Through the blur of the Cessna’s propeller I can see a vast forest stretching to the horizon – two million square miles at the top of the northern hemisphere that’s home to 140, 000 species of plants, wildlife, insects and micro-organisms.
The Canadian forest in Alberta is second only to the Amazon in size. It’s critical in absorbing the Earth’s mounting deposits of carbon dioxide and carbon. Over 500 Indian tribes have lived and hunted here for thousands of years.
Suddenly a smell of sulphur begins to infuse the cockpit. Abruptly, the trees stop – where once stood towering spruce and conifer are now lifeless sand dunes. Then the landscape turns a sickly black, like a giant, dark bruise spreading over the planet.
This is ‘Tarmageddon’ – the devastation wreaked by the search for tar sand – and here, deep below the forest floor, is the third-largest oil field in the world: 173 billion barrels of recoverable oil. ‘I’m always blown away by how immense this place is,’ says the pilot.
Giant trucks, as tall as three-storey buildings, labour across the blackened landscape below, plundering sand full of bitumen from strip mines. A line of trees stands near the mines, waiting to be culled as the mine spreads. Tall chimneys bleed waste-burning gases into the atmosphere.
It takes two tons of tar sand to produce just one barrel of oil, which is then refined into petroleum. Around 1.6 million barrels of oil are produced a day here. The oil companies, with British support, hope to increase that seven-fold in coming years.
But according to environmentalists and some British politicians, this is the dirtiest oil anywhere in the world. Up to five barrels of water are needed to extract every barrel of oil.
Worse still, a gallon of petrol produced from tar sands releases 20 per cent more carbon dioxide than conventional oil.
Recently, the European Union tried to label the tar sands as a dirty fuel because of the increased emissions, but amid intense lobbying from the Canadian government and oil companies the vote ended in stalemate.
The plane banks left as we fly over an oil-production facility bordering the Athabasca River, which flows north to the Arctic.
A number of pipes flow into earth-banked tailing ponds, which contain the highly toxic byproducts of the extraction process. The ponds cover more than 30 square miles.
Locals claim that evaporation from the ponds results in acid rain and that the toxins seep into water supplies.
Up Highway 63, busy with heavy industrial traffic, it’s a four-hour drive from the teeming oil boom town of Fort McMurray to the small town of Lac La Biche. Here, Crystal Lameman, a Beaver Lake Cree Indian and activist, is fighting to save her community from encroaching oil companies.
The Beaver Lake Cree’s traditional territories cover an area the size of Switzerland and contain 30 per cent of all tar sands production. Lameman recently returned from a trip to London to spread awareness for her cause. The Beaver Lake Cree Nation filed a lawsuit in 2008 against the Canadian and Alberta governments for letting oil companies destroy the Cree’s ancestral lands in their hunt for oil. They cite 17,000 infringements of their treaty rights.
‘The Queen said she would protect us and our homeland,’ says Crystal. ‘We are now going back to the Queen to ask for her help. They colonised us here. The oil companies are just the last line of that process in completely wiping us out.’
We drive up into the Beaver Lake Cree reservation to meet Crystal’s 80-year-old uncle, former chief Al Lameman. Along the way Crystal points out small signs that show exploration areas earmarked by Husky Energy, a partner of BP. It will use a less-damaging form of extraction than open-cast mining called SAGD, in which steam is blasted into the ground to force the heavy oil deposits to the surface. (BP says it has no plans to mine tar sands.)
Some scientists and environmentalists, however, claim that the SAGD method poisons underground aquifers. Al Lameman says, ‘About 20 years ago I said to all the other elders that one day we would have to pay for water, that it might come in bottles. They all laughed at me. We are surrounded by lakes and water, they said.
'Now look. The lakes and rivers are drying up. And we pay for water from bottles.’ He slumps a little. ‘And we had a hard time adjusting when they put us on the reservations.’
The northern reaches of Canada are directly on bird-migration paths so that several times a year the air is thick with flying formations of ducks. ‘The ducks don’t land here any more, or if they do, in far fewer numbers,’ says Lameman. ‘When we eat them they taste different. The animals are smarter than us. They have left.’
When the oil companies started to speculate, Lameman says the locals were offered incentives to acquiesce. ‘They would say to us, “We will give you $100,000 for a new playground or community centre,”’ he says.
‘I told them no. The creator gave us the environment to look after. The land is sacred for us.’ In the Indian religion, Mother Earth is imbued with powerful spirits – and animals, trees, and even rocks have spirits. ‘The most sacred of these is water,’ says Lameman.
‘The source of all life. Without this we have nothing. Now they are poisoning the water, the lakes are drying up and they are taking land all around us, thousands of square miles.’
The huge machines ripping into the earth are seen by the Indians as an attack on their homeland, their religion and their race. ‘This is just another form of colonisation,’ says Lameman.
‘They forced us on to reserves, then they sent us to residential schools where we could not learn our language or our culture any more and now, they are finally taking away the land.’
The following day we drive out to visit oil-production sites deep in the woods, once the traditional hunting grounds of the Beaver Lake Cree.
The sites are ringed by heavy security and high guard towers to keep out unwanted attention. One facility belongs to Devon Energy, a partner of BP. ‘We’re not against the oil companies,’ says Lameman, ‘but we are against pollution and destroying the environment upon which our lives depend.
'The money is overpowering these people. They take it and run. Once all the oil is gone they will run back to London or New York. 'All we are saying is that we would like to sit down and talk. There must be a way to do this where the environment is not so badly affected.’
I flew further north to Fort Chipewyan, a remote village on the Athabasca River, deep in one of the world’s biggest freshwater deltas. The tiny outpost of wooden homes and a couple of simple churches was established as the centre of the trapping and fur trade in 1788.
Today, it’s home to 800 people, a mixture of Indians and the descendents of settlers.
‘The Europeans used to come and offer the trappers small presents to get them to hand over their furs,’ says one resident. ‘Now the oil companies come and offer us free pens and little bags. The exploitation continues.’
But the devastation of the environment is a more recent development. Fishermen started to notice problems with their catches – fish with large heads and small bodies, lesions, boils and oversized jaws. They tasted of oil. When they boiled river water it left brown sediment in the kettle.
A report, ‘Does the Alberta Tar Sands Industry Pollute?’ in the Open Conservation Biology Journal found increased mercury in walleye fish, higher than Canadian health recommendations, and levels of hydrocarbons that are known to cause cancer.
The report stated: ‘Elevated levels of mercury and arsenic in the local fishes are a concern.’
It concluded: ‘Arsenic is a known carcinogen linked with human bile duct, urinary tract and skin cancers, vascular diseases and Type II diabetes.’
The report confirmed what visiting doctor John O’Connor had been finding for several years.
‘I started to notice a very high prevalence of rare, aggressive cancers,’ he tells me.
‘These cancers can be linked to petroleum products.’
O’Connor is revered as a hero in the small community. The doctor went public in 2006 as a whistle-blower and was immediately attacked by the Alberta government. An independent study was done by Alberta Health Services.
A peer review analysis of the report was then carried out by the National Resources Defense Council, which found a 30 per cent increase in cancers in Fort Chipewyan. Leukemia and lymphomas had increased threefold and bile duct cancers seven fold.
Beatrice Gladue, a native Beaver Lake Cree Indian, welcomes me into her modest home, set high on stilts deep in the forest. She used to share the home with her husband, Al, her childhood sweetheart, and their two children. ‘What can we do?’ she sighs. ‘The oil companies have millions of dollars. How can we fight them?’
Al used to be a bus driver for the local community. All the schoolchildren knew him. In May 2007 he began to have pains in his stomach and problems sleeping. Beatrice noticed his skin was a bluish tone. And his eyes were beginning to turn yellow.
Soon after he was diagnosed with the extremely rare and aggressive bile duct cancer. For months he underwent painful treatment and each time he returned home with tubes protruding from his stomach. ‘I wanted to hug him at night,’ says Beatrice. ‘But the saddest thing was that I couldn’t because of the tubes. It was too painful for him.’ Al died in January the following year.
Down near the lake Alice Rigney sits in the window of her home looking out over the river wearing a scarf to hide her hair loss from chemotherapy.
Alice has breast cancer. She’s a bright, thoughtful and kind woman who taught Na Dene, the native Indian language, at the local high school. She grew up in a large Indian family of 16. Her father lived off the land, hunting, fishing and trapping. Her mother made all the children new moccasins and clothing from buffalo hide.
‘What saddens me most,’ she says, ‘is that my grandchildren will never experience what I experienced growing up here. The tailing ponds from the mines are right by the river. It’s seeping into the water.
'Our people never used to get ill. My parents lived until they were 90. Now people get diabetes, have heart attacks, develop Lupus, a lot of diseases that we never heard of. People used to get colds and the flu, but nothing like what we get now.’
Alice says that no one in the community has any recourse. ‘You never see a politician here,’ she says. ‘There aren’t enough of us here so no one cares what we think. What’s in store for us? Who knows?’
Fort McMurray is Canada’s tar sand boomtown. It’s stuffed with roughnecks coming in from all over the world to make it rich. There is one woman for every 20 men.
Aside from the casino there are two strip clubs and a multitude of bars to cater for off-duty oil workers. In among the stores offering tax advice are drug-testing clinics, which the oil companies use to ensure that their workers are not drunk or high at work. Drug use is rife.
In the Keg bar I meet Justin, a Houston oil executive working for a company that cleans the polluted water that’s a by-product of the oil extraction. He has little time for the environmentalists and the Indians who claim the oil is ruining their homeland and causing cancer.
‘It’s green,’ he says. ‘It comes out of the ground. So do the chemicals. Maybe when we start importing chemicals from Mars they’ll have something to complain about.’
He says the oil companies are offering economic opportunities. ‘I met one woman on this trip who earns $70 an hour for cleaning down the buses that transport the workers, which means she can send her kids to college. Where else could she earn money like that?’
Travis Davies of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers adds, ‘We understand there is an environmental impact to the (tar sands) development – as there is to any energy development – but we maintain it can be done while enhancing environmental performance, and returning the land to a sustainable ecosystem after it is disturbed.’
Davies also points to a report, now disputed by others, by The Royal Society of Canada for Sciences and Humanities that counters accusations of a negative impact on water quality and health.
But for Al Lameman, the Canadian tar sands remain a futuristic vision of hell: ‘The creator is angry,’ he says. ‘Everyone is going to be sorry for what they have done. A day of reckoning is coming. And it’s going to affect everyone on the planet. It will make no distinction for religion or creed.
'Something is going to happen.’
(By Jonathan Green, Daily Mail, 09/06/2012)