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Indigenous groups say Big Oil’s pollution threatens their existence in Canadian forest

The companies’ energy-hungry extraction of the tar sands in Alberta has made the oil and gas sector Canada’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Huge trucks, some filled with oil sand and others awaiting filling, in a tar sands mine outside Fort McMurray, Alberta. From the mining operation, the sand is taken to a facility where the bitumen is separated from the sand.
Huge trucks, some filled with oil sand and others awaiting filling, in a tar sands mine outside Fort McMurray, Alberta. From the mining operation, the sand is taken to a facility where the bitumen is separated from the sand.Michael Kodas

This article was published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news outlet that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is part of “The Fifth Crime,” a series on ecocide.

FORT McMURRAY, Alberta — The land around Jean L’Hommecourt’s cabin was once miles away from the noise of the world. On long summer days, she would come with her mother to gather berries from the forest and to hunt moose when the leaves turned yellow and the air crisp.

But over the last two decades, the cabin has been surrounded by the expanding mines of Alberta’s tar sands, where oil companies have dug vast open pits to extract a heavy form of crude called bitumen. L’Hommecourt and her Indigenous community of Fort McKay, about 35 miles north of Fort McMurray, have watched as the companies have replaced their traditional lands with a 40-mile string of mines, stripping away subarctic boreal forest and wetlands and rerouting waterways.

“It’s an invasion of our territory, invasion of us trying to be out on the land,” L’Hommecourt said. Over the years, more and more workers have shown up in the area, stopping her along the road to tell her that she couldn’t hunt moose or that she was trespassing.

“‘You’re the trespasser,’” she tells them. “‘I shouldn’t have to be answering your questions — you answer mine.’”

Jean L'Hommecourt warms at the fire outside the cabin she has built near the Fort McKay First Nation's village, about an hour's drive north of Fort McMurray in Alberta.
Jean L'Hommecourt warms at the fire outside the cabin she has built near the Fort McKay First Nation's village, about an hour's drive north of Fort McMurray in Alberta.Michael Kodas

Oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil and the Canadian giant Suncor have transformed the tar sands — also called oil sands — into one of the world’s largest industrial developments, covering an area larger than New York City. They have built sprawling waste pits that leach heavy metals into groundwater and processing plants that spew pollutants into the air, sending a sour stench for miles.

The mines’ ecological impacts are so vast and so deep that L’Hommecourt and other Indigenous people here — mostly from the Dene and Cree First Nations — say the industry has challenged their very existence, even as it has provided jobs and revenue to Native businesses and communities. People in this region have long suspected that the tar sands mines were poisoning the land and everything it feeds.

The economic benefits of the development are immense: Oil is Canada’s top export, and the mining and energy sector as a whole accounts for nearly a quarter of Alberta’s provincial economy. The sands pump out more than 3 million barrels of oil per day, helping make Canada the world’s fourth-largest oil producer and the top exporter of crude to the U.S. But the companies’ energy-hungry extraction has also made the oil and gas sector Canada’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a government report

The largest oil sands companies have pledged to reduce their emissions, saying they will rely largely on government-subsidized carbon capture projects. Yet oil companies and the government expect output will climb well into the 2030s. Even a new proposal by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to cap emissions in the oil sector does not include any plan to lower production.

Some lawyers and advocates have pointed to the tar sands as a prime example of the widespread environmental destruction they call “ecocide.” They are pushing the International Criminal Court to outlaw ecocide as a crime, on par with genocide or war crimes. While the campaign for a new international law is likely to last years, with no assurance that it will succeed, it has drawn attention to the inability of countries’ laws to contain industrial development like the tar sands, which will pollute the land for decades or centuries.

Mike Mercredi, who is Dene and lives in Fort Chipewyan, about 100 miles north of Fort McKay, noted that the name of his people translates as “people of the land.”

“It’s in our name of who we call ourselves,” he said. “We are the land. So when you’re destroying that land, when you’re committing ecocide, you’re committing genocide.”

Julie King, an Exxon spokeswoman, said, “ExxonMobil is committed to operating our businesses in a responsible and sustainable manner, working to minimize environmental impacts and supporting the communities where we live and work.”

Leithan Slade, a spokesman for Suncor, pointed to agreements the company has signed with First Nations, adding that “Suncor sees partnering with Indigenous communities as foundational to successful energy development.”

L’Hommecourt is intimately familiar with the partnerships through her work as an environmental coordinator and researcher for the Fort McKay First Nation, of which she is a member, and in that position she has fought to protect whatever shreds of land she could. 

Her cabin is only 20 miles from town as the crow flies, but the drive takes more than an hour, because the road has to loop around several mines. The land, she said, is where she can think in her language, Dene, “where in the outside world it’s all English.”

“You get that sense of belonging here,” she said, “and that’s what I want for our peoples, to have their land back.” She added, “If you have your land back, you have everything.”

The tar sands

The only way to fully appreciate the scope of the tar sands is to see the mines from the air. Flying across the region from the north, the twisting channels of the Peace-Athabasca Delta dominate the landscape, snaking through forest and marshlands with not a road or a power line in sight.

The terrain gives way to a mixture of forest, muskeg and drylands, where the sandy soil rises to the surface. Out of nowhere, straight lines emerge — a wide, unpaved highway and paths leading to squares carved out of the forest, where companies have explored for oil.

Then the mines come into view. Billowing plumes of smoke fill the sky. Flames shoot out of flare stacks. The forest’s green is replaced by vast black holes pockmarked with giant puddles. From the air, the dump trucks and the shovels look like toys, hauling mounds of bitumen from newly dug pits. As the plane nears its descent, the cabin fills with a tarry stench.

“It’s just the most completely ludicrous approach to industrial and energy development that is possible, given everything we know about the impact on ecosystems, the impact on climate,” said Dale Marshall, the national program manager for Environmental Defence, a Canadian advocacy group.

To extract bitumen from the sand, oil companies heat it and then treat it in a slurry of water and solvents. In other parts of Alberta, where the sands are too deep to mine, the bitumen is melted in place and extracted through wells by pumping high-pressure steam underground. The deeper deposits cover a much larger area than the mines, more than 50,000 square miles.

The Syncrude Operation north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.
The Syncrude Operation north of Fort McMurray, Alberta.Michael Kodas

The extraction requires enormous amounts of energy: In 2018, the latest year for which figures are available, oil sands producers consumed 30 percent of all the natural gas burned in Canada. Collectively, the mines’ and deep-extraction projects’ greenhouse gas emissions about equal those of 21 coal-fired power plants, and that’s just to get the crude out of the ground.

The operations also pump out nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, traces of which have been detected by scientists in soils and snowpack dozens of miles away.

The mines guzzle vast quantities of water, with nearly 58 billion gallons drawn from the region’s rivers, lakes and aquifers in 2019, according to government figures. Much of that ends up as toxic liquid waste laced with hydrocarbons, naphthenic acids and carcinogenic heavy metals. Oil companies have been collecting the “tailings” in waste ponds, which have grown exponentially in size and now cover more than 100 square miles. Regulatory filings show that the ponds are expected to continue to expand well into the 2030s. While companies are required by law to eventually reclaim them, only a fraction have been reclaimed so far.

Next to one pond, a coal-black mountain of debris towers over the water. High-voltage lines buzz overhead. Air cannons ring the pond and blast several times every minute, creating a constant explosive din. Industrial iron scarecrows are dressed with safety vests and helmets. The noise and the display are meant to scare off the millions of migratory birds that arrive in northern Alberta every year.

Scarecrows dressed like workers and devices that produce loud explosions that sound like gunshots are spread out around a Syncrude tailings pond with toxic water that could kill birds that land on it north of Fort McMurray
North of Fort McMurray, scarecrows dressed like workers and devices that produce loud explosions that sound like gunshots are spread out around a Syncrude tailings pond, which has toxic water that could kill birds that land on it.Michael Kodas

Sometimes even those defenses fail, however, or the birds ignore them and land anyway — tens of thousands every year, according to a 2016 report to provincial regulators, obtained this year by The Narwhal, a nonprofit Canadian news organization.

Ottilie Coldbeck, a spokeswoman for the Alberta Energy Regulator, which oversees the industry, said the research in the report “was not considered complete.”

The history

White explorers set their sights on the tar sands as soon as they arrived. In 1789, Sir Alexander Mackenzie reported seeing veins of “bituminous quality” exposed along the Athabasca River. Within a century, prospectors and geologists had identified “almost inexhaustible supplies” of petroleum in the area. The only obstacle seemed to be the people living above it.

In 1891, the superintendent general of Indian affairs recommended drafting a treaty “with a view to the extinguishment of the Indians’ title” to open access to petroleum and other minerals. Within eight years, First Nations leaders had signed Treaty 8, in which they surrendered title of 325,000 square miles of land to the British crown while retaining the right to hunt, fish and trap freely throughout the area.

The tar sands remained largely beyond reach for decades, however, until Americans, driven by nationalistic ambitions, invested vast sums of capital.

When J. Howard Pew, of Sun Oil Co., opened the first commercial mine in 1967, the people of Fort McKay were not happy, said Jim Boucher, who led the First Nation as chief for three decades, until 2019. Sun Oil, now Suncor, took over an important summer hunting ground called Tar Island, he said. “There was no discussion, no consultation,” Boucher said.

The fur trade had provided the nation’s members with one of their few sources of income. But it collapsed just as the oil industry was taking hold, and they had few alternatives but to turn to the oil companies’ rapidly expanding mines.

“We had no choice,” Boucher said.

After he became chief in 1986, Boucher formed the Fort McKay Group of Companies to work with the oil industry, and over the following decades he oversaw partnerships with energy companies that would eventually net hundreds of millions of dollars for the community.

The income has allowed Fort McKay to build subsidized housing and to pay for education and elder care, achievements that Boucher rattles off proudly. Enrolled members receive quarterly dividends.

Jim Boucher was the chief of the Fort McKay First Nation from 1986 untill 1994 and again from 1996 until 2019.
Jim Boucher was the chief of the Fort McKay First Nation from 1986 until 1994 and again from 1996 until 2019.Michael Kodas

Some First Nations have fought the development with lawsuits. The Beaver Lake Cree Nation, to the south, sued the federal and provincial governments in 2008, saying its treaty rights had been violated by the cumulative effects of development. Even though it got a ruling five years later allowing the case to proceed, the case is still awaiting trial, with a court date scheduled for 2024.

Each of the area’s First Nations has signed “impact benefit agreements” with the oil companies that can include limits on certain practices, like water withdrawals, quotas for hiring Indigenous people and direct payments to the nations. But even as the impact agreements have secured benefits, they have deepened reliance on an industry that is consuming the land that was once the base of the Indigenous economy and culture.

​​L’Hommecourt, who is Boucher’s cousin, said she holds no resentment toward him for tying their people’s fate to the industry.

“He did what he had to do, and as a chief I commend him,” L’Hommecourt said. “They call us the richest little First Nation in Canada.”

Boucher lost his grandfather’s cabin, where he learned to hunt and trap as a boy, to a mine dug by Syncrude, a consortium of oil companies. A cabin Boucher later built for his father, to the north, now sits on a postage stamp of land, he said, surrounded by newer mines.

“It’s empty. That’s how the cabin is to me,” Boucher said. “So I don’t go there anymore. No joy.” 

The effects

While the mines cover an expansive area, their impact on the environment reaches much farther.

The town of Fort Chipewyan sits where the Peace and Athabasca rivers empty into Lake Athabasca, about 90 miles north of the closest mine, and the land here offers a glimpse of what existed before. The mostly Indigenous residents can still hunt and trap in unbroken stretches of boreal forest.

But while the nights are quiet and the air smells clean, the industry’s presence is strong. Kids zoom around town on ATVs, while the supermarket displays boxes of 87-inch flat-screen TVs —  ”toys,” as some residents call them, that only those who work in the industry can afford.

And despite the lake’s distance from the development, the flesh of some animals that drink from it is laced with some of the same heavy metals that collect in the waste pits.

In 2010, a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found elevated levels of mercury, lead, nickel and other heavy metals in the river downstream of oil sands development, as well as in Lake Athabasca. Three years later, another study in the same journal examined lake sediments surrounding Fort McMurray and found that a group of chemicals that include cancer-causing compounds started rising in the 1960s and ʼ70s, when oil sands development began.

The Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations commissioned Stéphane McLachlan, an environmental scientist at the University of Manitoba, to test the tissues of animals, and in 2014 he released a report finding elevated levels of toxic pollutants — including arsenic, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — in the flesh of moose, ducks and muskrats in the region.

Provincial officials acknowledge that the mines’ waste ponds leak into groundwater. To “limit the risk” that the seepage will spread farther, the Alberta Energy Regulator requires companies to install drains, wells, sumps and underground walls to capture and contain the contamination, said Coldbeck, the agency spokeswoman.

An oil sands mine in Alberta, Canada adjascent to boreal forest outside of Fort McMurray.
An oil sands mine in Alberta adjacent to boreal forest outside of Fort McMurray.Michael Kodas

Federal and provincial officials have disputed research that has linked groundwater contamination to the waste pits, citing other studies that indicate that the compounds may be naturally occurring in groundwater because they are contained in bitumen.

But last year, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an environmental body created alongside the North American Free Trade Agreement, assessed all the published studies of water contamination and concluded that there was “scientifically valid evidence” that the waste pits were leaching contaminants into groundwater. The analysis noted that some research has concluded that the contamination reached the Athabasca River but that scientists were still debating the findings.

Asked about the report, Coldbeck said her agency “does not have any evidence” that contaminated groundwater has reached the Athabasca River. In response to a question about health concerns, she said the agency “is committed to ensuring that Alberta’s oil sands are developed in a safe and responsible manner” and referred questions to Alberta Health, the province’s public health agency.

A spokesperson for Alberta Health did not reply to requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers declined to comment, pointing instead to reports the group has issued about engagement with Indigenous communities and about greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, published surveys of cancer cases in Fort Chipewyan carried out in 2009 and 2014 came up with mixed results. Both showed higher-than-normal rates of certain cancers, including biliary tract cancers. One study determined that overall cancer rates were elevated. The other did not.

Alice Rigney, an elder with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, blames the oil development for her nephew’s death from bile duct cancer, even as she acknowledges that there is nothing to prove the connection.

“They took it all away,” she said of the oil companies, speaking not just about her nephew but also about the broader environmental impacts. “What else is there to take?”

The future

The global oil industry is increasingly under assault, and Canada’s tar sands, because of the developments’ high greenhouse gas emissions, are a prime target of climate activists. Because new tar sands projects require billions of dollars of investment up front, many financial analysts say the era of opening new mines is over.

But even if production from the mines holds steady or declines gradually, their massive footprints are likely to expand for decades, because companies must continue to clear land to keep up production.

And whenever the mines do decline, the industry will face the challenge of what to do with the waste it has produced. The provincial government has secured $730 million from companies as collateral for a cleanup, but that will not even begin to cover the costs. While regulators’ official estimate of the liability for Alberta’s mining industry is $27 billion, an internal report obtained in 2018 by Canadian journalists estimated cleanup costs of more than $100 billion. 

Jean L'Hommecourt visits a river near the Fort McKay First Nation's village about an hour's drive north of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada.
Jean L'Hommecourt visits a river near the Fort McKay First Nation's village about an hour's drive north of Fort McMurray in Alberta.Michael Kodas

L’Hommecourt said she is torn about whether she will remain here. “My heart is in the boreal forest,” she said. But her kids want to move away, and if they do, she might, too. The mines are coming closer to the cabin, and more roads are being blocked off.

Regulatory filings show that Imperial Oil plans eventually to reroute the creek that runs past her cabin to make way for its Kearl mine. If it does so, the land where the cabin sits would be buried by land cleared from elsewhere within the mine.

A spokeswoman for Imperial, Exxon’s Canadian affiliate, declined to comment specifically on the filings but said the company “has collaborative and unique relationship agreements with these local communities that provide mutual benefits.”

The cabin itself has been a symbol of L’Hommecourt’s resistance. It sits on an old trappers’ trail that Imperial’s workers began using about 10 years ago as an unpaved access road for exploration, marking it off with a “No Trespassing” sign. L’Hommecourt built her cabin in the middle of that road.

“I just said, ‘I don’t care,’” L’Hommecourt said. “I’m going to put my house right here, and this is where it’s going to be.” When company workers come by, she said, “I just tell them, ‘Turn around and go back, and if you have a problem with it, get your VP or whoever it is that you report to and then tell them to come and see me.’”

So far, no one has shown up.