Oil Sands Exploitation Poses Dangers To Canada's Indigenous

Oil sands exploitation in Fort MacKay, Albertra
Oil sands exploitation in Fort MacKay, Albertra
Manon Rescan

FORT MACKAY — Figuring out which way the winds are blowing is a piece of cake in the hamlet of Fort MacKay, Canada. Just follow the direction of the fumes. On this cold February morning, with temperatures below -20 °C (-4 ºF) in the northern part of Alberta, the columns rising from the chimneys of the oil sands exploitation sites are pushed to the south. But sometimes, they choose to head north, following the Athabasca River and settling on this small Indian reserve, a village of 700 inhabitants, surrounded by the oil industry.

Fort MacKay's natives were here long before Alberta began harvesting the black gold from its soil in the 1960s. The province is home to the world's third-largest unconventional oil reserve (168 billion barrels), a dense and sticky bitumen mixed with sand, clay and water. Extracting these oil sands has made the region prosper in many ways, and few foresee its decline, despite falling oil prices.

The province continues to look for outlets for the more than two million barrels it's capable of producing daily. Even though President Barack Obama vetoed legislative approval of the Keystone XL project — a pipeline that would transport part of the oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico — the industry shows no signs of slowing down. And this despite the many alarming reports of the environmental toll for which the industry is responsible.

Oil sands extraction produces three to four times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil harvesting, and is already responsible for 800 square kilometers of boreal forests being razed. It threatens to kill off the caribou as it requires the pumping of vast quantities of water from a river whose level is dropping every year.

On the bank of the Athabasca River, Roddy Boucher points with naked hands, despite the biting cold, in the direction of fumes rising from at least three industrial sites on the horizon. "The view used to be nicer," he says with nostalgia.

Fort Mackay and the Athabasca River — Photo: The Interior

Negative consequences

The First Nations people of Fort MacKay didn't at first see the economic windfall of the oil rush, only its consequences. "One day, some people from the reserve went to see if the rabbit traps had worked," says Dayle Hyde, a member of the community who is also in charge of its public relations. "They found no rabbits, and no traps. The forest had been razed." Little by little, the installation of open-pit mines cut the trapping lines, and revenues from caribou hunting fell.

"People at the time started to notice changes in the river," Hyde explains. As lesions appeared on the skin of the fish, people became scornful of the industry. Back in the 1980s, the reserve didn't have running water, and the community's leader was furious when she learned there had been a toxic spill in the river from neighboring installations belonging to the energy company Suncor. It took the oil group three weeks to warn the population, which had continued to drink the water in the meantime.

"We started to oppose the projects, but our voices were never heard," Hyde says. In the mid-1990s, Fort MacKay decided to change tactics. "Since fighting was leading us nowhere, we decided to negotiate," he says. Since then, the community has been studying every new construction project in detail, assessing the slightest damage to its inhabitants and, when the industry says those are unavoidable, the community has been negotiating financial compensation. These deals have accelerated community development, providing it with enough social infrastructure and schools and also opulent-looking houses. But this prosperity contrasted with the despair of other aboriginal Canadian communities is raising hackles.

"That's the price they pay to kill us slowly," says Celina Harpe, who's never at a loss for words. At almost 76 years old, she remembers her grandfather warning her that one day she would have to buy bottled water. "The water is drinkable," assures Dan Stuckless, a member of the community's sustainable development team. "But people have lost their trust."

A soiled environment

Suspicion has settled in over the years. Nobody fishes in the Athabasca River anymore, and lately, people are more worried about the water they use from taps. "Eczema has become endemic," says Dr. John O'Connor, Fort MacKay's director of Health & Human Services. In his practice, he hears the same complaints over and over: dry, itchy skin that resolves itself when the patient is away for a weekend.

The Athabasca tar sands c. 1900-1930 — Source: Library and Archives Canada

The symptoms suggest possible connections between industrial pollution and the high number of rare cancers diagnosed among another small native communities several hundred kilometers away that lived off the fish of the Athabasca River. "We can't be certain that the water is what causes all these symptoms," he says.

To be sure of it, these populations have been waiting more than 10 years for a scientific study about the impact of the industry on their health. They accuse the local government of having "turned their back on us two years ago" when it stopped responding to their requests. The authorities evade the question and claim to "support" the communities' choice for an independent study. "We had no other choice," O'Conner says.

People in Fort MacKay now distrust the government as much as the tap water. Two years ago, they noticed that the system that evaluates air quality filtered only two air pollutants, nitrogen dioxides and sulfur. And not, for instance, fine particles. "They lied to us," O'Connor says angrily. The reserve is often invaded by smells of "rotten egg or cat urine," sometimes coupled with a mist that doesn't look one bit like a normal meteorological phenomenon.

Emissions of greenhouse gases per barrel have decreased slightly in the 2000s, but production continues to increase, thus annihilating any positive effect this could have on the environment.

"Oil sands will be the main reason why Canada won't meet its ecological targets," says Amin Asadollahi of the Pembina Institute, a Canadian think tank that specializes in green energy. O'Connor worries that a European decision in December to open the door to imports of this type of unconventional oil will increase the environmental damage. "Such acts place the populations living here in even greater danger," he warns.

In Fort MacKay, Roddy Boucher and the rest of the residents have long stopped believing that the winds will change. "They're here, we're here, and they're stronger than we are. We just have to make do."

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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