Indigenous Activists Fight Building of Massive Pipelines from Tar Sands through US
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“This is our last fight. For us, for the four-legged ones, for the flyers and the swimmers.” Those are the words of Helen Clifton, a passionate Gitga’at elder from Hartley Bay, a village situated in the Great Bear Rainforest -- the largest intact temperate rainforest left on the planet. Clifton’s town is about 40 miles south of the port city of Kitimat, where the Canadian energy company Enbridge is planning to build a marine terminal for its controversial Northern Gateway oil pipeline project.
Enbridge wants to build twin 730-mile pipelines connecting Alberta’s Athabasca tar sands to Kitimat. One pipeline would transport natural gas condensate, used to reduce the viscosity of heavy tar sands bitumen, to the oil mines; the other would carry crude oil from the tar sands to Kitimat, where it would be loaded on massive supertankers bound for energy-hungry countries in Asia.
Several First Nations groups, including the Gitga’at, don’t want to see that happen. They are fiercely opposed to the pipeline, which would run through much of the traditional native lands and rivers on which their people rely for sustenance. They believe the pipeline, and the heavy tanker traffic involved, would put at risk one of the most fragile and important natural areas in Canada, a place that is home to red cedars, orca, humpback whales, and the elusive white spirit bear -- as rare as the panda.
“We are a rich people of the coast with all our hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds, but if we ever get a spill it would be disastrous to all the coastal people of British Columbia,” Clifton says. “It is not that much to me, I’m not long for this world. But I have 30 great-grandchildren, and for them I will fight this to my last breath.”
Usually, oil pipelines are movers, not shakers. But Northern Gateway and another massive proposed pipeline -- TransCanada’s Keystone XL, a 1,600-mile behemoth that will connect the tar sands to refineries in Texas -- seem set to upend the global energy market. If approved by decision-makers in Ottawa and Washington, the two pipelines will open the floodgates for transporting tar sands petroleum to consumers around the world. Keystone XL, a $7 billion expansion of an existing cross-border pipeline, would carry 900,000 barrels of oil per day across two provinces and six states to Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. The $5.5 billion Northern Gateway project could transport more than 500,000 barrels of tar sands crude daily from Alberta, across numerous mountain ranges and roughly a thousand rivers and streams, to serve markets including China, Japan, India, and perhaps California.
Pipeline proponents say the projects are essential for reducing the United States’ reliance on imports from unstable and less-than-democratic nations such as Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. Expanding tar sands production is, they say, a way to boost North American energy security. Backers also say the massive infrastructure projects will help shake off the lingering economic recession. Keystone XL will create “13,000 immediate construction jobs and thousands of secondary jobs,” says Terry Cunha, a TransCanada spokesperson. Enbridge claims Northern Gateway will create about 1,150 “long-term” jobs.
Naturally, environmentalists see things differently. Green groups warn that the pipelines will keep North America and emerging economies hooked on oil from the Alberta tar sands for years to come. By greasing the crude’s path to market, the projects will encourage further reckless expansion of the tar sands. That would delay the transition to a renewable energy economy, while further degrading Canada’s boreal forests and spewing even more CO 2 into the atmosphere.