Welcome to Mordor, a first-hand account of Athabasca tar sands – part one


By guest contributor Sarah Hay
Wednesday this week, three events happened that affect all of us. At 8am, a group from five organisations met to show peaceful presence outside the venue for the Canada Europe Energy Roundtable where Shell Canada and other similarly powerful executives mingled with European government officials and financiers.
That afternoon, Greenpeace and The Guardian published a scandalous document leaked from PR firm Edelman to its client, TransCanada, outlining point plans for a gloves-off, war-like campaign of dirty tricks against American and Canadian citizens. (This document was excellently combed through by Brian Merchant at Motherboard)
After midnight, international breaking news that the American Senate had voted against the bill forcing approval for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which is proposed to transport tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Texas, destined for China and Europe.
What these three events all have in common is tar sands oil or bitumen oil; source of origin Athabasca Alberta, Canada where the industrial site is so devoid of life that it’s regularly nick-named Mordor after Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. The CO2 contained in this site alone is enough to pitch us beyond +4° (read a précis of Mark Lynas’ book Six Degrees, for what that means) so I travelled to hear Suzanne Dhaliwal from UK Tar Sands Network speak.
This tiny-framed and eloquent young Brit spoke with such calm and clarity about a subject that’s full of so many mind-boggling facts and emotional headlines that I asked if she’d do an interview to give us a beginners guide to a subject that’ll be discussed more and more in 2015. In it she gives a personal first-hand account of her visit to the tar sands site.

Hey Suzanne, so for people who’ve never heard of Tar Sands before, could you give us some baseline facts and figures to put it into context?  Canada’s tar sands are the biggest energy project in the world, currently producing 1.9 million barrels of oil a day. Largely located in Alberta, the tar sands deposits are distributed over an area of 140,000 km2 – an area larger than England. Canada has the third largest oil reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, and is the biggest supplier of oil to the US, the world’s largest oil consumer.
Already, millions of barrels of tar sands oil have been extracted from under the Canadian wilderness, producing three to four times more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil extraction and using enough natural gas every day to heat three million Canadian homes.
Add to this the mass deforestation the project is causing and it becomes clear that the tar sands must be shut down if we are serious about tackling disastrous climate change.
The indigenous peoples of Canada and America are at the forefront of the climate movement, can you explain this further? The impact of the Alberta tar sands on local First Nations communities is devastating. Tar sands developments create toxic tailing ponds so huge they are visible from space, which leak poisons into the local water supply. Tar sands developments scar sacred territories, disturb traditional cultural practices and undermine constitutionally-enshrined treaty rights. Communities are experiencing disturbingly high rates of rare cancers and auto-immune diseases.
The communities resisting tar sands expansion are up against formidable forces – every major energy player and financial institution has investments in the tar sands. The Canadian government continues to attempt to silence and intimidate people who speak about the real impacts of tar sands and sidestep the constitutionally-enshrined rights of communities to proper consultation on projects. However we are seeing that in the past few years incredible steps have been taken, with communities asserting traditional land rights, raising awareness nationally and internationally about the concerns of First Nations impacted by tar sands.
Can you describe your first trip to the tar sands site, approaching the site, and how it looked to you personally? When I first visited the tar sands I experienced a real sense of disbelief at what I was seeing, some part of me hoping that the images I had seen had all just been a strange nightmare. The smell as we approached one of the largest refineries, the Suncor refinery, was nauseating and within a few seconds I had a pounding headache.
Standing next to one of the tailing ponds, I saw an eery, ink-black lake topped with a rainbow sheen, and behind it refineries the size of a small city. In an attempt to scare off the water fowl, they fire off a cannon every few seconds – but these are laughably ineffective and the birds land regardless. The scene looked and sounded like a war zone. It was difficult to come to terms with this image which seemed to represent the shocking lengths we are now prepared to go to to power our modern lives. How could something this devastating be allowed to continue?
I had travelled to Alberta for the final tar sands healing-walk (pictured above) which brought together First Nations from all over the country who were impacted by the tar sands expansion and pipelines, along with allies from various campaigning and grassroots organizations. I carried a banner down one of the roads alongside the open pit, wanting to burst into tears. I heard the drummers from the community, looked behind me and saw many incredible people walking in the face of such destruction. It was a precious moment that I think of often.
After we had walked around the mine for eight hours, talking and meeting with each other, and witnessing what was happening, we met back at the camp to eat incredible food, and take part in ceremony and making music.
Part two of this interview will run next month – stay tuned!
UK Tar Sands Network: www.no-tar-sands.org
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation: www.acfn.com
Idle No More: www.idlenomore.ca


The team from Bold Nebraska celebrating news that the bill forcing approval of the Keystone XL pipeline had been defeated in the US Senate.


First published at Adventures In Our Energy Leap.

Fashion journalist turned climate hawk, Sarah Hay has swapped the runways of Paris where she reported for i-D magazine, Wallpaper & the Financial Times, for completely fresh horizons. “Absolutely fascinated” by this juncture in time where she believes humanity’s on the brink of the 2nd Industrial Revolution – from fossil fuels to clean energy – she’s set out to explore and report, via her blog, how we as a planet, “one interconnected organism”, are making the change.  
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One response to “Welcome to Mordor, a first-hand account of Athabasca tar sands – part one

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Images From a Warming Planet | A greener life, a greener world·

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