People or Profit? Tar Sands, the First Nations, and the Struggle for Canada’s Oil Reserves

Photo credits: (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
Photo credits: (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

On the 3rd of February tens of thousands of Canadian activists held overnight vigils in over 270 towns and cities nationwide against the construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Organized by opposition groups such as CREDO, Rainforest Action Network, the Sierra Club, #IdleNoMore, and, demonstrators gathered to urge President Obama to reject further plans for the construction of the pipeline following the release of the Canadian State Department’s Final Environmental Impact Statement on Friday 31st January.

The Keystone XL project commenced in 2008 and, if completed, would expand an existing pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to the refineries in the US Midwest and the Gulf Coast of Texas. Whilst the southern part of the pipeline below the US-Canadian border was completed in 2013, TransCanada – the Canadian company behind the project – has not been able to proceed with its completion without approval from the Canadian State Department. Joe Oliver, Canadian natural resources minister, announced recently that Canada has the third-largest untapped oil reserves in the world and that Keystone XL pipeline, as well as having the potential to create 5,000 to 6,000 jobs, was “just the beginning of Canada’s energy infrastructure build out”. Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, similarly declared his plan to invest C$650 billion over the next decade into similar projects in Alberta, British Columbia, and northern Ontario (the so-called ‘Ring of Fire’ region) in order to transform Canada into an “energy superpower”. The website for the Keystone XL tar sands development project informs visitors that Alberta is “a province rich with a beautiful environment, abundant natural resources, a strong economy and a stable political system” which provides 1.4 million barrels of oil per day to its US neighbours. It pledges that Alberta’s oil sands are part of the clean energy future.

National and international opposition groups, however, have vociferously contested this claim, arguing that the pipeline presents a clear environmental threat which interested parties expeditiously overlook. The European Union is attempting to designate oil from tar sands as 25% more polluting than conventional oil in new rules aimed at cutting carbon emissions, a move against which the Canadian government is lobbying. Greenpeace allege that the complex and energy-intensive processes required to convert the huge deposits of bitumen tar sand reserves into oil will cause widespread environmental damage — including pollution of rivers and nearby farmlands and an increased risk of cancer and autoimmune diseases to indigenous populations in close proximity — and will require the deforestation of large portions of the Boreal Forest to make way for further development and industrialisation. Furthermore, many opposition groups point out that the pipeline is prone to spillages, having spilled thirty times already since 2008. Taken together, these potential environmental hazards have led NASA’s leading climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, to call the pipeline “a fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet.”

Photo credits : Todd Koro/Reuters/File
Photo credits : Todd Koro/Reuters/File

Many have also questioned the financial motives behind the continuing plans for the completion of the project in the face of such ardent international opposition. Whilst those in support of the project claim that it will usher in a new generation of clean energy and “ethical oil” for the US energy market, opposition groups such as charge that Keystone XL and other projects exist purely for export and for profit. Whereas the official line holds that the Keystone XL and its sibling projects will reduce US reliance on foreign oil, critics and experts suggest that it will in fact drive up gas prices and will be sold on the global market for the highest profit. In fact, in contrast to recent decades, the USA is currently in the midst of a domestic oil boom. A study released by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggests that, by 2016, the USA is on track to pumping 10 million barrels of oil per day, roughly equivocal to Saudi Arabia’s current output. Although the Canadian Prime Minster and natural resources minister argue that Keystone XL and other oil sands projects will benefit the Canadian economy, an analysis of shareholder information conducted by a British Columbia-based conservation group, Forest Ethics Advocacy, found that 71% of ownership of oil sands projects was foreign, and that between 2007 and 2011, $11.7 billion of investments in oil sands production was coming from China alone (around 16% of total investments at that juncture). The report concluded that “[Stephen] Harper has claimed to do this in the name of Canada’s national interest while attacking anyone who disagrees”.

The main point of consternation for many of those opposing current moves to complete projects such as Keystone XL and the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project remains the indelible impact it will have upon the tribal sovereignty of the indigenous people of Alberta, British Columbia, and other areas. Opposition groups claim that the omnibus legislation of Harper’s Conservative government violates tribal sovereignty by favouring corporate interests in resource-rich native territory over the collective land rights of Canada’s First Nations. The Keystone XL pipeline alone will account for the destruction of 4.3 million hectares of indigenous territories, forests, and wetlands belonging to First Nation peoples. Opposition groups have accused the Harper government of contravening Section 35 of the 1982 Constitution Act that recognises and affirms Aboriginal rights. Last year, Canadian rock legend, Neil Young, spoke out against the exploitation of indigenous lands during his cross-Canada concert tour in support of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s legal fund: “We made a deal with these people,” he said. “We are breaking our promise … The blood of these people will be on modern Canada’s hands.” Aboriginal communities and opposition groups have allied in their peaceful struggle against the Canadian government for the autonomy of the First Nations and the independence of Canada’s native lands. Several peaceful protests toward the end of 2013 culminated in stand-offs with mounted police and the subsequent arrest of those involved. However, over the past several years, the opposition movement has gathered momentum and a now international array of opposition groups are refusing to stand down. Activists are continuing to call on all Canadians to join together in peaceful protest to protect indigenous sovereignty and to pressure the government and industry in order to protect the environment. Last Monday night’s vigils show that this struggle is far from over for Stephen Harper’s government.

Eriel Deranger belongs to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation of Northern Alberta and works with the Rainforest Action Network, which is currently lobbying against the Keystone XL pipeline project. She maintains that “[O]ur people and our mother earth can no longer afford to be economic hostages in the race to industrialise our homelands. It’s time for our people to rise up and take back our role as caretakers and stewards of the land”. Her words epitomise the struggle of her people and other First Nations to preserve their history and to safeguard their future in the 21st century, as Canada continues along its self-proclaimed path to becoming an energy superpower.

Jamie Pinnock.


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