Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

February 19, 2009

IEN: Obama and Canada must address dirty oil from tar sands




By Indigenous Environmental Network

Ottawa, Canada, February 19, 2009 – United States President Barack Obama is meeting today with Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada for his first foreign visit as a President. The main discussion will center on trade between the two nations as well as topics of environment, climate and energy security in North America. Obama's concerns about implementing an agenda for a clean and green energy economy highlights' Canada's oil sands, a vast potential oil source that comes at a big cost to the environment and the human rights of Aboriginal communities. "Obama is building a new energy economy and importing dirty oil from the Canadian tar sands is not a right fit", says Clayton Thomas-Muller, Native tar sands campaigner of the Indigenous Environmental Network from his office in Ottawa. "Canada needs to stop expansion of this carbon intensive fossil fuel in Alberta that is destroying the boreal forests, degrading the sacredness of the watershed and creating environmental health concerns of First Nation communities surrounding the tar sands development", added Thomas-Muller.

Canada's tar sands consist of huge deposits of heavy crude oil mixed with sand and clay in the province of Alberta and represent the biggest oil reserves outside of Saudi Arabia. The ecological footprint of approved projects in the tar sands and its infamous tailings ponds already represents an area the size of Vancouver Island. In the years to come it will grow to an area 90,720 square kilometers in size with 20-30 % being stripped mined and the other 70-80% being developed by a process called SAG-D which requires immense amounts of water and energy as well as the building of thousands of miles of roads and pipelines. The use of water in the process of extracting the tar sands and upgrading the bitumen for transport is of particular concern. If the current development continues at the same pace the tailings ponds will grow to a combined size comparable to Lake Ontario.

The Athabasca Chipweyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation are two of five Aboriginal communities within the Athabasca tar sands development zone that comprises approximately 60% of the First Nation population in the region. "Residents of my community have for the past thirty years recognized the impacts from industrial development on our lands, water, air, wildlife and most recently the health of our people. The devastation of our homelands in this short period of time is perplexing to my people since it is only a fraction of the time that these impacts have occurred compared to the thousands of years we have inhabited these lands." says George Poitras, former chief of the Mikisew Cree.

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipweyan First Nation is also concerned about President Obama meeting with Harper. Joining forces with environmental organizations and Mikisew, Chief Adam says, "Obama must ask Canada to clean up its tar sands and to respect the rights of our aboriginal First Nations. Both the federal and provincial governments of Canada have failed our aboriginal community for the sake of money, for the sake of corporate interests, and for the sake of increasing energy exports to the US. We are seeing disheartening toxicity levels in our animal life and have now received confirmation of unacceptable cancer rates."

"There are many political layers surrounding a campaign towards a bi-national energy and environmental policy between Canada and the US. The rapid expansion of the tar sands infrastructure results in a road of destruction directly affecting the rights of First Nations, American Indians and Alaska Natives on all sides of the political borders," added Thomas-Muller.

The tar sands expansion has an infrastructure with many connecting and supplying pipelines and associated projects that are needed to transport fuels for the production of tar sands bitumen and to move crude oil to the lower 48 of the US for refining. This involves some massive new pipeline projects to Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Louisiana, California, Pennsylvania, Texas and elsewhere including efforts to send the crude oil to existing refineries in Ontario and Quebec. The Canadian government is further compounding land and water rights issues with the approval and construction of expansion projects infringing into traditional territories in Northern Saskatchewan as well as Alberta. The projects for the delivering of this crude oil include major pipeline construction in traditional aboriginal territories in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, British Columbia and US States. The bulk of these projects are raising questions of adequate consultation with the First Nations and American Indian communities.

"The Alberta government's approval of the NCC pipeline directly infringes upon our inherent rights as aboriginal peoples especially since we, the Lubicon Cree have never ceded our rights to the land," relates Melina Laboucan-Massimo who is Lubicon Cree. "We already have logging and conventional oil exploitation taking place on our territory, how much more can the land or our people take?

Prior agreements between the Bush administration and Harper have been made to retrofit over forty oil refineries, double some in size and with some plans to build new refineries in the US to prepare for the export and processing of Canadian tar sands crude oil. American Indians in the US are afraid Canadian export of more crude oil will result in an increase of cancer clusters in the communities that live next to these refineries. "We have on our reservation, on our Ponca land in north-central Oklahoma, a ConocoPhillips refinery which has been here for over 50 years," explains Casey Camp-Hornik, a member of the Ponca Nation who works with the Coyote Creek Center for Environmental Justice. "This company is active in the oil sands in Canada and making plans to ship this dirty oil to its refinery next door to our Ponca territories to be refined. Our people already have cancer, asthma and other health effects from the petroleum infrastructure in our homeland."

An oil refinery is being proposed to be built on the land of the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold in North Dakota. The crude oil that will feed this refinery is coming from the tar sands in Alberta. Kandi Mosset, tribal member of the Three Affiliated Tribes says, "Canada will be shipping its dirty oil to my people. We're not going to get the energy, only the pollution. Our Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people are already experiencing disproportionate environmental fallout from oil development and from the burning of lignite coal in power plants that surround our lands. Several community members, including myself, are tired of being sick and are tired of seeing everyone, even babies, dying from unprecedented rates of cancer. We are taking a stand and fighting back, not only for our own lives but for the lives of those who cannot speak for themselves and we will not stop fighting until we have a reached a true level of environmental and climate justice in our Indigenous lands. We hope Obama tells Canada to stop shipping its dirty oil to the US. People have told me the reason that Canada is not meeting its Kyoto Protocol target commitments to reduce its greenhouse gases is because of the tars sands. Climate change is affecting my community, something has to change."

"Our Alaska Native subsistence way of life has been under constant threat by oil and gas development since the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay. REDOIL has consistently objected to the subsistence rights of our communities being eroded to satisfy the high fossil fuel consumption needs of the US. We strongly oppose the proposed Alaska natural gas pipeline that will link the gas fields of the North Slope to the tar sands development in northern Alberta. We should have a Canadian-US energy policy that does not put Native communities in peril," says Faith Gemmill, Executive Director of Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL) based in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Dene, Cree and Métis communities of Canada and other Native communities being affected by the tar sands infrastructure want to look beyond the dependence on a fossil fuel regime and be visionaries and doers on supporting the development of clean production and clean renewable energy within their lands.

The Indigenous Environmental Network working in alliance with the First Nations and Métis of the community of Fort Chipewyan located downstream of the tar sands development zone are looking for solutions to provide a healthy sustaining community for their future generations. "The sustainable future for First Nations in Alberta and Canada isn't going to be sinking all our eggs into one of the dirtiest, most energy intensive and destructive sources of oil on the planet," said Eriel Deranger, Dene campaigner with the Rainforest Action Network, based in Edmonton. "It's time we focus our efforts on building a clean sustainable future with our people working in a safe, green energy economy."

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