The extraction of oil from tar sands is perhaps the most ecologically insane idea on the planet. As traditional wells begin to run dry, the oil transnationals are turning to sources that are much more expensive to extract and exponentially more polluting.
Canada’s tar sands are by far the biggest of these, containing almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia. Millions of barrels a day are already being extracted in Alberta, creating lakes of toxic waste so huge that they are visible from space.
Outside of Canada, very few people have heard of the tar sands. But in August four First Nations representatives from Canada travelled to Britain to participate in the London climate camp – the country’s biggest annual gathering of climate activists. Organized by the Indigenous Environmental Network and supported by the New Internationalist, the group’s aim was to internationalize the campaign for a complete tar sands moratorium.
Lionel Lepine, a young father from Fort Chipewyan, the indigenous community known as ‘ground zero’ because of its location downstream from this toxic timebomb, left Canada for the first time to make the trip. ‘I’m here because the tar sands are having such devastating effects on our environment and communities,’ he explained. ‘This project is destroying our ancient forests, spreading open-pit mining across our territories, contaminating our food and water, disrupting local wildlife and threatening our entire way of life.’
Another of the visitors was George Poitras, former chief of Mikisew Cree First Nation. ‘We are seeing a terrifyingly high rate of cancer in Fort Chipewyan,’ he revealed. ‘We are convinced that these cancers are linked to the tar sands development on our doorstep. It is shortening our lives. That’s why we no longer call it “dirty oil” but “bloody oil”.’
But the tar sands are also a global problem. The largest industrial project in the world is also the dirtiest. Tar sands produce more than three times as much CO2 per barrel as conventional oil, and the extraction process uses as much natural gas in a day as could heat 3.2 million Canadian homes. And there’s enough of this filthy stuff to push us over the edge into climate disaster. As a result, the delegation argued, it should be everyone’s concern.
The trip highlighted the fact that tar sands exploitation, although happening in Canada, is largely being driven from London’s financial Square Mile. Shell is heavily committed, and BP took a significant stake in 2007. Both are financially backed by British pension funds and investment banks such as Royal Bank of Scotland, prompting this new partnership between First Nations and British campaigners.
The visit culminated in a protest targeting BP. Led by the indigenous delegation, over 300 climate campers gathered outside the oil giant’s head office and launched a campaign to force the transnational to pull out of plans for a huge new tar sands project called ‘Sunrise’.
The visit attracted a large amount of media interest in Canada, which the delegation were delighted about. ‘Once I got home,’ Lionel recounted, ‘and people saw the media coverage we’d got, the whole town went “wow”! Here there are lots of people who are almost pro-tar sands because they work in the industry, but they are starting to change their train of thought. They realize that if we don’t change now, our home will become a dead zone. The main thing I’ll carry with me from the trip is that we’re not alone in this struggle – and that gives me strength to keep fighting.’