Indigenous Activists to U.S. Senator: ‘Tar Sands Are Killing Us’

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First Nations activists affected by the Alberta Tar Sands take their story to John Kerry, and picket Canada’s pro-Tar-Sands Environment Minister

By Kate Harries
Indian Country Today, March 11, 2009

TORONTO – Dene, Cree and Metis activists from First Nations affected by Alberta tar sands development made themselves heard in Washington as Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice was making the rounds of Capitol Hill.

They hand-delivered a letter to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., head of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, and later about 50 young people from Canada demonstrated outside Kerry’s office when Prentice went in.

Clayton Thomas-Muller, Canadian tar sands campaigner for the Indigenous Environmental Network, said the goal was to pre-empt Kerry’s meeting with Prentice and ensure the senator got a complete picture of the disastrous effect of the tar sands on environmental and human rights.

“Pollution from these projects are adversely affecting peoples’ health, way of life and violate established treaty rights,” says the letter signed by Melina Laboucan-Massimo, of the Lubicon Cree Indian Nation, Gitz Crazyboy of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Myron Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation.

“Animals are dying, disappearing, and being mutated by the poisons dumped into our river systems. Our traditional lands and water houses our culture. They are one and the same. Once we have destroyed these fragile ecosystems we will have also destroyed our peoples,” the letter adds. “The tar sands are killing us.”

The activists urged Kerry to focus on renewable energy and energy efficiency in the “clean energy dialogue” between Canada and the U.S., part of the agreement signed by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa Feb 19.

After half an hour with Kerry, Prentice said, “the subject never came up,” in regards to the tar sands.

Laboucan-Massimo thinks the message is being heard in the U.S. “It’s coming to the point where Americans have to decide – is it about energy security or is it about the life and sustainability of the planet?”

Coming from a community under siege from industrial forestry and oil development on Lubicon territory, Laboucan-Massimo intends to dig in on the tar sands front lines. She’s currently working on a Master’s Degree in environmental studies at York University in Toronto and will be returning to Alberta soon to take up a position as a Greenpeace campaigner.

It was Prentice’s misfortune that his diplomatic mission March 2 and 3 coincided with PowerShift, a youth initiative that attracted 12,000 people to Washington for four days of workshops, protests and lobbying congressional leaders on clean energy.

Another recent strike against tar sands promotion is a long article on Canada’s oil boom in the March issue of National Geographic. “Nowhere on Earth is more earth being moved these days than in the Athabasca Valley,” writes author Robert Kunzig. Four tons of Earth, in fact, for each barrel of oil and the waste water from the process has filled 50 square miles of tailings ponds.

The article has been criticized by mainstream Canadian politicians, including Liberal Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff, although Kunzig takes pains to depict the prosperity that even First Nations that bemoan the loss of fishing and hunting grounds have gleaned from the development.

Such caveats cut no ice with James Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist, who in 2006 defied efforts by the Bush administration to muzzle him for sounding the alarm over global warming.

Hansen has called for the phasing-out of coal, the main source of CO2 emissions in the U.S. But the tar sands are even worse, he told Reuters before the Obama visit to Ottawa.

“This unconventional fossil fuel is a total wild card on top of that,” he said. “You just can’t do it, that’s what politicians and international leaders have got to understand. You can’t exploit tar shale and tar sands without pushing things way beyond the limit. They’re just too carbon intensive.”

Obama made no direct comment on the tar sands issue in Ottawa, although he did say that “increasingly we have to take into account that the issue of climate change and greenhouse gases is something that’s going to have an impact on all of us and as two relatively wealthy countries, it’s important for us to show leadership.”

He has since called on Congress to pass legislation he will be putting forward to limit carbon pollution and make clean energy profitable.

He and Harper agreed that one focus of the clean energy dialogue will be on carbon capture and storage (CCS). Although the agreement referred to CCS only in the context of coal-fired plants, the Harper government is touting the technology as a way of scrubbing the tar sands clean.

That’s a notion that Thomas-Muller dismisses as ludicrous. CCS retrofitting may offer benefits for coal plants, but its efficient application is an impossibility for the tar sands, with multiple emissions points, both in the boreal forest and thousands of miles away at refineries all over the continent.

While the current recession has put some expansion plans on hold, Thomas-Muller warns that the infrastructure that’s projected to flow from tar sand development is “insane.”

A massive pipeline grid is to transport fuels to process the tar sands and to take tar sands crude oil to the lower 48 for refining.

New pipeline projects are planned to send the crude oil to refineries in Ontario and Quebec as well as to Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Louisiana, California, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Many of the pipeline projects will traverse traditional aboriginal territories where consultation with First Nations and American Indian communities has been inadequate.

Plans are also in the works for pipelines to take oil to ports in British Columbia for shipping to California refineries, which would involve lifting a moratorium on oil tanker traffic in British Columbia coastal waters.