News Articles | Washington Bureau | Mitch Potter | September 19, 2010
WASHINGTON‚ÄîA summer of spilled oil has only thickened the plot as the U.S. government weighs a pipeline proposal that would as much as double the southern flow of controversial Canadian crude.
With the massive Gulf spill permanently stanched Sunday ‚Äî and with two smaller leaks along existing oilsands pipelines in Michigan and Illinois now under control ‚Äî advocates of Alberta energy hope the worst of the public relations damage is behind them.
Yet the drip-drip-drip of oilsands bashing is scheduled to continue Monday in Washington, when a delegation of Canadian First Nations leaders arrive for meetings with the White House to share concerns about the environmental toll feared by Canada's downstream communities.
"We feel we are the huge omission when Americans talk about the tarsands," said Francois Paulette of the Smith's Landing Treaty 8 First Nation in the Northwest Territories.
"White House policy makers need to know that their appetite for this dirty oil is killing our river and destroying our way of life. The pollutants and heavy metals don't stop at the Alberta border ‚Äî they run more than 1,000 kilometres all the way to the Mackenzie River, deforming the fish along the way."
The Alberta government insists its own body of science indicates zero environmental contamination to communities downstream of oilsands development. On Thursday a gathering of fishermen, scientists and health experts at University of Alberta in Edmonton presented a collection of deformed fish from Lake Athabaska, along with a petition calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper for a probe to reconcile the differing conclusions.
Paulette, a lifelong advocate on native affairs, has only travelled to Washington only once before, as part of the mid-'70s campaign against the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. He said the decision to make direct contact with the oilsands primary customer did not come lightly.
"Talking to the Alberta government and the industry about these issues is like trying to reason with heavy drinkers. They're all buddy-buddy, they all enable each other. They don't seem to grasp it when you try to tell them something's wrong. We decided we need to be saying that in Washington ‚Äî and hopefully the Americans can take our issue seriously."
The delegation, sponsored by the Alberta-based Pembina Institute, also includes George Poitras, former chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, who made headlines of his own last week when he revealed that Canadian-born filmmaker James Cameron will soon be arriving in Alberta for his own up-close glimpse of the oilsands.
The Pembina Institute has helped clear the path in Washington, lining up meetings with the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the U.S. State Department.
"It is important that the U.S. as the primary buyer of oilsands understand there are some serious health and water quality concerns by Canadian First Nations. And to date, these concerns haven't been addressed. They feel they have nowhere else to go," said Danielle Droitsch, Pembina's Washington-based U.S. Policy Director.
The timing of the meetings is sensitive, as the U.S. government weighs TransCanada's application for Keystone XL, a new 2,739-kilometre pipeline that would stretch from Alberta to Texas with a capacity of as much as 900,000 barrels of bitumen a day, more than doubling current U.S. consumption.
Approval of the U.S. portion of the project was expected this year. But the State Department, which oversees pipeline proposals crossing U.S. borders, has slowed down its review amid mounting objections from environmentalists and U.S. lawmakers and is not expected to table a decision before 2011.
The Keystone XL also has its backers on the U.S. side, however, including a number of unions and business associations eager to win shovel-ready, private-sector jobs to ease the battered American economy.
But Marty Cobenais, a Red Lake Band of Chippewa native who will act as the voice of American First Nations at the meetings in Washington, told the Star there is almost unanimous opposition to the pipeline among tribal communities living close to the proposed pipeline's U.S. route. He will be presenting resolutions from 12 tribes in Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska and Oklahoma urging the U.S. government to find alternatives.
"The notion of jobs didn't amount to much when the original Keystone pipeline was build. In South Dakota, the local people got 11 per cent of the jobs ‚Äî but mostly that meant standing outside doing traffic control in minus-20 weather. Tough, temporary work that didn't last," said Cobenais.
Cobenais said tribal concerns include worries that the proposed pipeline will upend and destroy traditional native burial sites in the Sandhills region of Nebraska. Under U.S. law, any such disturbance disqualifies such sites from future inclusion in the National Historic Registry.
"The main message we want to get across is that this is the time to start weaning ourselves off oil. Most estimates suggest we have maybe seven more generations – about 150 years – before there is no oil left anywhere," said Cobenais.
"So what are we actually dong now to help ourselves down the road? Slowing down to think long and hard about another pipeline is a good start."