The U.S., Canada and Tar Sands: Pollution Without Borders

By Michelle Chen Aug 20, 2009

The government is busy stemming the flow of immigration from Mexico, but it’s welcoming a different kind of flood from the north. The State Department just approved a project to pipe some of the world’s dirtiest oil from Canada into America’s fuel-hungry economy. Under the permit, according to the State Department, the Alberta Clipper Pipeline system “will carry up to 450,000 barrels of crude oil a day from the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin in Canada to refineries in the U.S.,” channeling the black gold across the northern Midwest. The oil, to be dredged up from tar sands development, is some pretty heavy stuff. According to a statement released today by Earth Justice, the Minnesota-based Indigenous Environmental Network and other groups:

Tar sands development in Alberta is creating an environmental catastrophe, with toxic tailings ponds so large they can be seen from space and plans to strip away the forests and peat lands in an area the size of Florida. In addition, greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands production are three times that of conventional crude oil and tar sands oil contains 11 times more sulfur and nickel, six times more nitrogen and five times more lead than conventional oil. These toxins are released into the U.S. air and water when the crude oil is processed into fuels by refineries.

Though it insists that the administration wants to move the country away from fossil-fuel dependency, the State Department defends the plan as a boon to America’s strategic interests and a source of desperately needed jobs:

Approval of the permit sends a positive economic signal, in a difficult economic period, about the future reliability and availability of a portion of United States’ energy imports, and in the immediate term, this shovel-ready project will provide construction jobs for workers in the United States.

The perversity of promoting economic development through environmental destruction is not lost on the communities that suffer deeply from both poverty and pollution. Indigenous communities in the U.S. and Canada are protesting the pending incursion on forests and native lands. Marty Cobenais of the Indigenous Environmental Network stated, "The voices and rights of the Leech Lake Band members are not being listened to by the Obama Administration." Tribal activists are pushing for a referendum process that could help derail the project, but given the government’s track record on honoring tribal rights, don’t expect a major policy shift. Native communities in Canada, too, are outraged that their lands are being exploited without adequate compensation to the impacted communities. As for the purported economic benefits of tar sands extraction, the Canada-based environmental group Polaris Institute says that in Alberta, the oil industry has contributed to economic volatility and increased inequality, thanks to an unfair royalty structure that ends up starving low-income communities. And despite the promise of jobs, Polaris argues, “cheap labour practices allow oil companies operating in the tar sands to cut their labour costs by hiring non-unionized workers and workers from other countries.” As U.S. officials push forward their “shovel ready” construction projects, Alberta provides a cautionary tale for what can happen when sustainable development goals are traded for short-term gains. Though the tar sands project is rolling ahead, native-led grassroots environmental activism does not go unnoticed by corporate interests. An alarmist report from the Canadian Defense Security and Foreign Affairs Institute paints nonviolent First Nations protesters as a potential terrorist threat—that is, to the oil industry. In reality, the most lethal threats are those that the political establishment accepts as the cost of doing business. The toxic cross-border exchange endorsed by the State Department reveals who controls the continent’s resources and artificial boundaries—and how easily those forces can violate the sovereignty of nature and its original inhabitants. Image: ForestEthics