New Internationalist

Taking on tar sands

Hundreds gathered outside the White House in August to urge Obama to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Photo by tarsandaction under a CC License.

The Canadian tar sands is often called the biggest and most destructive industrial project on the planet. If we want to prevent catastrophic climate change this is where the line must be drawn. The action currently being undertaken in the US to halt the Keystone XL pipeline is a crucial battle in the fight to end tar sands extraction. 

Taking on Tarmageddon: Trailer from Taking on Tarmageddon on Vimeo.

Earlier this year I spent two weeks filming the documentary Taking on Tarmageddon following a group of students from the UK campaign network People & Planet investigating the tar sands. At the invitation of the former chief Al Lameman, we spent our time there staying with the Beaver Lake Cree Nation who are at the front lines fighting the oil companies to preserve their land, their hunting grounds, their health, even their way of life, both traditional and modern.

One of the first things to hit me was the contrast between where we were camping on the reservation and the utter destruction that we would see when we visited places like Shell’s Scotford Upgrader or Devon’s Jackfish in-situ projects. It made it all the more real what stands to be lost on a local level from the tar sands.

Taking on Tarmageddon: In-situ Extraction sites from Taking on Tarmageddon on Vimeo.

This was further compounded when we attended the Beaver Lake Cree Nation Pow Wow. As we watched the dancers in their amazing costumes the complexity of the issues around the Beaver Lake Cree’s fight against the tar sands began to sink in. Earlier that day we had been chased by security around various in-situ extraction sites near Conklin.

The first shot of the video from this trip shows the level of destruction caused by tar sands. So this might seem black and white, but the only reason we were able to get around the in-situ sites was that our driver from the Beaver Lake Cree reservation was a former oil-patch worker. And that’s the issue with the tar sands in Canada. Everything and everyone is linked to the tar sands. Every job in some way contributes to the oil industry. It was not an expected finding for us.

We were very lucky to be able to interview a First Nation man who is a former oil worker. He told us about how every day on his way in he had to drive past a native burial ground in the middle of an oil patch. He had to look at it, fenced off and surrounded by total devastation to the natural world. He told us that if he was to go to it and make an offering of tobacco, even just to throw a couple of cigarettes over the fence, he would lose his job. He got to the point where he just couldn’t do it anymore, he was faced with making a decision that involved not only quitting that job, but refraining from having anything further to do with the oil sands. However, he couldn’t say he’d never go back, he had to make the decision between living by his morals and providing for his family.

This is the same choice that faces every Albertan: do they provide for their families doing something so destructive or do they struggle to find work elsewhere?

While we were driving around Conklin we saw early construction and clearing work on the Harvest BlackGold project due to start producing bitumen in 2015 at an estimated 30,000 barrels per day. Due to this massive expansion in tar sand operations it is estimated greenhouse gas emissions from all tar sands projects will increase from 27 million tons per year in 2006 to 144 million tons per year in 2020. And it is only because of this expansion that projects like Keystone XL are even being considered. 

The students in Taking on Tarmageddon are in the UK now planning their campaign. The film will be a crucial part of this campaign, allowing them to communicate their message further and wider than they would otherwise be able to. In November a group of young people from the Beaver Lake Cree Nation will come to the UK to continue building international solidarity to bring and end to tar sands extraction and a genuine transition to renewable energy.

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  1. #1 Graham 12 Sep 11

    Thanks for the article Pete.

    I'm opposed to the further exploitation of the tar sands, but the article raised a couple of questions for me.

    To quote ... ’building international solidarity to bring and end to tar sands extraction and a genuine transition to renewable energy’ is clearly a good thing, but it does not necessarily answer the question of ’do they [people in the tar sands areas] provide for their families doing something so destructive or do they struggle to find work elsewhere?’

    If tar sands exploitation is ended, what will happen to the livelihoods of the people in the local areas? They seem to be victims of a [a href=’’]Hobson's Choice - accept the tar sands or leave.

    I think it's all to easy for people like me – middle class, white, male, living in a rich country – to say that the tar sands need to be stopped. But, with equal vigour, perhaps I also need to be asking “what are the consequences of stopping the tar sands for those that have nothing else to rely on? And what do we do about these consequences?”

    I don't have the answers, and I sincerely hope that the dialogue between students and First Nation's people might be the start of a process that suggests a practical way forward.

    Good luck with both the film and the campaign.

  2. #2 Pete Speller 15 Sep 11

    Graham, thank you for pointing this out. I think you are right, it is not simply a case of stopping the tar sands over night. When I started on this film, that was, to some extent, my opinion however, what I tried to express in this article is that it simply isn't as easy as that.
    I disagree, however, that building solidarity between people campaigning and people affected isn't the solution. In fact, had it not happened we might be saying ’shut down all tar sands now’ and not considering our impact on the people living in the middle of tar sands extraction projects. Only through dialogue and solidarity can we have a good understanding of what we are campaigning for and what the impact will be.
    Unfortunately I didn't have space to go into it in this article, but will in the film, we had a meeting with Suncor Energy, the first commercial tar sands operator. Since they are in such a position of power we need to get them to shift the emphasis of their work away from tar sands and onto renewables - something they are not keen to do. A solution that involved massive development in renewables as well as a halt on all new tar sands extraction projects and a phasing out of all old extraction projects would, I think, provide the solution.

  3. #3 Silvermorning 19 Sep 11

    Maybe the solution is not to shut down all the Tar sands, Because the tar Sands will never be shut down, it just will never happen. Maybe the solution is to stop the expansions. What has happened in Northern Alberta cant be changed, and it does provide many jobs. But do we need the we dont. That is just greed at its finest, and a beautiful province is destroyed for the all mighty buck. So work on stopping more expansions. The size it is, is the size it should remain. And over time reduce its size, as Alberta beomes more diversified.

  4. #4 Silvermorning 19 Sep 11

    Sorry one more comment and I am If you try to shut the Oil Sands down you will not only be fighting the oil and gas companies you will be fighting the Canadian Government and the vast majority of Canadian citizens. Most of Canada works in the oil sands. All most all of Albertians do, and about 30 precent of Canadians from all across Canada do. Some of the Canadian provinces are so poor that the only jobs are in Alberta. They dont plan to stay in Alberta only work there. So what do they care what happens to the province, its not like they have to live there. As for Albertaians, even if you work at Walmart you are still working for the oil and gas industry, because everything is related to oil and gas in Alberta. If you want a change in Alberta you need to diversify the job industry.

    First the expansions need to be stopped. Second reseach needs to be done on renewable resourses. Third Alberta needs other job solutions that are not related to oil and gas. Fourth further down the road start reducing the Tar sands.

    Stopping the expansions can happen now, and i hope with all my heart it is successful. The rest is going to take years and years to accomplish. Because its not just the oil and gas companies your dealing with. But if we are dedicated it will happen. But it will not happen overnight. There are no quick solutions. One step at a time.

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About the author

Pete Speller a New Internationalist contributor

Pete Speller is a video journalist, blogger and campaigner based in Oxford, UK. He works developing video and technology support for protests and justice movements, such as with the group Students for a Free Tibet where he worked supporting citizen journalists in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics.

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