Sep. 17, 2008 - Issue #674: Edmonton International Print 2008
Issues - Dead forest standing
Greenwashing a tar sands sacrifice zone
The famous Hollywood movie Dead Man Walking made common parlance of the term for a person on death row leaving his cell for the last time, heading for execution. The person about to be executed will walk towards where they will take their last breath, and “dead man walking” is a term about those last steps.
The truly perverse thing about the situation is that the individuals being executed would otherwise likely live many more years, and have nothing physically wrong with them. The same can be said of a huge forested area in the middle portion of Alberta’s vast Athabasca Region, south of the small Métis and First Nations community of Anzac.
Sadly, there is nothing at all unusual about seeing a large forested area in northern Alberta that is condemned—like the human being to be executed by the state—despite it being relatively healthy in its current form. To see an area condemned to obliteration in the near future is part and parcel of the largest industrial project in human history, the tar sands gigaproject, attempting to squeeze mock oil out of bitumen that gets extracted through various means.
One of the largest operations for the production of tar sands crude in Alberta is called the Long Lake Project, run by the joint venture of Opti-Nexen. This massive facility, a steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) operation, is the only major production plant that also operates an on-site upgrader, where the tar-like bitumen is diluted and transformed into a mock crude before further shipping to a refinery built by design to handle tar sands oil.
What is truly shocking about this operation? Several things. First, the operation openly boasts about the process it uses that makes it by far the dirtiest plant in operation. Climate-changing greenhouse gases are already produced in tar sands extraction at a rate three to four times higher than conventional oil. In the Long Lake Project it may as much as triple again. The reason is something that Opti-Nexen brags about, a “recycling” operation they dub “cogeneration,” in which they burn off the waste (which they have named “Asphaltene”) produced by the extraction process to power the plant and the upgrader. Burning this leftover gunk is the tar sands equivalent to a proposal many cities have seen to burn off their garbage to produce electricity. The level of pollution with climate-changing properties from this process are truly staggering.
All of this is taking place less than 10 kilometres from the community of Anzac, making Long Lake the closest plant in the Athabasca Region to a year-round human settlement (Suncor’s Millennium Project Plant is approximately 12 kilometres as the crow flies from the Cree community of Fort MacKay). Throughout the entire tar sands region people already suffer from breathing ailments, such as emphysema and asthma, so the long-term impacts on the human health of the people of Anzac are frightening to contemplate.
The Long Lake Project will soon have a different, expanded name: Long Lake North. That’s because Opti-Nexen has already applied (but not yet seen approval) to construct the twin project, Long Lake South. This plant would more than double both the physical footprint as well as the production/emissions from the project. When it doubles, assuming it gets approved (this is, after all, Alberta), it will stretch almost the entire land south from the Long Lake North operation to the area where ConocoPhilips is working in a joint venture SAGD Project with Total called the Surmont Project. One can drive along Secondary Highway 881 from where the current operations are and see nothing but condemned forests. Again, nothing new—but an eerie feeling to know that it is already becoming mere piles of sticks to be sold by Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries (Al-Pac), the largest forestry company operating in the tar sands region. This is also where it gets even more murky.
Suncor, Nexen and Al-Pac are three of the worst offending companies as far as corporate profits and ecological destruction in the region. They are also all members of the Canadian Boreal Initiative. The CBI—a “partnership” of several investment corporations, resource extractors, forestry companies and First Nations organizations along with the most mainstream environmental organizations—gets the bulk of its funding through Ducks Unlimited Canada, who get their funding from Ducks Unlimited United States, who get their funding from the Pew Foundation, who get their funding from Sunoco (formerly Sun Oil), who refine tar sands crude from Alberta in Ohio, and soon Philadelphia. Got that? Suncor, formerly a Pew family-owned company, maintains cordial and tight relations with Sunoco, which funnels money into the CBI.
Suncor is, along with Syncrude, the largest producer of tar sands oil through mining. Nexen, in their existing Long Lake plant run by “cogeneration,” are the dirtiest producer of climate changing gases. Both are expanding, and both are very close to Indigenous communities whose residents have to breathe the air near these plants.
As the application procedure for a massive plant like Long Lake South is done by the tar sand producer—in this case, Opti and Nexen—Al-Pac effectively works as a contractor for these approved operations and faces far less regulations to get the timber they will sell on the same market as forestry companies operating in places like British Columbia. If a forestry company makes such an application in BC, it must show what it will do with the timber, what their plans are for “reforestation,” and so on. In Alberta, it’s a different matter and a much shorter route to production and clearcuts.
What on earth are these corporations doing funding and in partnership with a supposed “environmental” organization? It’s a well-known, old strategy. Stop community-level organizing by pulling them into the dead end of “cooperation” with corporations who have as their only legal mandate to make the largest profits possible for their shareholders.
That one of the largest oil corporations in the United States—after moving to the more profitable sector “downstream” of refining—would want to protect their largest and expanding supplier should not come as a surprise. That Suncor, Nexen and Al-Pac would want to greenwash themselves while engaging in the most destructive projects on earth is hardly a surprise, either. What is a surprise is that they are doing so with very little scrutiny, and that their tar-sands-washed money that seems designed to divert and decimate local organizing and keep Suncor and Nexen producing while Sunoco refines the product is serious cause for alarm. When the best “partners” involved are the worst possible destroyers of forests, rivers and the climate itself (not a small feat among tar sand producers) we need to question openly what the long-term plans are.
Having Suncor and Nexen involved directly is likely designed to allow them (should public outrage force some small reforms to placate the population) to be on the “inside track” as “innovators” when regulatory changes are made down the line.
The Pew/Sunoco funded CBI has already got a plan called the “Protected Areas Strategy,” which would earmark land further to the north—which the industry does not want to develop—for protection. If there is no industrial value to developing an area of forest, there is no need whatever to declare it a “park” since it will stand intact regardless. Yet this is precisely the strategy being put forth by the CBI.
Meanwhile, Opti-Nexen will soon want to hire Al-Pac to decimate the “dead forest standing” south of Anzac. Health will continue to spiral downwards in the community. Production when Long Lake South is operational will go up to 140 000 barrels a day of this dirtiest of all crudes. The question is what forum people who want to end this madness choose to work with. Will it also be this group of corporate sponsors drenched in tar sands oil, or will a truly independent politics emerge amongst people across Alberta, and especially within it’s Indigenous communities who—as always—are first in line to die as a result of ineffective resistance? V
Macdonald Stainsby is a social justice activist, writer and coordinator of the website oilsandstruth.org.
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