CREE & ALBERTA TAR SANDS
The oil sands (or tar sands) industry of northern Alberta has received widespread criticism from around the world. A top climate scientist at NASA, James Hansen asserted the oil sands spell “game over for the climate” (Hansen). Canada holds the third-largest proven crude oil reserve in the world, amounting up to 1.7 trillion barrels of bitumen (See Bitumen). This reserve lies under approximately 141,000 square kilometers of boreal forest and muskeg, an area close to the size of Florida (Alberta’s Oil Sands). The controversial exploitation of this resource threatens local plant and animal communities, compromises the integrity of soil and water systems, and jeopardizes the health and well-being of the citizens and 45 First Nations living in the province (First Nations in Alberta). A Cree former oil worker, David Loyie, carries a thorough knowledge of the complex environmental, political, and socio-economic context of the industry.
An Indigenous Voice in the Heart of Alberta’s Oil Industry
Over four decades of working for oil companies has given David Loyie an informed perspective on the industry. The oil boom came to his hometown of Slave Lake, Alberta, when he was eight years old. By the time he was fifteen, he had joined the ranks of men who, drawn by promises of prosperity, were working in the oil industry. These days, however, Loyie spends his time speaking out against the industry. He has learned that fossil fuel extraction represent a profound economic and environmental short-sightedness. His story contains many important lessons.
Slave Lake is a small town located in Northern Alberta. It is located in the ancestral homelands of the Athasbascan Dene Tha, who were called the “Slavey Indians” by their enemies who enslaved them. David Loyie’s forebearers were the Cree who first arrived with the European fur trade and who had pushed the original inhabitants further north. Over time, Slave Lake developed into a logging town with a largely inconsequential economy until the 1960s when oil reserves were discovered. A few decades of widespread drilling tapped the majority of conventional oil, leading to the more recent rise in oil-sands, or “tar-sands.”
The strategic location of Slave Lake transformed the town itself into a railroad and highway hub that connected extraction sites to the larger industry and the global economy. Surrounding Slave Lake are thousands of oil wells. There are so many roads leading to these wells that Loyie says a map of the area looks like “somebody threw a bunch of spaghetti onto a plate.” This oil boom has attracted multiple companies to the area, including Canadian Natural Resources, Husky Oil, Shell Oil, and British Petroleum (Manta). Additionally, a large transient workforce has migrated to Slave Lake–a workforce that does not share Loyie’s investment in the long-term health of the region.
Loyie contends that the oil industry in northern Alberta has a long history of cutting corners, sloppily conducting business, and failing to take responsibility. It has been, from the beginning, powered by an insatiable hunger for profit. When the boom took off, young men quit school as early as ninth grade to join the ranks of oil-workers. “And then,” Loyie says, “(in) two months they were making more than their dad ever made in his life!”. It was a tremendous boost for the local economy that for many men was heartening. For Loyie, despite the draw of financial success, the undercurrent of malpractice and negligence on behalf of the industry was obviously “just wrong.” For example, after the rains of “Monsoon June” had subsided, the dirt roads would dry up, and truck traffic would turn up huge dust clouds. To combat this, companies would take crude oil directly from the wellheads and dump it onto the roads, literally covering everything with a slick layer of oil.
Similarly, the oil companies have shown a pattern of failing to clean up after themselves. To dispose of waste on the job site, they would simply bury it in sump pits. In these pits they would dump the rock cuttings from drilling, used filters and dirty oil from the rigs, various chemicals, and general refuse. They would even throw in the excrement from workers’ bathrooms into the pit. Then they would cover it up with a bulldozer. Like other employees, David Loyie learned not to question these practices. “I’d ask a few times….‘What’s the oil company going to do with all of this? You know, like we’re making quite a mess here!’ And the next day I wouldn’t get picked up for work.” However, Loyie has always known that it will have to get cleaned up someday.
Big Oil corporations and their employees have managed to avoid being held accountable for their actions. For instance, fossil fuel giants Suncor and Syncrude have unregulated access to the Athabasca River, despite the fact that all other companies have to go through a regulatory process. Furthermore, the majority of workers in Alberta are not from the local territory, but are coming from elsewhere in Canada or the United States (Steward). It is Loyie’s relatives and other Indigenous families that will be left with the mess.
“The environment paid the biggest price,” states Loyie. He remembers working on leases overflowing with oil to the point where employees would be walking around in nine or ten inches of oil. The companies would let the soil soak up as much of the oil as possible and then bury whatever puddles remain. The small spills and constant contamination eventually adds up. Some of the worst spills, he recalls, are the saltwater leaks. Even though the press rarely covers them, the industry’s saltwater spills are catastrophic for the environment.
Unlike oil, saltwater will sink into the water table and mix with the freshwater, making clean up near impossible. According to Loyie, wells are now pumping up only 5% oil and the rest is saltwater. The corrosive nature of this saltwater leads to frequent leaks in the steel pipelines–leaks that the public never hears about. When a spill occurs, the only way to clean it up is to channel it into “paddies” where it is diluted with freshwater. Many of the berms holding back these catchment lakes leak into the muskeg that surrounds Slave Lake . Moreover, the diluted saltwater that does not evaporate is pumped down old oil wells, forever trashing the freshwater.
Loyie says the public does not even know the full extent of all of the. Much of the environmental destruction has just been covered up or ignored by national officials; “whole scientific libraries” full of research documents have been shredded and sent to the landfill. “They didn’t even recycle the frickin’ paper” (Sowunmi).
Animals such as moose and fish have suffered terribly from all of the toxins polluting their habitat. The fatty meat from a moose’s hump is a prized food for locals, such as Loyie’s father-in-law. However, healthy moose are now rare. Often when hunters cut into the meat of a downed moose, they’ll find lesions and discover the liver is discolored. “We just don’t eat the meat,” Loyie says, “Some of the people are so hungry that they do.” Fish also are found with large ulcers on the side of their bodies. Signs of malnourishment and disease are evident across the food chain, into the local human communities. Many communities in Alberta have suffered health problems. The Fort Chipewyan Nation has developed extremely high cancer clusters (Klinkenberg) that are killing residents and Loyie is seeing similar trends in his hometown of Slave Lake.
When the oil boom first took off in Slave Lake, the Loyie family was keeping horses. Loyie owned his first horse in grade one. His whole family had many horses and they were an integral part of their lives. They would use the animals to cut hay and pull wagons. The horses would also be used to pack foraged food, and smoked moose and fish. In the winter, rather than keep the horses in corrals, they would let them run feral for the season and then catch them up again in the spring. As Loyie recalls,
One year the horses didn't come down anymore. We waited and waited and finally my brother, Einor, and this guy named Lloyd North, they saddled up a couple horses and they went looking for 'em. They found over 300 dead horses by an oil lease. They were drinking the water out of the sump. They were drinking that water because it didn't freeze. It didn't freeze because of the chemicals in it. The horses didn't fucking know! And they all died. The oil company gave us twenty-five dollars, and my brother got a job. So that was the end of the horse culture. That’s one of the things I always swore I’d get back at them for, was killing my horse.”
One day while out walking his dog, Loyie noticed that the train tracks running through Slave Lake were in disrepair. Concerned about what the implications would be for the increasing number of oil tank cars, he took photos and showed them to Canadian National Railway workers. In response, they called the cops on him and charged him for trespassing. That’s when he really started to speak up about what was happening and began informing the local community about the danger of the oil trains.
His efforts to hold the industry accountable attracted the attention of different organizations. The Keepers of the Athabasca invited him onto their board. Then the Keepers of the Water invited him onto their board to “kick some ass.” At the time of his intitial involvement, most of the other board members were “oil industry hacks.” This conflict of interest has been mirrored in Canada’s national politics.
For forty-four years the country’s government was run by the Conservative Party, which has been heavily invested in the interests of oil companies. The Conservatives cut taxes for oil companies in exchange for refusing to regulate the industry. The oil industry has returned the favor by putting millions of dollars towards Conservatives’ election campaigns. Because the government lowered taxes, it is indebted to foreign powers and Swiss banks. Now, Canada has a debt nearly as high as the U.S. The economy of Alberta is nearly entirely dependent on oil extraction. Most of the people Loyie knows got caught up in the race for bigger homes, bigger, trucks, and bigger retirement plans. They bought stocks in the companies they worked for, and when these stocks are devalued, their retirement plans are ruined.
Loyie stresses that Alberta’s oil industry is driven by foreign interests–primarily from their neighbor to the south. It is the United States’ demand for fossil fuel that has made the oil-sands industry. “What Canada basically is….is a grocery store for resources for the United States,” Loyie asserts. It is imperative that the U.S. weans itself off of its over-reliance on oil consumption. Loyie says that regardless of how much “Obama wags his fingers” at the tar-sands, and how Obama has canceled the Keystone Pipeline, the fact remains that the U.S. is built on and sustained by fossil fuels.
David Loyie believes it is the women and youth who will lead society out of the fossil-fuel nightmare. The Keepers of the Athabasca are working to build an all-Native grassroots organization that protects their land and communities. He shares his story for the sake of future generations–for the sake of his granddaughter.
I just dreaded the day when my granddaughter would come to me and say, "Papa, why didn't you do something while there was still time about the environment." You know, or ask me this question- "Was money so important to you that you didn't care what kind of a world you were leaving me to raise my grandkids in?" Or the big bummer, the super question is, "Do you love money more than me?" I'll never have to hold my head down….People ask me that question, I can hold my head up and say, "Fuck, I did something about it. I'm doing something about it."
Communications, P.C. (2006, December 28). Alberta's Oil Sands. Alberta's Clean Energy Future.
Hansen, James (2012, May 9). Game Over for the Climate. The New York Times.
First Nations in Alberta. (2015, September 15)
Keepers of the Athabasca, Keepers of the Water. (2011, July).
Loyie, David. (2015, November 17). Telephone interview with Jesse Ambrose.
Manta. (n.d.) Oil and Gas Producers in Alberta.
Marty Klinkenberg, Postmedia News. (2015, July 8). Oil sands pollution linked to higher cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan for first time: Study. Financial Post.
Sowunmi, Jordan. (2015, January 15). The Harper Government Has Trashed and Destroyed Environmental Books and Documents. VICE | Canada.
Steward, Gillian. (2016, September 4). Alberta’s oilsands workers lead a patch-work life. The Star.