Last spring I returned home to where I was born to witness the aftermath of one of the largest oil spills in Alberta’s history. What I saw was a landscape forever changed by oil that had consumed a vast stretch of the traditional territory where my family had once hunted, trapped and picked berries and medicines for generations. Days before the federal or provincial government admitted that this had happened my family was sending me text messages telling me of headaches, burning eyes, nausea and dizziness asking me if I could find out more information as to if it was an oil spill and how big it might be…. It wasn’t until the day after the federal election that the information was released of the magnitude of the spill – 28, 000 barrels or 4.5 million litres of oil had soaked the land – this is 50 per cent larger than the tar sands oil spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan the year before. Soon afterward the story was swept under the carpet away from the eyes of the public yet it took until the end of the year for the official clean up to be done, but just like in Michigan we know that the land and water in that area will never be the same.
Claims by industry that they will “return the land we use – including reclaiming tailings ponds - to a sustainable landscape that is equal to or better than how we found it” (33) and that it “will be replanted with the same trees and plants and formed into habitat for the same species” (34) are clearly greenwashing.The postmining landscape will support >65% less peatland. One consequence of this transformation is a dramatic loss of carbon storage and sequestration potential, the cost of which has not been factored into land-use decisions. To fairly evaluate the costs and benefits of oil sands mining in Alberta, impacts on natural capital and ecosystem services must be rigorously assessed.
As we see the landscape change, my father who is a Cree hunter has more and more difficulty in finding moose to feed our family and community. A couple of years ago, he found 3 tumours in the carcass of a moose while hunting in our traditional territory. Pristine forest, wetlands, bogs and fens are torn up and destroyed which will be replaced by acidic soil, end cap lakes and tree farms – a mere shadow of what once was. Currently we have toxic tailing ponds sitting on the land in northern Alberta that span over 170 square kilometers which is equivalent to 42,000 acres – this is not including the toxic waste that is produced by In Situ projects which are either injected back into the earth or taken away to sit in landfills. These tailing ponds contain a whole slew of toxic chemicals from arsenic, cyanide, mercury, lead, benzene, ammonia, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon and naphthenic acids some of which are known carcinogens. These tailing ponds are leeching into the Athabasca watershed. It has been estimated that every day over 11 million litres or almost 3 million gallons leeched into the watershed.
Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.