with an unprecedented industrial experiment. Many of the elders display a quiet resignation. A hundred years of colonial governance has taken its toll. Emma Faichney, a Cree elder, remarked that "when the [oil sand] plants opened it was good for jobs but it still ruined our country. We won't have fish or berries to eat. The animals will be unfit to eat and we won't be able to drink the water. Our lifestyle will be different. We'll have to live like whites." Nearly everyone notes the unbelievably rapid pace of development, the Byzantine policies and studies that are supposed to make sense of all this, as well as their own inability to effect changes. In spite of this, the bush remains integral to residents of McKay, who continue to hunt, trap, fish, and enjoy what the land has to offer.
At a recent conference in Toronto, Mike Ashar, the executive vice president of Suncor (the oldest company currently operating in the oil sands), delivered an upbeat speech to an audience of investors. Ashar says Suncor is the greenest and most responsible company in town. While it has in fact made significant concessions to the issues brought forth by ecologists, it is also the largest mining operation in North America, producing a quarter million barrels of oil per day.
There has been almost no synthesis of data and critical work pertaining to the cumulative effects of industry on the boreal landscape. While there are countless pages of data, conference proceedings, and expert statements, there are few tangible results and recommendations. This is troubling, as the provincial government recognizes that there is an "unprecedented pace of development" in the region.
Addressing the concerns of the Fort McKay community, Bertha Ganter, a Chipewyan elder and environmental consultant, noted in a recent conference that "the community is saddened in seeing so much land being lost. They wish to leave some of our cultural ways for future generations to enjoy and pass on. They know that when all the mineable ore has been extracted, the McKay peoples will still be there. They have survived off these lands for thousands of years, and they want lands protected and maintained to continue to sustain traditional resource harvesting such as they had before industrialization."
Suncor's shareholders are connected to the Athabasca River and the people living on its banks only through nebulous financial transactions. They are trading on the environmental and social integrity of an out-of-the-way place and a marginalized people. While the company assures the world that all is well in the oil sands, there is no definitive word on the cumulative impacts in 2010 of the projected 4.6 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions and 480,000 tons of volatile organic compounds that will be injected into the atmosphere each year. These emissions are in addition to the extensive fragmentation of the forests, the displacement of hundreds of acres of soil by surface mines, vast amounts of land that lie unreclaimed, and the erasure of indigenous history through the destruction of traplines, berry picking sites, fishing holes, and medicinal plants. Under the swell of international capital, federal proclamations, and provincial subsidies, the voices of the few Cree, Chipewyan, and Metís elders are carefully ignored and isolated.
In the end, degradation of all aspects of life at the heart of the oil sands has been so acute that the Fort McKay First Nation is considering the relocation of its community to a small reserve over a hundred kilometers to the northwest, one that has no road access and little development activity.
The authors would like to thank those whose words we have used in this publication, especially Emma Faichney and Bertha Ganter.