Anthony Swift, director of NRDC’s Canada Project, doesn’t mince words when he talks about the organization’s decadelong campaign against dirty tar sands oil development. “We were the first U.S. organization to jump into the tar sands fight,” he says, noting that NRDC’s work on the issue began several years before his arrival in 2010. The team then quickly reached out to other U.S. organizations to help raise awareness of the looming ecological disaster facing Canada’s boreal forest and to highlight the role that the United States was playing in fueling it.
Since then, NRDC has helped stop three-quarters of the dozen tar sands pipeline projects proposed by energy companies in those early days, along with at least six accompanying crude-by-rail projects. As a result of the dogged resistance efforts by Swift and his colleagues, the tar sands industry is currently about a third of the size it projected it would be 10 years ago, and the production of millions of barrels of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive oil in the world have been sidelined. Equally important, there is now broad public awareness of the damage the industry has done to the boreal forest and the grave threat that its activities continue to pose to indigenous communities in northern Alberta.
Though the tar sands industry has not retreated from the boreal, Swift sees as a success the past decade’s victories in limiting its broad claim on the region’s tar sands oil reserves. Given what could have befallen a forest whose 1.3 billion acres store more than 300 billion tons of carbon, or 36 years’ worth of global fossil fuel emissions, he says, “this really is a different world from the one we would have had if we’d not engaged.”
The Dirty Origins of Tar Sands Oil
From extraction to waste storage, every step of the tar sands oil production process wreaks havoc. Some of the oil is produced through open-pit mining. After leveling trees and destroying wetlands, companies dig up soil and bedrock until they reach the layer of tar sands bitumen, gravel, and silt. Massive trucks then transport this substance to processing facilities where the oil is melted—with hot water and chemicals—out of the gravel and silt, leaving behind toxic sludge that mining companies store in open pools called tailings ponds. Another (and now more commonly used) technique involves injecting high-temperature steam into the ground to reach deposits buried deep within the earth. This liquefies the bitumen, which can then be pumped up to the surface. By the end of the extremely carbon- and water-intensive processes, researchers conclude, producing gasoline or diesel from tar sands yields, on average, 81 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than does producing them from conventional crudes.
It’s clear why tar sands mining has so many foes. Not only does it support our addiction to fossil fuels and degrade a critical tool in the fight against climate change, but it also poses a direct threat to hundreds of indigenous communities whose members have lived in the boreal for millennia. For example, the industry diverts water for its operations from the Athabasca River, one of North America’s longest free-flowing rivers and a critical resource for northern Alberta’s people and wildlife. The mining activities—which use 2.4 barrels of fresh water for every barrel of tar sands oil produced—have endangered the Athabasca’s supply, forcing local communities to dramatically alter their livelihoods and everyday activities like hunting and fishing. The industry also has grave impacts on the health of the forest’s iconic wildlife, including boreal caribou as well as the more than three billion North American birds that use it as their breeding grounds.
Alberta’s Toxic Tailings
For every barrel of tar sands oil extracted from the boreal, 1.5 barrels of liquid waste containing lead, mercury, arsenic, and other chemicals are added to northern Alberta’s open tailings ponds. Today these unlined ponds—roughly 20 of them—hold more than 300 billion gallons of toxic waste in an area the size of Manhattan and Boston combined. And they’re growing: mining companies store 6.6 million gallons of new tailings every day. The ponds are massive—according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, one of them, the Mildred Lake Settling Basin, contains the world’s largest dam by volume of construction material, creating a 30-square-mile industrial hellscape in one of Canada’s most pristine regions.
Even more shocking is that until about 10 years ago, neither Canada’s nor Alberta’s governments made any attempt to regulate this waste, despite clear evidence that toxic chemicals have been seeping into groundwater and rivers. (A 2008 analysis concluded that the ponds are leaking nearly three million gallons a day.) The contamination has led to a rise in cancer and other health problems among indigenous communities and has caused physical abnormalities in wildlife.
“The storage and management of tar sands tailings has been historically one of the worst aspects of tar sands development,” says Eriel Deranger, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and executive director of Indigenous Climate Action, an environmental justice organization based in Edmonton, Alberta. “If we’re talking about the concerns of communities, we can bring them back to tailings almost every time, particularly the fact that there is no emergency preparedness plan if there is a breach. Our quality of life—and our lives—would be diminished.”
When Alberta did introduce some tailings regulations in 2009, the tar sands industry ignored the rules because the government failed to enforce them. In response to this blatant disregard of the growing dangers of tar sands, NRDC, along with Environmental Defence Canada (EDC), filed a petition with NAFTA’s Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC) the following year, outlining the tailings ponds leakage problem and encouraging enforcement under Canada’s Fisheries Act.
In the years that followed, Alberta’s government made several more unsuccessful attempts to reduce and regulate the tailings ponds. “It’s especially egregious when you think about how in 2016 Canada endorsed the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples after having committed to it in principle in 2010—almost the same timeline that we’re talking about here with this petition,” says James Blair, a former international campaign advocate at NRDC. “In other words, Canada is supposed to recognize free, prior, and informed consent when taking actions that could impact the territory and resources of indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, they’re just not holding to that commitment.”
In June 2017, again in response to the lack of enforcement, representatives of NRDC and EDC, together with Daniel T’seleie of the K’ahsho Got’ine Dene First Nation, refiled their petition with the CEC urging the environmental tribunal to investigate Canada’s noncompliance with the pollution prevention provisions of the Fisheries Act. This time, the CEC had a different message for our neighbors to the north: It’s time to face the facts on tar sands tailings ponds. It ruled in May 2018 that Canada had failed to provide evidence that it was enforcing its Fisheries Act with respect to its tar sands tailings ponds (which it noted are discharging “deleterious substances”—in this case, a toxic mix of ammonia, arsenic, chloride, and other petrochemicals—into “fish-bearing waters”). The CEC also, for the first time, called for a formal investigation into Canada’s oversight of the industry.
The efforts by NRDC and partners to call out Canada’s inadequate management of the growing environmental disaster on its hands is part of a push to get the country to enforce the laws on the books, notes Swift. “There are some major areas where Canada is not living up to its progressive ideals when it comes to the environment. I think lack of attention and international scrutiny on this issue has allowed [government officials] to keep this under the table.”
Blocking the Pipelines
Around the time that NRDC began working with indigenous communities and environmental groups in Canada to curb tar sands development, the organization also partnered with grassroots groups in the United States to stop a wave of pipeline projects that would transport the dirty oil to American soil. As Swift points out, the United States is the industry’s biggest customer and thus wields heavy influence over its growth. The United States also plays a part in the processing of the crude oil itself. “The industry’s Achilles’ heel was the fact that it couldn’t expand without the development of significant expansion pipelines to major refinery centers in the United States,” he says.
Meanwhile, the more the NRDC team researched, the more they realized the extent of the tar sands industry’s public health impacts on both sides of the border. In the United States, for example, the refining process leaves behind its own hazardous by-product: petroleum coke, or petcoke, a dusty, black, chemical-laden residue that refineries have taken to storing in open piles in residential neighborhoods, polluting the air with toxic particles. Often, as on Chicago’s Southeast Side, the communities living beside these refineries are predominantly low-income people of color and suffer from respiratory and cardiovascular problems as a result.
Then there’s the issue of spills by the vessels carrying the heavy oil, whether they be railcars, supertankers, barges, or pipelines. In July 2010, a ruptured pipeline spilled about a million gallons of tar sands oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. It was the country’s biggest inland spill, and it created the longest-running and costliest cleanup ever. More so than conventional oil, tar sands oil is heavy and especially difficult to clean up—particularly in rivers and other water bodies, where it quickly submerges and eventually sinks to the bottom. Traditional response methods don’t capture the oil, and there are no proven alternatives.
Backlash by local communities in danger of these spills has been fierce. Those in the county’s heartland battling the Keystone XL pipeline have, arguably, become the most visible resistance front. For the past decade, NRDC has worked to stop that pipeline’s construction, and despite President Trump’s attempts to revive it, litigation efforts have so far kept that from happening. Meanwhile, Swift notes, NRDC has also helped block a number of other tar sands pipelines—Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain (which was sold to the Canadian government in May 2018), Enbridge’s Northern Gateway, and TransCanada’s Energy East, to name a few—a direct blow to the industry that once claimed it was on track to grow from 1.8 million barrels a day in 2012 to 5.2 million barrels a day by 2030.
Battle for Our Climate
Since the beginning, the fight against the extraction of tar sands oil have been focused on our energy future. “It really has been a proxy to have an important discussion about what kind of energy sources we want to lock ourselves into and to raise the point that long-term infrastructure decisions will play a significant role in determining the success of our efforts to fight climate change,” Swift says. And it’s a strategy that’s proved successful over the past 10 years, even to the most skeptical. “When we first started the tar sands campaign, there was this sense that no one had ever stopped an oil pipeline and that it was foolish to think that we could,” he remembers.
While celebrating the success of NRDC’s decadelong campaign to protect the boreal, Swift knows better than to let down his guard. Amid the onslaught of alarming scientific reports on the planet’s rising levels of carbon emissions, the stakes have grown higher. “NRDC has been in the trenches in a hard, hard fight over the last decade, and there’s no question that we’ve had many victories,” he says. But for himself and others carrying the torch forward, he notes, “we’re going to have to continue to engage with the same level of persistence, tenacity, and strong advocacy, frankly, until we have found a safe landing spot for climate.”
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