‘Legal action is the only way’
When the ancestors of the Beaver Lake Cree signed a treaty with Canada in 1876, they ceded vast tracts of land in Alberta in exchange for continued rights to hunt, fish and gather plants and medicines, as they had always done. In recent years, the large-scale deforestation, wildlife disturbance and pollution resulting from tar sands developments have been eroding these treaty rights and now threaten the community’s traditional way of life.
So in 2008, they launched a legal challenge aimed at halting the wholesale destruction of their ancestral lands. It cites 17,000 infringements by oil companies of the Beaver Lake Cree’s constitutionally protected treaty rights and seeks injunctions against new developments.
Chief Al Lameman (left) is determined: ‘The governments of Canada and Alberta have made a lot of promises to our people and we intend to see those promises kept. Governments and industry ignore our concerns. This is our home. This is where we live. We have a responsibility to our children to see that these lands remain inhabitable. A legal action is the only way to make our voices heard.’
This could have huge implications for Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Total, all of which have actual or planned developments within the Beaver Lake Cree’s ancestral lands. But if successful, all new tar sands projects could be brought to a halt. The case, which is financially supported by the Co-operative, is being led by lawyer Jack Woodward. He believes that: ‘Canada’s aboriginal people will be the ones that rescue Canada from international embarrassment, and rescue all the people of the world from the worst effects of tar sands exploitation.’
Find out more, and donate to the Beaver Lake Cree’s legal challenge:
In the pipeline
The next phase of tar sands expansion will require piping the oil 1,170 km to the west coast of Canada and shipping it to China. But the 60 First Nations that live on the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline route have other ideas.
The Gitga’at of Hartley Bay are among them. A tiny town of just 160 people, they have challenged the pipeline planning process at every step. David Benton, who manages environmental projects for the community, explains: ‘Our chiefs have said ‘no’ and ‘never’ to this project. There’s no amount of money you can offer us – nothing. Our food will be lost, our territory will be destroyed. We will be destroyed as a people. It’s not going to happen.’
Their remote, pristine coastal territory is part of an abundant but finely balanced ecosystem. ‘We have the rare white spirit bear in our forest (right), and so many different species of whale,’ explains Ha’eis Clare Hill, Eagle Clan Chief-in-waiting. The community relies heavily on the land for its food: ‘salmon, clams, cockles, halibut, seaweed – those are huge parts of our diet. We have local food at least five or six times a week.’
Enbridge’s plans would ruin all this. The port, just along the coastline, is expected to service supertankers up to twice the size of the Exxon Valdez 225 days a year. ‘It’s so huge, I can’t even think about it,’ says Clare. ‘Food-wise it would be horrendous. The ships will create huge waves, taking away the sands on the shore so our clam beds and all the shellfish will be affected. Ballast dumping will mean invasive plants. It will scare off the whales. And that’s even before there’s an accident.’
Enbridge sent its President to ‘consult’ with the community. ‘It was hilarious, actually,’ recounts Clare. ‘Enbridge came in with the argument that it would create jobs in Hartley Bay. We would be on-call and trained in case there’s a disaster. So we would be the garbage clean-up people! Of course, the people who cleaned up the Exxon Valdez spill are now sick and dying as a result… We had our chiefs there, we had elders, and everyone who got up said “no, we don’t want this”.’
So the Gitga’at will keep fighting. ‘Every year at the AGM we’ll be putting forward resolutions to stop it. The message to shareholders is one of legal uncertainty, because we will take legal action against the project if it’s approved.’
The oil extracted from Canada’s tar sands is of a very low quality, so a number of US oil refineries are in the process of being upgraded in order to process it. One of the largest is BP’s Whiting refinery in Indiana. But the company’s attempts to push through a $3.8 billion upgrade and expansion plan without a proper permit have been met by a firestorm of local opposition, with thousands of residents signing petitions against the plan.
People who live in Whiting are already 17 times more likely to develop cancer than the national average – and many of them put it down to the plant’s high levels of toxic emissions. The new refinery will, by BP’s own admission, emit 21 per cent more microscopic particulates, 20 per cent more sulphur dioxide and 25 per cent more lead, plus as much extra CO2 as a coal power station.
‘This is a classic case of BP going ahead with their huge tar sands project illegally, in order to avoid public review and public pollution controls,’ said Bessie Dent, a campaigner with local group the Calumet Project. ‘BP’s disregard for the law is an open act of environmental injustice to their neighbouring communities who are already suffering from asthma, cancer and premature death due to excess pollution.’
The anti-refinery campaign received a boost in October last year when the Environmental Protection Agency blocked approval for an air permit, but BP is continuing construction nonetheless.
Several of the largest oil companies operating in the tar sands are based in Europe. Norway’s Statoil was the first to feel pressure from its shareholders over the moral and financial wisdom of this investment.
Martin Norman, Greenpeace Nordic climate and energy campaigner, has been in the thick of it: ‘Statoil bought a tar sands company in Alberta in 2007. It was a huge investment, but nothing compared to what they’ve got planned. Statoil is 67 per cent owned by the state, and it has a very good reputation in Norway as being ‘best in class’ in terms of corporate responsibility. So we tabled a resolution at the AGM in May last year saying that Statoil should divest from the tar sands.’
The resolution got an enormous amount of publicity in Norway, forcing the Government and the company on to the defensive. ‘It got almost three million votes from insurance companies and pension funds, which was a big victory for us,’ says Martin. And support for the campaign came from the most surprising of places. ‘We toured Statoil offices telling staff about the resolution, and some of them gave us their votes!’
A few months later there was a general election and Statoil’s involvement in the tar sands became a major issue: the majority of parties came out against it, while others were internally split. Greenpeace Nordic is now gearing up for Statoil’s upcoming AGM: ‘Their tar sands project is now delayed,’ reports Martin. ‘We’re hoping that, even if we can’t stop it altogether, our campaign will make it impossible for any future Statoil investment in the tar sands.’
Follow the money
The vast sums of cash needed to build the industrial mega-structures to mine tar sands are coming from banks across the world.
In Canada, the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), has been singled out by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN). It’s the biggest single global investor, to the tune of $17 billion since 2007. According to RAN campaigner Brant Olson, ‘with help from activists across Canada, RAN has been crashing the tar sands party at Canada’s biggest bank for the last year and a half. We leafleted, we made signs, we staged die-ins and we even appealed to the CEO’s wife. For most of that time, RBC gave us the cold shoulder.’ Then in January 2010 things changed: RAN received a letter from the bank’s CEO Gord Nixon announcing that ‘we may indeed be able to have a productive discussion’ on new environmental standards for its lending in the tar sands.
How did the meeting go? ‘Our aim was to learn whether RBC is ready to begin putting its money where its mouth is on Indigenous rights, water quality and climate change by scaling back its financing in Canada’s tar sands,’ says Brant. ‘The resounding conclusion? Maybe a little. Maybe.’
So the campaign continues. In early March, 200 activists protested at RBC’s shareholder meeting in Toronto.
You can follow RAN’s progress here:
Meanwhile, in Britain the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) has come under fire. A new report, ‘Cashing in on Tar Sands’, shows that RBS, which is 84 per cent owned by the British public since being bailed out during the financial crisis, has underwritten more than $1 billion in corporate finance to tar sands-related companies since then.
Three organizations – PLATFORM, the World Development Movement and People & Planet – are in the middle of a court case against the Treasury to try to prevent public money being used by RBS to pay for projects, like the tar sands, that exacerbate climate change and trample on human rights.
They are planning protests outside RBS’s AGM in Scotland on 28th April, as well as at bank branches up and down the country.
Read the report:
Join the ‘Stop RBS using public money to finance climate change’ Facebook group, and find out more about the AGM protests here:
This article is from
the April 2010 issue
of New Internationalist.
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