Oilsands Boom Creates Uneasy Wealth In North
By Dianne Meili
Sticky bitumen - once used only for waterproofing his ancestors' canoes - has brought affluence to Chief Jim Boucher's Fort McKay First Nation, located 65 km north of Fort McMurray.
Houses boast wooden decks, attractive siding and landscaped yards. The elders' centre features a stately stone fireplace and the elementary school playground is dominated by a deluxe, multi-coloured playground installation.
A well-appointed business centre highlights the band office, named after late chief Dorothy McDonald, famous for her "David and Goliath" tenacity in pressing charges against oilsands giant Suncor in 1982. The company was fined $50,000 for violating the federal fisheries act with its emissions.
Boucher, who also heads up the Athabasca Tribal council comprised of northeastern Alberta's five first nations: Athabasca Chipewyan, Chipewyan Prairie, Fort McKay, Fort McMurray, and Mikisew Cree, constantly fields health and environmental concerns but takes a pragmatic view of development that has changed the north.
"Demand for oil from this region will continue," Boucher said, despite environmental concerns. "This is the only place in the world where oil resources are produced in a stable area.
"Each and every person up here has their own level of optimism. I'm advocating for environmental improvements, and in some cases, we have seen response. For example, Suncor has successfully reduced sulphur emissions by 80 per cent, and Syncrude by 60 per cent.
"In other areas, we need improvements. I will continue to push for upgraded technology to reduce environmental impact," Boucher insisted.
Elder Fred MacDonald, like the chief, knows affluence from industry comes at a great cost to the land. His home overlooks the once-mighty Athabasca River, jokingly referred to by residents as "the ditch", and on this April day the water level is especially low - sand banks break through the river's surface.
MacDonald and his wife Margaret do not discount ancestral prophecy and corresponding signs in nature that indicate the land may not be able to support life much longer.Margaret's grandfather, Adam Boucher, once sat with her on the steep riverbank and shared his vision for the future.
"He said he saw me walking across the river - the water was so low. He told me 'the air is filled with smoke so that I can hardly see you'."
The river's water is a major component in the Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAG-D) technology required to pump bitumen out of wells. "That river is up and down. Sometimes it's low, sometimes it's high," said Boucher. Elder McDonald thinks the river is sick."I'd have to be very hungry before I'd eat fish from that river," he said. "The fish don't even look the same anymore -they've lost their colour.
"I can still see in my mind how good this river was. The ice on it used to freeze solid and you could look through it like a window. Now it's kind of like slush - the ice has weakened.
"Sometimes we just shut the windows in summer, the smell in the air is so bad," said Margaret.
Health concerns are an issue for Boucher and he has backed local Doctor John O'Connor, who has spoken out about his observance of what he claims is a disproportionately high incidence of colon, liver, blood and bile-duct cancers in northeastern residents.
The doctor is only repeating concerns First Nations people have had for years, Boucher said. "I don't think the tests being done (for contaminants) on organs of animals, for example, are accurate," Boucher explained. "We need a more concerted effort. Scientists have to conduct full health assessments to determine what is causing these diseases."
Social problems, and the ever-growing use of drugs amongst youth, are another issue It's a reflection of the new generation we have. There are all kinds of recreation opportunities for them but they can't be forced to join in sports activities or get out into the natural world.
Our council has worked hard to keep communication lines open. We have an open general meeting every three months to deal with specific issues."
Growth Outpaces Checks and Balances
In the first two months of 2007, energy producers licenced 4,837 wells - 82 wells per day in northern Alberta.
This kind of development has prompted stakeholders like the Northwest Territories First Nations to call for a halt to further development in Alberta's oilsands, saying the massive industrial growth is hurting their land, water and people.
As the second round of province-wide oilsands consultations draws to a close, Alberta Wilderness Association's (AWA) has also advised a moratorium be placed on oilsands activities, for new protected areas in oilsands regions and for an overarching provincial land and resources management plan that effectively addresses cumulative impacts.
"The development of Alberta's oilsands has outpaced government policy and planning," said AWA conservation specialist Joyce Hildebrand.
"By the time recommendations are proposed or new policies or legislation are put in place, it may well be too late for wilderness and wildlife, not to mention human health and community well-being," she added.
But in the short term, prosperity reigns in Boucher's community. Each band member is awarded substantial payouts from profits brought in by the Fort McKay Group of Companies owned and managed by the band. Other funds benefit residents through initiatives like the community beautification program and investments made for the future.
Savvy marketing of services - the band showcased the seven companies that serve a number of corporate clients in oilsands, pipeline, forestry and public sectors in a May trade show - will ensure business keeps booming for Fort McKay First Nation.
Canada's Oilsands Going Nuclear
by Guillaume Lavallee
Tue Jun 26, 3:34 AM
FORT MCMURRAY, Canada (AFP) - Petroleum companies are eyeing nuclear power to feed burgeoning oil production in Canada's oil patch, pitting ecologists against ecologists unable to agree on its climate change impact.
Squeezing one barrel of oil from the Athabasca, Peace River and Cold Lake Oil Sands in western Canada requires twice as much energy as pumping it from a conventional well, according to the industry, or three times as much energy, say environmentalists. While crude is pumped from the ground, oil sands must be mined and bitumen separated from the sand and water, upgraded and refined.
At a estimated 173 billion barrels, Canada’s oil sands rank second behind Saudi Arabia in petroleum reserves. Since 2000, skyrocketing crude prices and improved extraction technology have persuaded several foreign companies to invest billions in projects relying on copious amounts of natural gas to power machinery.
But with wide fluctuations in natural gas prices and pressure from the government and environmentalists to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, some petroleum companies are contemplating switching to cleaner and stable nuclear energy to fuel the oil sands boom.
"We ‘re looking to cut our power needs and eventually turn to another source, and nuclear energy as a possible alternative”, according to Michael Borrell, president of Total Canada, a subsidiary of French oil firm Total SA.
Some ecologists acknowledge nuclear power is without emissions versus burning fossil fuels. But others see inherent "risks" in sparking up nuclear reactors, raise security issues, and lament disposing of radioactive waste
TO SUBMIT an ARTICLE, OPINION PIECE, COMMENTS to the Native Unity Digest, e-mail email@example.com.
NATIVE UNITY - A place for Native American Peoples to solidify their tribes to make a positive impact on the cultural, social, economic and political fabric of American society and a place for non-Natives to better understand the ways of the American Indian.
AIROS NATIVE NETWORK plays music, news and other great programs from Indian Country - www.airos.org
FOR NATIVE CELEBRITY NEWS - go to www.nativecelebs.com
Visit Vietnam Vet. LARRY MITCHELL at http://www.potawatomivet.com and click on his blog at the site.
NATIVE BIZ LEARNING CENTER - www.learn.nativebiz.com was developed for tribal education specialists serving tribal communities. Any tribal community can register at NO COST.
NAJA ALERTS, POTPOURRI - Every Tuesday when available.