As crews continue scraping up two football fields’ worth of black goo that spilled from a Nexen Energy pipeline into the muskeg of northern Alberta, Canada, First Nations and tribes are upping their opposition to proposed pipeline projects.
The company itself has admitted that it not only has no idea what caused the spill or why state-of-the-art detection technology didn’t work, but also that the pipeline could have been leaking for two weeks before being discovered by a worker on July 15. The latter admission in particular has angered First Nations and U.S. tribes alike, drawing comparisons to the 2010 Kalamazoo, Michigan pipeline rupture that spilled 20,000 barrels—the Nexen spill is 31,500 barrels, or 1.3 million gallons of emulsion—and is still being cleaned up.
“They really need to pay attention more to the concerns of the First Nations,” said Mikisew Cree Nation Chief Steve Courtoreille, who represents about 50,000 people as Grand Chief of Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta, in an interview The Globe and Mail published on July 31. “They’re telling us that they put all these checks and balances in place to make sure this doesn’t happen, and then it happens. We’re not saying no to development, but how much longer can we take this type of destruction to our lands?”
The spill has only increased mistrust and strengthened opposition to other pipeline projects, and not just among Natives and environmentalists.
“The Nexen spill is going to be brought into the larger conversation of why we don’t need tar-sands pipelines,” Kendall Mackey, the national tar-sands campaign manager with Energy Action Coalition in Washington, told Bloomberg News.
Among Indigenous Peoples, that is already happening. Below the 49th Parallel, members of the Rosebud Sioux, Yankton Sioux and other tribes, plus the Indigenous Environmental Network and the No KXL Dakota Coalition of several environmental and Native groups, set out on horseback on July 24 from the four directions. They headed for Fort Pierre, South Dakota, after parading a black banner—representing the black snake, their name for the Keystone XL pipeline—through the streets of Rapid City. The goal was to influence evidentiary hearings that were held beginning on July 27 before the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission regarding TransCanada’s permit.
Other First Nations groups pointed out that it is futile to promise something will not occur again when it is not clear why it happened in the first place.
“Until we know what caused the pipeline failure it will be difficult to mitigate any possible reoccurrences and establish a sense of safe operations,” said Fort McMurray #468 First Nation in a statement posted on Facebook on July 17. “Leadership wants to reiterate, that everyone has a responsibility to our environment while respecting the biodiversity and natural filter the muskeg provides to our watersheds above and below surface which has now been impacted.”
After touring the site on July 24 along with ministers from the newly elected New Democratic Party (NDP) provincial government, Fort McMurray No. 468 First Nation Council Member Byron Bates said better communication would be in order, although he did note the cleanup progress.
“I visited the spill site last Friday and it’s much different today,” he told the Canadian Press. “It’s very active, Nexen’s working with us and it’s very encouraging to see the government ministers here today, so we’re very encouraged by that. We’ll look forward to a full incident report and sharing of the information.”
Nexen is a subsidiary of China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC), which bought it for $15.1 billion in 2013, according to Reuters. Meanwhile, the pipeline’s installer, British Columbia–based Surerus Pipeline Inc., has declared that everything was done to the letter and is not at fault.
Surerus “had no involvement in this project after the completion, so whatever Nexen’s doing, they’re doing,” vice president Sean Surerus told The Globe and Mail on July 21. “The project was completed to the standards. We were the installers. We had no design capacity in the project.”
Nexen has said that those sought-after answers will not be coming soon.
"It's disheartening to see the site here, and it is very disappointing that this has happened," said Nexen CEO Fang Zhi to media after touring the site on July 22.
"This is going to take us some significant time to understand exactly what has happened here,” said Ron Bailey, Nexen’s senior vice-president of Canadian operations, according to CBC News. “When I say significant time, we're talking months."