One Disaster Not Waiting to Happen: The Tar Sands, the Pandemic, and the Keystone XL Pipeline

Terray Sylvester
A coyote trots along a lush green glade near the city of Fort McMurray, Canada. It is boldly unafraid of the presence of people. On a cloudy summer day, it sniffs the grasses that are still wet and stops at the edge of a large area of ​​thick, dark mud. The air here is hard with chemicals rising from the dirt - they burn your mouth and throat, almost like on the edge of a tear gas cloud.
These are the Athabasca tar sands, which are the result of the open pit mining of bitumen and crude oil. The boreal forest that had stood here for millennia was demolished so that miners could dig up the natural resources that formed the backbone of the oil industry in the region and formed huge black pits in their place. Heavy machinery used in this process stands empty on a Saturday, and a giant chimney that emits gray smog in the distance is the only hint of industrial activity.
The coyote looks out over the smooth, poisonous swamp that splits the landscape as if wondering how this smelly mess came about in the middle of its natural habitat a few decades ago. Then it disappears into the bush.
Cleo Reece watches with a smile.
"Look at that," she says. "They're usually not so fearless of people. Since everyone has mostly stayed at home because of COVID in the past few months, the animals here are getting braver."
Reece, 72, is a member of the Fort McMurray Cree First Nation, one of several indigenous tribes that call this area their ancestral home. She is co-chair of Keepers of the Athabasca, an environmental organization dedicated to conserving the water of the Athabasca River, which winds over 765 miles northwest of Canada before flowing into Lake Athabasca. Like many indigenous peoples in the region, Reece is deeply concerned about the impact of the oil industry on land, air, and water, and has spent much of their lives holding them accountable.
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Environmental concerns regarding the Alberta oil sands, which support a multi-billion dollar industry made up of companies such as Syncrude, Suncor, and most recently the Saudi Arabian government, appear to be far away and unrelated to turbulent events in the United States . However, they are currently related to an extremely controversial issue that has become increasingly politicized in America in recent months - the Keystone XL pipeline, a project by TransCanada Energy that is to transport synthetic crude oil and bitumen from Alberta to the U.S. Canadian Border to Steele City, Nebraska.
Opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline dates back to when the project was first proposed in 2008 as an extension of the original Keystone pipeline, which was completed in 2014. Activists and indigenous tribes across North America have cited long-term environmental damage to the Keystone XL pipeline from the original pipeline, which has had 12 major oil spills since it was first built. The most recent incident occurred in October 2019, when the pipeline in North Dakota's largest oil spill of all time leaked 383,000 gallons of oil and immeasurably damaged the ecosystem.
After years of protests and lengthy court battles in the United States and Canada, former President Obama vetoed a Senate bill in February 2015 to approve the American part of the pipeline. That seemed to be the end of the saga about this controversial project - until President Donald Trump all too predictably reversed the Obama decision in March 2017, shortly after he took office.
"It's a great day for jobs and energy independence," Trump said, calling the pipeline "the greatest technology that men or women know."
"A Shell Tailings pond at their tar sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta, September 17, 2014. Shell is one of the largest crude oil producers in Northern Alberta. The photo was taken on September 17, 2014. REUTERS / Todd Korol ( CANADA - Tags: ENERGY ENVIRONMENT) "
The Keystone XL has been no less controversial in recent years. Environmental activists continue to fight the pipeline in court. A Montana judge canceled a building permit in April, and on May 18, Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden made a formal statement promising to scrapping Keystone XL if he was elected president and named the project "Tar sand that we don't carry". I do not need that. "
"Stopping Keystone was the right decision [under the Obama administration] and it is still the right decision," said the political director of the Biden campaign, accusing Trump and his allies, "of the coronavirus pandemic as cover for you To use stealth attack on environmental protection. " that protects us. "
Despite these setbacks, TransCanada recently received multi-billion dollar loans from the Province of Alberta and the United States government. With these funds, the company started building the pipeline in April 2020, well into the global rage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since oil workers have been classified as essential by both Canada and the United States, those who build the pipeline are exempt from continued border closure, raising concerns about the possible transmission of the virus.
Russ Girling, CEO of TransCanada, openly named COVID-19 in April as a key component of the company's plan to accelerate construction, far from responding to legal calls to halt pipeline construction due to the pandemic. Not long after, Alberta government minister of energy Sonya Savage publicly celebrated the pandemic as an opportunity to push the project through at a time when large public gatherings are not allowed.
"Now is a good time to build a pipeline because no more than 15 people can protest," Savage said in a local podcast. "Let's build it."
Indeed, a global tragedy seems to be a promising moment for the Keystone XL project. The North American oil and gas industry is experiencing massive setbacks in environmental regulations that are believed to be necessary to reduce costs and stimulate the economic benefits that these companies offer during a pandemic-led recession. On June 4, Trump signed an executive order instructing federal agencies to waive long-standing environmental laws and expedite approval of projects like the Keystone XL.
However, all of this is happening when the global oil market is experiencing a sharp drop in profitability and oil prices are actually turning negative in late April due to overproduction and low demand at the height of the pandemic. In view of a possibly accelerated switch from fossil fuels to renewable energies and the uncertainty about the economic impulses that the oil infrastructure can deliver in the foreseeable future, the Keystone XL is a great symbol for questions about the future of sustainability and ethical questions of the fossil fuel industry written. As the obstacles to the project continue to increase, the question now arises as to why the pipeline is still being tirelessly driven by companies and political forces - and at what price?
Like most oil regions, Alberta is heavily dependent on temporary workers who fly into and out of the region. Many live in temporary "human camps" that were hastily built to house while they maintain and build the oil infrastructure. The oil industry man camps have a long and problematic history with indigenous peoples on both sides of the border. These settlements are widely blamed for the unusually high number of rape and missing cases involving Indian women in places like Montana and North Dakota. They are also notorious hot spots for violent and drug crimes. In June 2019, an official Canadian government report on missing and murdered indigenous women found a clear link between resource extraction, including the oil industry, and violence against local women.
At the height of the pandemic in April, camps in rural oil regions in Canada and the United States became a problem for another reason: their potential to extend COVID-19 to local and indigenous communities. Native tribes were particularly open about the health risks posed by oil workers' continued cross-border trips, which are considered essential to work on Keystone XL.
History shows that indigenous peoples are at much higher risk and have fatal consequences during epidemics. Native populations are full of health and social problems that make it much more likely that the novel coronavirus will spread quickly and be fatal. Overcrowded living spaces due to poor living conditions and the general burden of poverty in the human body increase vulnerability. In 2009-2010, mortality rates among Native Americans from H1N1 or swine flu were four times higher than in all other races and ethnic groups combined. The Navajo nation in New Mexico currently has more than 6,747 positive coronavirus cases. In May, the per capita infection rate exceeded that of New York State.
For many indigenous peoples, the COVID-19 pandemic is incredibly reminiscent of a long, traumatic story in the battle against foreign diseases, from smallpox transmitted by America's original colonists to the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. François Paulette, a royal, older one Man Who speaks slowly, like someone who is used to spreading wisdom, remembers a long tradition of warning stories about deadly epidemics. His people are known as Dene Suline, and Paulette is also a member of the Smiths Landing Treaty 8 First Nation, an independent indigenous government. Paulette, a respected elder in the Canadian Aboriginal Community, was once the youngest leader elected in the Northwest Territories. In a zoom call, he describes the natives' deep, visceral fear of infectious diseases.
"The stories say that when the Spanish flu hit us up here in this beautiful country that I live in, it was said that some of our people moved to islands and no other people would come to the islands," says Paulette . "The hunters left food on the mainland and others went to get the food, so they had those measures in place - no contact, and I'm going to look at that today, and then I'll look at the Americans. You have no discipline. "
The United States has by far the largest number of coronavirus cases and most COVID-19 deaths worldwide, and these numbers continue to increase in many countries. So there are good reasons for rural and indigenous communities in Canada to beware of the cross-border travelers who work in the Alberta oil sands. In May, a COVID-19 outbreak that spread across Canada in mid-April was attributed to Imperial Oil's Kearl Lake facility north of Fort McMurray. Imperial is one of the companies that would transport oil through the Keystone XL pipeline. This outbreak killed two of Dene's elders in the nearby town of La Loche.
"There is no doubt that the Alberta government's decision not to close the camps, or at least to restrict fly-in and fly-out operations, has cost lives," said Alberta Federation of Labor President Gil McGowan in a public statement.
The Fort McMurray local mall's food court has been reopened as one of the few places where people can gather. Some people wear masks, but most go without. With coronavirus cases and deaths officially declining in Alberta, the first cautious steps toward normality are beginning to take place, but everyday social interactions remain stilted and cumbersome. Nobody knows exactly what the right security protocol is.
Cecile Callilou, a factual grandmother of the Fort McKay First Nation who sits at a table in the food court, describes how her people reacted to the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Our leadership, which is really good, was very careful," said Callilou. “We immediately found security at the gates. We had really good communication about what we should do with curfew. They were pretty strong, because of the oil industry, because we are surrounded by it, we had to take extra precautions. "
Canadian First Nation's concern about the Keystone XL pipeline as a transmission point for COVID-19 is confirmed by Native Americans across the US border. Joye Braun is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and organizer of the community of the Indigenous Environmental Network, a Montana-based activist group that was instrumental in the 2016 standing rock protest movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
"They are already bringing in all of these people camps as external resources, not only to build the pipeline, but also to build it where men with bulldozers come in and build their homes," says Braun. "These men, we don't know where they were. We don't know who they were in contact with. "
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) responded to inquiries about this story: "With the current health crisis, the goal of the oil and gas industry is to maintain the safe and sustainable supply of essential oil and gas to Canadians and others around the world, that rely on Canadian energy. "
Although TransCanada did not respond to requests from The Daily Beast for comments, it made a statement on April 3 that should resolve concerns about the potential of the Keystone XL to transmit COVID-19, with a long list of health records that its employees meanwhile would adhere to construction.
"Keystone XL and its prime contractor took proactive steps to control health risk and prevent the spread of infection when we started work on the first US segment of the project in North Montana," the statement said. "Safety is our top priority!"
The tar sand in Alberta is a clear reminder of the overwhelming impact that the oil industry often has on indigenous people and their homes. Some of these will likely follow the oil itself as it flows across the border through the Keystone XL pipeline. At Fort McMurray, Cleo Reece stops at an open gate at the mouth of a path that leads into the tangled forest. Next to the gate that marks the start of Crane Lake Park is a metal statue of a giant, local-style bird. The Suncor Oil Company logo is clearly embossed on the base of the statue.
"This is where we started the healing hikes we organized," she says. "The purpose was to draw attention to what the oil industry did to our land and water."
Extracting and refining the bitumen and crude that eventually flows through the Keystone XL pipeline is not easy. First, large shovels have to dig out the oil sands and load them into trucks. These large lumps of earth are then processed in crushers. Hot water is then added to pump the material into extraction plants where more hot water is added to this mixture of bitumen, sand and clay in a large container. During the last part of the process, bitumen foam is created, diluted and refined further. The waste water used to refine the bitumen is then stored in large tailing ponds, where it can be stored for up to 30-40 years.
Although the oil sands industry insists that this process has a minimal impact on the environment, scientific reports on the effects of oil sands on groundwater in the region have been grim since 2013. A recent study in the Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association in 2019 found that industry had a serious impact on biodiversity and was a potential threat to the region's indigenous peoples.
As early as 2006, a local doctor, Dr. John O'Connor, caused a sensation by speaking about the prevalence of rare cancers in the indigenous community that he treated at Fort Chipewyan and their relationship to the proximity of the oil to Sand. He was soon accused of wrongdoing by Health Canada and risked losing his medical license. In 2014, O'Connor briefed the US Senate on the potential health effects of tar sand during the Obama administration's investigation into the Keystone XL controversy. In the same year, a joint study between Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation, and scientists from the University of Manitoba found out to what extent Alberta's oil sands in food consumed by people in the region are also contaminated with higher cancer rates in their communities.
We drive past the gaping throat of the oil sands. Sections of unpleasant-looking new growth cover areas that are currently being “reclaimed,” a requirement set by the Alberta government for oil-abandoned land. The idea is that companies are responsible for bringing the country back to a natural state when they are done with it. However, some areas intended for reclamation are still little more than huge mud pools. Loud booms regularly shake the air as if mortar grenades are going to explode.
"The birds don't land that way," Reece explains. The oil companies "got into trouble because all these birds would end up on the sand and die," she says. Now they're firing cannons to stop them.
She shakes her head, sadness in her striking blue-green eyes. "It doesn't always work."
Finally, she moves into an enclosure on a hill that marks the beginning of Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site named after the wild bison that makes it her home. Here, too, the chemical smell of the oil sand is blown in by the wind.
"Aren't you special?" Reece asks as the herd of majestic animals gallops along the fence. "The buffalo is sacred to our people ... I always think, you know, it can't be good for them to be so close to the [oil] industry."
A report from researchers at the University of Waterloo recently found that the oil sands do not significantly contaminate Wood Buffalo National Park. However, members of the indigenous community and local observers say that scientific studies on the environmental impact of oil sands are usually much more exposed when their results are beneficial to the oil industry than when they are not.
"Certain individuals will receive contracts for a study, and the study will publish a report that benefits the industry," said Bill Loutitt, a friendly, middle-aged man with a long salt-pepper braid, the CEO of McMurray Métis. We're talking at the tribe's headquarters in Fort McMurray, a happy, tousled little building. The tribe has only recently managed to raise funds for the purchase, largely due to the finances of the oil industry. That's why Loutitt tries to be careful with his words. He says he noticed a kind of carrot-whip game that was played with official environmental monitoring reports in Alberta.
"They don't say they didn't collect the data ... but they only look at data that will look good for the cheap, and they keep getting the contracts. If someone goes in there and does a study that brings out this other stuff, you don't get another contract. So we said, "Well, we don't trust your data."
Dr. Janelle Baker, assistant professor of anthropology at Athabasca University, has made a career and studied the life and land of the indigenous people. She says that oil companies' failure to do justice to the participative, advisory relationship with indigenous peoples that is to take place in Canada, at least on paper, is increasingly affecting the indigenous psyche.
"I think they feel a lot of environmental grief," says Baker. "There is this exhaustion when people keep saying," Hey, we want to hear your wisdom about the impact this project will have on you. "Then the project goes on and has these effects. There is a feeling that nobody is listening to them."
Indeed, indigenous people in oil areas often have no other financial choice than to participate in the industry. Loutitt explains that his people are trying to reconcile their long history of awe of the country with the need to assert themselves as a city with only one real business worth investing in. Indigenous tribes in the region, like the oil-rich Indian regions of the United States, must draw a fine line between maintaining their cultural integrity and the livelihood of their families.
"It's a good job [in the oil industry]," Loutitt says. “I did it with TransCanada for 26 years and I really liked it. I was concerned. It kept me out of anger. The good thing that happens when your employees get a steady job is that your kids get an education ... We have to do a meaningful job for them. So we have to find out how we work with the development of oil sands as environmentally friendly as possible. "
The First Nations' complex relationship with oil is a common source of conflict within the indigenous community. Many First Nations members in Canada work in the oil industry, and some tribes have deep financial and social interests in the area. The local owner of a successful oil infrastructure company, who is involved in the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and prefers to be left out for professional reasons, is committed to ensuring that part of the industry's profits and opportunities return to help his community thrive.
"These companies sign their environmental agreements, and part of it is the development of indigenous people in the economy and employment," he says. "We need money to balance social problems and train our young people."
Some members of his family are committed environmental activists, but the owner of the oil infrastructure company sees no conflict between their approach to helping the indigenous community and his own. "I do what I do in the best interest of our youth, but at the same time I have a spiritual side," he says. "I believe in my heart that what I'm doing is right. I pray to the Creator to help me get it right. "
This existential tension between financial and cultural concerns is reflected in the experiences of the indigenous people in oil regions on the other side of the border. Joye Braun of the Indigenous Environmental Network in Montana says she understands the predicament of indigenous people who are forced to rely on the fossil fuel industry. however, sees it as the responsibility of the Canadian First Nations to do its part to combat what is also a threat to American indigenous peoples.
"They can no longer do all of their traditional forms of livelihood, the ability to hunt and fish and care for their families," says Braun. "I really feel for our northern relatives ... The thing is that the Medicine Line [the Canadian border] crossed us. We have not crossed the line of medicine. "
Even with a certain amount of oil revenue officially provided by the Canadian and Alberta governments to stimulate the indigenous economy, many at Fort McMurray say that they haven't seen enough trickle to have a significant long-term impact on their society. At the shopping center's food court, a friend of Reece's, who prefers to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation by oil industry people, keeps her voice low as she speaks while chopping a burrito.
"I feel like our people are being used," she says. "We shouldn't fight with each other. If we don't stand up for other First Nations, who will stand up for us? "
Unaffected by the potential of the project to spread COVID-19 across international borders, near-certain environmental damage, ongoing legal obstacles, or indigenous opposition, TransCanada announced that the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline across the U.S. border had completed on May 27 has been.
The company is likely to be encouraged by the fact that oil prices rose again in April, but some economists still have doubts about the Keystone XL's long-term economy. How important is it that the Keystone XL turns out to be important for North America despite so many financial and political investments?
"What [TransCanada] does is enforce a fantasy market," said Tom Sanzillo, finance director at the Ohio Institute for Energy and Financial Analysis. “The oil and gas industry in North America has been the key to the kingdom for the past three and a half years. This happens when you pull the President of the United States on your side ... but you can have all the political interventions you want and the markets are such that the Canadian oil sands are not profitable. "
Although the oil sands industry has rapidly reduced production costs in recent years, the process of extracting and transporting crude oil and bitumen is still expensive compared to other forms of oil and natural gas. Solving the transportation problem is the main purpose of the Keystone XL pipeline. But the flood of oil and the overall lower demand for the pandemic have bleaked the economic outlook for Alberta oil companies.
But there are obviously many short-term reasons why TransCanada would continue to invest money in building the Keystone XL. The investment by shareholders and the Government of Alberta in the project is substantial. Strong political interests are committed to completing the pipeline, and the fossil fuel industry continues to dominate the energy market. In addition, Dr. Robert Shum, professor at the College of Brockport in New York and political scientist with a focus on energy management, that the financial burden of oil infrastructure projects such as the Keystone XL is not as high as you think.
"The upfront capital cost of the facility is actually much higher than the ongoing extraction cost," says Shum. "That's one reason why it might come as a surprise to people that they don't turn things off."
Shum puts forward a frequently cited geopolitical justification for the Keystone XL: that it would reduce America's dependence on foreign oil; and limit the opportunities for outside bodies such as the Russian government and OPEC to dominate the market. But last year the US passed a historic milestone when it exported more oil than it imported. The argument that the oil sands and Keystone XL pipeline would help reduce OPEC's influence on the market also seems less convincing, given that the Saudi Arabian government was holding a significant percentage of its shares in two oil sands in Alberta in May bought.
The TransCanada website advertises the potential of the Keystone XL to boost economic growth across the continent. The creation of jobs, income from wealth and income tax and the commitment of thousands of stakeholders to the project are listed. Charles Mason, Chair of Oil and Gas Economics at the University of Wyoming, does not believe that political or financial investments can make the Keystone XL more successful in the long run.
"If you're up there in northern Alberta, you have to play a card to keep your economy alive and keep tax revenue moving, and that's it," Mason says. "So it's not surprising to me that there would be a big political push for it, but I think if you excuse the pun it's a dream."



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