Alberta Oil Sands Up Close: Gunshot Sounds, Dead Birds, a Moonscape


If you can imagine the bleak landscape of the moon, you can envision the desolate, 54,000-square-mile tar sands of northern Alberta, a focus of controversy and concern in Canada, the U.S. and even China.

“It’s literally a toxic wasteland—bare ground and black ponds and lakes—tailings ponds—with an awful smell,” said Warner Nazile, who with Freda Huston spoke to university students in Denver recently about the tar sands and its related pipelines. Both are activists from British Columbia and members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation.

They are two of the legions of First Nations citizens fighting against a pipeline that’s just as controversial in Canada as Keystone XL is in the United States: Enbridge’s Northern Gateway, a 36-inch, nearly $6 billion pipeline that would carry 525,000 barrels per day of crude from the oil sands 730 miles across and beneath lakes, streams and mountains to Kitimat on the British Columbia coast for shipment to Asia, particularly China. Hearings are currently under way in Edmonton, Alberta, before a review panel.

In a January 28 interview both Nazile and Huston talked about the pipeline’s current review in an environmental assessment and analysis by a joint review panel. Their conclusion is that, despite its despoiling an area roughly the size of England, the Northern Gateway means billions in revenue to the Canadian government, which has given the project full support.

“Chinese international oil companies have spent or pledged more than $11 billion, mostly on Alberta’s oil sands projects,” Nazile said, adding that Canada’s national resources minister contends that Canadian and Chinese interests are aligned, since Canada wants to diversify markets and China wants to diversify sources of oil.

But at what cost? The two gave vivid descriptions of what life is like at the epicenter of these tandem debates—Keystone and Gateway—a unique look at life on the ground.

Huston said explosions that sound like gunfire occur about every half-minute at the tar sands, which are fenced off and surrounded by no-trespassing signs. She and Nazile learned that the noise was created to prevent birds from landing on the contaminated tailings ponds, but two years ago the noise system failed. Birds landing on the polluted water died, they said.

University of Alberta scientists “found indications that contamination from the tailings ponds was polluting a huge aquifer that ultimately flows into the Arctic Ocean,” Nazile said. Two aboriginal communities downstream from the oil sands have experienced higher-than-average rates of cancer and other health problems, he added.

One of the difficulties faced by the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, which covers about 8,500 square miles of unceded land, is that the Canadian government has tried to create support for the project among aboriginal groups distant from the proposed pipeline route, often by offering them money, the two activists said.

“They claim to have ‘First Nations support’ from the leverage they have over elected band chiefs, because they govern with support from government grants, and the government can cut back on funding to put pressure on them,” Huston said.

The Wet’suwet’en are governed by traditional clan chiefs through a hereditary line and may be subjected to less government pressure, he said. They, along with more than 130 other First Nations, oppose the pipeline.

Northern Gateway would cross traditional lands that are “areas we still use for hunting, fishing, trapping, gathering medicine and picking berries,” Huston said.

“We still go out on our land on a regular basis,” Naziel said. “Children learn places to camp, fish, hunt and the proper time to do all this. Our responsibility to the land is for future generations. If it means fighting someone that wants to destroy our land, that’s what we’ll have to do.”

He and others have confronted Enbridge and other mining and pipeline companies and driven them out under traditional laws of trespass, he said.

“We have a responsibility to do whatever we have to do to protect the land—it’s a lifelong responsibility because we have a lot of unborn generations that will depend on the decisions we make today,” he concluded. “The land is on loan to us from future generations—we have no right to give it up.”