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Chief Erasmus: The tar sands pipeline will harm our way of life

Ben Powless

Canada, the single largest source of oil for the United States, provides its neighbour with 2.5 million barrels of oil a day - half of which comes from the controversial oil sands, or ‘tar sands’, in Alberta. Output of oil sands production is only set to rise.

The Dene First Nations people have been in Canada's north for thousands of years - since ‘time immemorial’ according to their National Chief, Bill Erasmus. He says his ‘caribou people’ are very attached to the land. Many still rely on it for hunting, trapping and fishing.

Chief Erasmus represents 30 northern communities, some of which lie downstream of Alberta's oil sands production facilities. He has been at the forefront of the battle waged by Canadian campaigners to stop the Keystone XL pipeline which will transport oil to the US. He believes any expansion of oil sands’ capacity, including the Keystone XL project, will harm his people and their environment. He has travelled thousands of miles across Canada and the US to take this message to rallies and politicians.

What are the objections of the Dene Nation to the Keystone XL project?

The Keystone XL pipeline is a major proposal that would have the tar sands project expanded in Northern Alberta - and that is what we are opposed to. Right now, we feel effects from the tar sands. The big effects are primarily with water because the tar sands use huge amounts of water to develop the crude oil. In order to develop one barrel of oil, it takes four to five barrels of water. We are part of the MacKenzie water basin which means that all of the waters in the south flow to us in the north. We are having very noticeable drops in water levels.

[Figures vary widely. Canada's Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver, says it takes one barrel of water to produce one barrel of oil while the Pembina Institute says it takes 1.5 - 4 barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil].

How much?

People have reported up to 10 feet in the last few years.

And you attribute it to the oil sands development?

Yes. No one can prove that it's not. It affects the life in the rivers and the water system. We are still able - to a large extent - to dip our cups in the water and drink it.

You can still do that right now?

We can still do that and we want to continue to do that. The other thing with water is once it is used for the huge amount that they take, it is not re-usable. They are put into huge tailings ponds, they are toxic waste essentially. These tailings ponds sit out in the open. The danger is that animals and birds can go to them. It's been proven. 1,500 ducks landed in them a number of years ago and the company was fined for that.

Right now, at this time of the year, the geese are flying south again. It's right in their path. They don't know what it is. It's a water body so they will want to land on it. Also those tailings ponds are holes in the ground - and they leak. That goes into the water system which then comes to us. [In 2008 a widely reported Environmental Defence study concluded that at least 11 million litres per day were leaking from the tailings ponds.]

At Fort Chipewyan on the Athabasca Lake [closer to the oil sands development], people can no longer drink their water or eat their fish. They can no longer hunt and trap and fish. Their self-sufficiency and economic independence has deteriorated. [In August 2011 eminent water scientist David Schindler, and his colleague, Erin Kelly, concluded that oil sands operations released toxins such as mercury, arsenic and lead into the Athabasca River system. Their conclusions contradict Alberta government assertions that the toxins occur naturally. Two provincial studies are now underway to assess tailings ponds contamination].

The Canadian government has promised better water monitoring - which until now has been managed jointly by the provincial government, oil companies and aboriginal groups - does that reassure you?

Water monitoring has to be done on an independent basis. It has to be done where it's not questionable. We have a proposal with Canada right now where we would do some joint monitoring with them. Industry can help provide funds to do it. They should be paying for some of the costs because of the money they make.

What kind of reception did you get from Obama administration officials in Washington? Did you feel they were listening to your concerns?

They are trying to listen to both sides. They encouraged us to continue participating in the hearings and throughout the process. The tar sands began as a small operation but now it appears that the goals are to go international and to become the number one producer in the world. That's happening at our expense. We take exception to that.

People gathered in front of the White House in August holding signs that urge the president to reject the keystone pipeline.

Photo by tarsandaction under a CC Licence.

What about arguments put forward by those in favour of the pipeline - such as oil and pipeline companies, the Canadian government - that this pipeline means jobs and energy security for Canadians and Americans?

I think both statements are weak. Jobs are few in number. The Canadian government came up with some enormous figure. Essentially, pipeline jobs are where you dig the earth, you put the pipe in and the pipe is there for the next 25 years during the life of the pipe. So there aren't very many jobs.

The Keystone XL pipeline is not for American usage. It's going down to refineries in Texas and then it will be put on tankers from there. So it is for places like Great Britain, Europe, China and other markets. It doesn't provide security for American markets. [TransCanada denies this and maintains that the crude oil is intended for domestic US consumption only.]

Are you reassured by TransCanada that this pipeline will be state of the art, and that leaks would be kept to a minimum?

No, we're not reassured in any way whatsoever. If you look at the Keystone pipeline built in 2010 - they had 14 spills in that short period and it was shutdown for a period in May. They don't have a very good record. [According to National Resources Defence Council (US) figures, the 2010 Keystone pipeline has experienced 35 leaks and incidents. TransCanada says all of these incidents relate to the pumping stations along Keystone rather than the pipeline itself.]

It wasn't a huge turnout on at the Canadian protest - do you think Canadians are apathetic on this issue?

I don't think Canadians are apathetic. We have overwhelming responses from people by mail, by email, by phone calls. We think the response was good. We got good media coverage. It's part of a whole educational process that is happening in this country. We are finding that as First Nations if we speak out alone, we are limited. If environmentalists speak out alone, they are limited. Bringing our forces together certainly puts a whole new dimension to it. We have been up north from the beginning of time. We are not going away. We have nowhere to go. This is our home. We're going to defend it.

The process in Canada, politically, is over. In the US, President Obama has until the end of November to assess whether Keystone XL is in the ‘national interest.’ He could then issue a presidential permit allowing the pipeline to go ahead. You still seem unusually optimistic considering the process is drawing to a close - what grounds do you have for your optimism?

We were very optimistic when President Obama got inaugurated. In fact, we were at his inauguration. This one, he decides on his own. President Obama has an opportunity here to look at all the factors to determine himself whether this is in the national interest. He can say that 'this initiative is from George Bush. It was not started by us. We have a new plan and here it is.' He can initiate that. He's got 12 months to work on that before he is re-elected. That's what we are thinking.

Canada's energy regulator is now investigating whether or not TransCanada's permit to begin construction expired in March 2011 - which could further delay the project.


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