The terrible toll of tar sands mining on Canada’s Native people

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Fort McMurray, Canada — The first mine opened when Jean L’Hommecourt was a young girl, an open pit where an oil company had begun digging in the sandy soil for a black, viscous form of crude called bitumen.

She and her family would pass the mine in their boat when they traveled up the Athabasca River, and the fumes from its processing plant would sting their eyes and burn their throats, despite the wet cloths their mother would drape over the children’s faces.

By the time L’Hommecourt was in her 30s, oil companies had leased most of the land where she and her mother went to gather berries from the forest on long summer days or hunt moose when the leaves turned yellow and the air crisp.

Today, that same land, near her Indigenous community of Fort McKay, is surrounded by mines that have swallowed an area larger than New York City, stripping away boreal forest and muskeg and rerouting waterways.

Oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil and the Canadian giant Suncor have transformed Alberta’s tar sands—also called oil sands—into one of the world’s largest industrial developments. They have built sprawling waste ponds that leach heavy metals into groundwater, and processing plants that spew nitrogen and sulfur oxides into the air, sending a sour stench for miles.

The sands pump out more than 3 million barrels of oil per day, helping make Canada the world’s fourth-largest oil producer and the top exporter of crude to the United States. Their economic benefits are significant: Oil is the nation’s top export, and the mining and energy sector as a whole accounts for nearly a quarter of Alberta’s provincial economy. But the companies’ energy-hungry extraction has also made the oil and gas sector Canada’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. And despite the extreme environmental costs, and the growing need for countries to shift away from fossil fuels, the mines continue to expand, digging up nearly 500 Olympic swimming pools-worth of earth every day.

COP26, the global climate conference in Glasgow earlier this month, highlighted the persistent gap between what countries say they will do to cut emissions and what is actually needed to avoid dangerous warming.

Scientists say oil production must begin falling immediately. Canada’s tar sands are among the most climate-polluting sources of oil, and so are an obvious place to begin winding down. The largest oil sands companies have pledged to reduce their emissions, saying they will rely largely on government-subsidized carbon capture projects.

Some lawyers and advocates have pointed to the tar sands as a prime example of the widespread environmental destruction they call “ecocide.” They are pushing for the International Criminal Court to outlaw ecocide as a crime, on a par with genocide or war crimes. While the campaign for a new international law is likely to last years, with no assurance it will succeed, it has drawn attention to the inability of countries’ existing laws to contain industrial development like the tar sands, which will pollute the land for decades or centuries.

Julie King, an Exxon spokeswoman, said that “ExxonMobil is committed to operating our businesses in a responsible and sustainable manner, working to minimize environmental impacts and supporting the communities where we live and work.”

Leithan Slade, a spokesman for Suncor, pointed to agreements the company has signed with First Nations, adding that “Suncor sees partnering with Indigenous communities as foundational to successful energy development.”

Despite those agreements, the mines’ ecological impacts are so vast and so deep that L’Hommecourt and other Indigenous people here say the industry has challenged their very existence, even as it has provided jobs and revenue to Native businesses and communities.

“The basis of all our Indigenous culture is on the land,” said L’Hommecourt, 58.

It was the threat to her mother’s traditional land that 20 years ago set her on a path of resistance. She attended a hearing for a mine that was slated to consume much of that land, and she spoke out angrily about the development. She ended up being recruited to work as an environmental coordinator for the Fort McKay First Nation, the Indigenous group of which she is a member, to help protect whatever shreds of land she could.

“That’s when I made my choice,” she said. “I’m going to fight for my mom’s land.”

The only way to fully appreciate the scope of the tar sands is to see the mines from the air. Flying across the region from the north, the twisting channels of the Peace-Athabasca Delta, one of the world’s largest inland deltas, dominate the landscape, snaking through forest and marshlands with not a road or power line in sight.

That terrain gives way to a mixture of forest, muskeg, and drylands, where the sandy soil rises to the surface. Out of nowhere, straight lines emerge—a wide, unpaved highway and paths leading to squares carved out of the forest, where companies have explored for oil.

Then the mines come into view. Billowing plumes of smoke fill the sky. Flames shoot out of flare stacks. The forest’s green is replaced by vast black holes pockmarked with giant puddles. From the air, the dump trucks and shovels look like toys, lines of Tonkas digging in oversized sandboxes. The mines are terraced, with massive berms holding back lagoons full of waste above the newly dug pits. As the plane nears its descent, the cabin fills with a tarry stench.

“It’s just the most completely ludicrous approach to industrial and energy development that is possible, given everything we know about the impact on ecosystems, the impact on climate,” said Dale Marshall, national program manager with Environmental Defence, a Canadian advocacy group.

To extract bitumen from the sand, oil companies heat it and then treat it in a slurry of water and solvents. In other parts of Alberta, where the sands are too deep to mine, the bitumen is melted in place and extracted through wells by pumping high-pressure steam underground. These deeper deposits cover a much larger area than the mines, more than 50,000 square miles.

The extraction requires enormous amounts of energy: In 2018, the latest year for which figures are available, oil sands producers consumed 30 percent of all the natural gas burned in Canada. Collectively, the mines and deep-extraction projects emit greenhouse gas emissions roughly equal those of 21 coal-fired power plants, and that’s just to get the crude out of the ground.

The operations also pump out noxious air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, traces of which have been detected by scientists in soils and snowpack dozens of miles away.

The mines guzzle vast quantities of water, with nearly 58 billion gallons drawn from the region’s rivers, lakes, and aquifers in 2019, according to government figures. When all that water comes out the other end, it is so heavily laced with hydrocarbons, naphthenic acids, and carcinogenic heavy metals that it cannot be released where it came from. Instead, oil companies have been collecting these acutely toxic “tailings” in waste ponds, some of which routinely leak their contents into groundwater.

In 1973, a report to the Alberta Department of the Environment identified waste as a problem and recommended placing limits on the ponds’ size and duration of use. The idea was that the toxic components would settle out of the water over a matter of years. The reality is that the tailings will take decades or even centuries to separate naturally.

As a result, the ponds have grown exponentially in size and now cover more than 100 square miles. Every day, they swell with millions of gallons of new toxic waste. Regulatory filings show that the ponds are expected to continue to expand well into the…

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