Oil, Gas and Native Rights

Boreal Footprint Project

“As a grand finale to the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and President George Bush began to negotiate a continental energy deal. Tragically, this short sighted deal is about expanding oil and gas production which will massively increase air pollution and accelerate climate change.”

David Suzuki Foundation

During the 2001 energy “crisis,” residents of California and other Western states watched power costs skyrocket and experienced rolling blackouts. They suffered job losses when businesses closed – some businesses shut down to save money during a time of high energy bills while others closed factories and fired workers in order to sell pre-purchased electricity to the highest bidder.

In the aftermath of the energy crunch, environmental pollution standards were weakened to encourage new energy plant construction. Instead of retooling California to promote the transition to a renewable energy economy, Governor Gray Davis promoted schemes to prop up bankrupt electric utilities by having the state purchase their aging transmission lines. While some strides were made to promote energy-saving light bulbs and appliances, Davis took his greatest pleasure in switching on a series of new gas-fueled powerplants. But even these new “clean” energy powerplants have a cost.

When California brings more natural gas-burning powerplants online, many of the people who will pay the social costs live far beyond the borders of California. The Lubicon Lake Cree, for instance.

The 500 Lubicon Lake Cree are an Indigenous nation living deep in the boreal forest zone of Canada’s Alberta province. They have been living with the impacts of logging and oil and gas drilling on their traditional lands for decades. Like other indigenous people across the Americas, the Lubicon have been battling for years for recognition of their native land rights and compensation for stolen wealth and environmental damage. They have struggled to halt and reduce the impacts of new exploration. However, when it comes to energy, the stakes – and the impacts – keep rising.

As Lubicon Chief Bernard Ominayak explains, “The kind of rapid pace that is taking place all throughout just about the whole traditional area now is that there has been excessive destruction by… roads [and] pipelines. A lot of it has to do with the oil and gas exploration. A lot of the land, a lot of the area that we’ve preserved and lived off for many, many generations is just being eroded.”

Although the Lubicon first petitioned Canada for recognition of land rights in 1939, they still do not have a reservation, much less recognized title to their traditional lands. Their proposed village site near the Peace River is now surrounded by 1,000 oil and gas wells.

Each year the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board processes more than 20,000 applications for new wells, pipelines and gas plants. Environmentalists and indigenous peoples have been hard-pressed to keep up with the pace of development – hurriedly reviewing new proposals while simultaneously fighting existing projects.

With the new conservative government in Washington, US and Canadian politicians have their eyes on a new prize: a continental energy delivery system based on increased oil and gas production in Canada and unfettered consumption across the US.

Alberta currently supplies more than 12 percent of US natural gas needs. New pipelines and hydroelectric transmission lines designed to carry Canadian power south to US markets are in all stages of development across the western boreal region – from Alaska, the Yukon and Northwest Territories to British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Very few, if any, of these projects will be assessed for their social costs or cumulative environmental impacts, which would cause critical fragmentation of the boreal forest.

During an April luncheon in Toronto, Dick Cheney outlined the broad proposals of his fossil-fuel oriented “energy task force.” Cheney explained that over the next two decades, it would be necessary to build between 1,300 and 1,900 new powerplants – one every week for 20 years – just to meet “projected increases” in nationwide demand. As the Toronto Globe and Mai reported in its coverage of Cheney’s talk, “the former oil-services executive said his plan will focus almost completely on finding new sources for traditional fuels: oil and natural gas, coal and nuclear power.” Cheney also uttered his notoriously dismissive observation that, while conservation may be “a sign of personal virtue,” it does not make for sound or comprehensive policy.

What does make for sound, comprehensive policy, apparently, is running the risk of triggering a mega-feedback loop that would increase global warming in both the production and consumption phases. The Bush-Cheney energy plan would not only promote the increased burning of CO2-producing fuels, it would also rip open pristine forests to allow access for drilling stations, pipelines, transmission lines and roads – a process that would increase global warming by releasing the carbon currently locked securely in the living trees and soil.

The David Suzuki Foundation estimates that the Alberta Tar Sands refinery (which produces 150,000 barrels of oil a day) releases the same amount of CO2 per year as 1.35 million new cars. What the US and Canada need is a sound energy policy that promotes conservation, efficiency and sustainable energy instead of the destruction of Indigenous peoples, rural communities and boreal forests.

It’s time for a comprehensive plan based on conservation. We can do this through tax rebates and credits, tough city planning codes to promote urban density, mass-transit, energy conservation, democratically run nonprofit municipal utilities, diversified energy-source purchases and renewable energy grants to low-income households. We also need to revisit the idea of a carbon tax.
Residents of the US, the most energy-intensive economy on Earth, should not be externalizing the costs of our greed and dependency on fossil fuels to indigenous peoples across the boreal forest zone.

Chanda Meek is the director of the Boreal Footprint Project, an Earth Island Project [300 Broadway, Suite 28, San Francisco, CA 94133, (415) 788-3666 ext. 122]. Contact the Lubicon Cree at PO Box 6731, Peace River, Alberta, T8S 1S5, Canada, www.tao.ca/?fol.

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