Why We Need to Defund Tar Sands Pipelines

by Mike Hudema

June 26, 2017

I live just a few hours away from the heart of the monster — the Alberta tar sands oil fields. Driving north from my home you watch forests fade into toxic moonscapes. Your lungs begin to burn. And dotted throughout the hostile destruction, First Nations fight against the growing darkness.

View of Suncor Millennium tailings pond and tar sands mining operations north of Fort McMurray.

I know the impacts firsthand. I’ve lived in these parts for most of my life; I’ve cried with Indigenous leaders who can no longer eat the fish from the waters.

The showdown against the tar sands is a battle for survival against some of the planet’s biggest polluters. It is a struggle that has global implications for the climate, water resources, and the lasting rights of Indigenous peoples. It will be long and difficult, but if we stand together and are led by people and teachings as old as the land itself, I know that we can win.

‘The Earth is baked.’

On one side of the struggle are some of the largest fossil fuel companies on the planet, who are joined by the Trump administration, Canada’s government, and a litany of financial institutions willing to bankroll them and their destruction. They are leveling all of their resources to keep extracting one of the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet, shipping it across Canada and the United States, refining it, and sending it to markets across the globe — endangering communities and our climate at every step.

On the other side is us — people seeking to protect their families and communities from danger by campaigning to end tar sands oil once and for all. Canadian, American, and First Nations communities on the frontlines have consistently said that water is more important than oil, health more important then industry profits, and that that justice is only found when we stand together.

The tar sands are located in Northern Alberta, Canada. They lie under 54,800 square miles of boreal forest, an area the size of Florida. To get tar sands out of the ground, the world’s largest shovels carve into the Earth, turning one of the planet’s most diverse forest ecosystems into vast, open pit strip mines. Rivers are diverted, lakes are drained, and the earth is baked — all to suck a tar like substance called bitumen out of the ground.

The impacts to the environment and people are horrific. Since their beginning the companies and governments that profit off the tar sands have trampled the rights of Indigenous peoples, destroying cultures and poisoning water and food supplies. One Indigenous Nation alone — the Beaver Lake Cree — has sued the Canadian government, citing more than 20,000 treaty rights violations on its traditional territory due to tar sands development.

In a world awash with far more oil than we can safely consume, the tar sands represent an especially counterproductive and dangerous source of energy.

Because bitumen must be heavily processed before it can even be extracted from the ground and made to flow through a pipeline to transport it to distant refineries, it releases around 20 percent more greenhouse gas pollution than ordinary crude oil. For similar reasons, tar sands oil has a higher cost of production and transport, making it a potentially risky investment, particularly in a world where the Paris climate goals are the new standard.

A study published in the journal Nature found that even with very favorable assumptions, the vast majority of tar sands oil would be “unburnable” in a world that limited global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

The tar sands are also one of the largest sources of unburned carbon on the planet. If fully exploited, they would release 83,700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide — the equivalent of 480 coal-fired power plants operating for 50 years. They are home to the second largest dam in the world but, instead of holding back water, the dam holds back hundreds of millions of cubic meters of toxic waste.

The tar sands are the poster-child of what unsustainable development and a world gone fossil fuel mad looks like.

Detail view of bituminous sands at the Bitumount oil extraction site on the river Athabasca north of Fort McMurray.

‘A twisted way of bringing us together’

Connecting the tar sands to world markets is a network of existing and proposed pipelines that cut through communities and wild lands. Trump, Trudeau and oil companies are trying to force through four new enormous pipelines: Keystone XL, Kinder Morgan TransMountain, Energy East and Enbridge Line 3. If successful, these pipelines would endanger water supplies, unlock the carbon bomb, and railroad over the rights and decisions of over 120 First Nations and Tribes on both sides of the border.

But as much as these pipelines are pathways of pollution, they are also roadmaps of resistance. They show how distant communities can be connected and collectively mobilized because they are protecting themselves from a common threat. These pipeline proposals have their a twisted way of bringing us together, from the Tsleil-Waututh on the British Columbia coast to the Rosebud Sioux in South Dakota to private landowners in the path of the projects, we are rising together with a simple message — no.

By forming a united resistance against all tar sands pipelines, we can build a movement strong enough to win. Together we can work to cut off pipeline funding — tackling banks and pipeline financiers, challenging pipelines in court, activating our communities, and standing with Indigenous land and water protectors by putting our bodies on the line.

This fight is about more than pipelines. It’s about Indigenous rights and the right to clean water, a safe climate, and a healthy planet. We must stand-up, defend the sacred, and win.

We will fight the pipelines everywhere. In the banks, on the land, or in the chambers of government, and we will not let them destroy what we hold dear. Water is life, land is home — these are not just slogans but deep truths we will respect and defend.

Mike Hudema

By Mike Hudema

Mike Hudema has been a longtime creative activist in Edmonton and beyond and is currently a climate campaigner with Greenpeace Canada working on issues like tar sands development and renewable energy.

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