Cooking the Earth: Wildlife Deserve Better

A few weeks ago, National Wildlife Federation’s Jim Lyon and Felice Stadler traveled to Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada to experience the devastation caused by the Canadian tar sands oil operation firsthand.  Deep in the Boreal forest, Jim and Felice observed how this highly destructive and resource intensive fuel source is affecting local wildlife and communities. Venturing 200 miles north of Edmonton, Canada, our two wildlife advocates witnessed how a way of life is quickly disappearing.

A tar sands mine in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.

Q: What exactly is tar sands?

FS: It’s a very low grade, recoverable petroleum product that is washed, scrubbed, cooked and washed again and again, and then refined so it can fuel our cars. Imagine dumping motor oil into your sandbox—that is tar sands.

Q: What were your main concerns when you initially heard about the tar sands operation?

FS: The overall pace of mining and exporting oil.  It is a very labor intensive project and from a global warming standpoint, it moves us in the opposite direction.

JL: What it really means is we’re cooking the earth to squeeze out all the oil possible; we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Q: Let’s transition to your trip to Canada.  What was something you experienced in Fort McMurray that you weren’t prepared for?

FS: I did not expect to be overwhelmed by the vastness [of Fort McMurray].  I imagined a pretty small, isolated and desolated town, but it’s a huge city of 100,000 people—a huge city with traffic that was gritty, depressing and gray.

JL: I wasn’t prepared to see how many mines and refining areas there actually were.  The tailings ponds and pits are many square miles a piece, the road structures, all the utilities, trucks and power lines—it’s the size of Chicago—and not just the city of Chicago—but the greater Chicago area.

A tailings pond near a mining operation in Fort McMurray.

Q: Did you see any wildlife?

FS: Wildlife? We saw none, not even a bug. I asked the pilot during our fly over Fort McMurray to point out any wildlife; maybe a herd of moose or any sort of species—we saw nothing.

JM: We drove 60 miles north to Fort MacKay and on both sides of the road, almost everything was fenced and under operation.  The land up there is split into different mining operations.  There are maybe 10 miles of trees in-between each of these operations, but it’s all connected with roads and fenced – even the parts that haven’t been mined yet – and power lines lined everything.

FS: We saw nothing—the water that is there is polluted, the caribou have more or less disappeared.  Everything is fenced off and private property and the animals can’t come through the areas.  No one has fished in the Athabasca River for over 20 years because they know what’s upstream.

Q: Is there anything being done to stop this pollution?

FS: Companies do outrageous things when they think no one is looking. In Fort McMurray, no one is paying attention in broad daylight.

JL: There isn’t a national fabric [e.g. environmental laws] in Canada holding it together.  Information that is absolutely basic public information down here is not public information up there, so citizens are always guessing what’s going on in these sites.  It overwhelmed me when I kept asking people “Well, how is this feasible here?” and I got the same answer: “There’s nothing we can do to stop them.”

A refining operation in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.

Q: What other impacts on the community did you see?

FS: There are two kinds of people in Fort McMurray: the people who are from there and are connected, and the non-connected people.  Many consider the mining pits their family, while others only see it as money.  I wasn’t prepared for people who talked about life “before mining.”

JL: And these aren’t great, great, great grandparents either.  They are young people in their forties and fifties.  Mining has been in Canada since the 1960s, but it has exploded in the past two decades.  Their way of life has changed—people used to live off the land with the fish, duck, moose, caribou—and now they live off of the Safeway.

FS: You cannot look at [Fort McMurray] and not be affected or think about what is going on there.  The Chipewyan Band [tribe] performed a cancer study and the results showed an abnormal amount of cancer in the area that comes from what you eat, what you drink and what you breathe. If you live around hydro-carbons, then it will be in what you eat, drink and breathe.

Q: What do you want people to know about tar sands moving forward?

JL: Tar sands is a machine that we built up there to fuel ourselves down here—and it isn’t symbolical, it is physical.  It’s a big machine and we’re digging it, cooking it, refining it and then shipping it off through a giant pipeline.  I gained a deeper understanding of where we are in fossil fuel use right now.  I want people to understand the length at which we are now going to get this fuel and what the cost is.

FS: The biggest oil companies in the world are up there and they are in the business of getting oil out of the ground at whatever the cost because there is a demand for it.  If there is a want for it, no matter how insignificant it is, then it will be provided.  We aren’t going to win this if we try to only take out the mining; we have to eliminate the market.  People need to know what is going on up there, and how it could come here.

FS: We can do something different to help slow the pace without going nuts.  I’m not telling people to park their cars or sit on crowded trains. I’m not asking people to sacrifice their lives or routines.  We could use the tar sands money to invest in something else, like cars that get at least 30 miles a gallon.  There is a better way and it’s time we demand it.

Speak Up for Wildlife!

Support wildlife and communities impacted by this destructive and unnecessary process. Email President Obama and the U.S. State Department today, urging them to stop plans for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.