“Indigenous people are most affected”

an interview with Hereward Longley

The better America (Issue IV/2020)

Mr Longley, the focus of your research is the historical development of the oil sands region in Athabasca, a conflict-ridden area. What is happening there?

In the Athabasca region there are bitumen deposits, heavy oil deposits mixed with sand. It covers about 50,000 square kilometres of North-Eastern Alberta, North and South of Fort McMurray up to Lake Athabasca. Although it is long-known about, it was not economical to develop it until the 1970s. Then the energy crisis triggered the high price environment and the demand for oil that led to the exploration. Since then it has become a massive operation, especially since the late 1990s. After 9/11 and the wars in the Middle East, when oil prices went up to over 100 dollars a barrel, there was a huge boom in bitumen extraction. Companies from the US and from all over the world came in. I think there were three or four facilities in the 1970s and over a hundred facilities in the 2000s. Regarding the extraction process, there are two technologies: there is strip mining, which is similar to the coal strip mines that you have in Germany. And then there is an in-situ extraction process where they pump steam into the deposit, melt it, and pump it out.

What are the effects for the environment?

I think 900 square kilometres have been extracted and excavated so far. Only ten percent of that has been reclaimed, so there are massive tailing ponds and huge open areas. The Alberta government estimates that it will cost at least 130 billion dollars to clean up the tailings ponds, which is more than the market capitalisation of the five biggest oil sands producers. It is a very complicated problem. The oil sands industry is also a huge source of CO2, and forms one of the most significant parts of Canada’s emissions. The intensity of greenhouse gases from this production method is way higher than other conventional ways of oil production.

The area is homeland of several Indigenous communities.

It is Indigenous territory, an area which was colonised by Canada with a land treaty in 1899. The meaning of these treaties between the Government of Canada and Indigenous peoples is very contested: Canada understands that it is a uniform, complete surrender of sovereignty, whereas Indigenous people see it as more of like a peace and co-governance agreement between nations. This led to a lot of conflicts, with Indigenous communities claiming rights to land, because Indigenous rights to the region have been suppressed by the system of governing the extractive spaces. These environmental impacts have fallen very heavily onto Indigenous communities. They have fought really hard for the last fifty years, they have shaped environmental policy and have gained a lot of legal and economic rights and power. But the costs and consequences of this industry have not been dealt with very well. A lot of environmental scholars talk about symbolic politics, that the environmental policies were deliberately meant to mislead the public by the provincial government which just denied the environmental consequences of development. Meanwhile, the development around Fort McMurray, the mine sites, pipelines and access roads, means that hunting and trapping and practicing traditional life involves travelling huge distances. You have to have a lot of money now to be able to use the land, you need a boat, you need a truck, ATVs, snowmobiles…

How did these communities respond to the growing industrial activities?

Communities were looking for economic benefits, because they wanted jobs and business opportunities in the development of the industry, but they also wanted power over the development process in order to protect their lands and resources. The regulatory process suppressed their power to influence the development process itself, but they were able to secure economic benefit agreements. My research shows that in the 1970s and 1980s, when a lot of the really big litigation started, they tried hard to fight against it and control it in different ways. It was a difficult time for the communities because, on the one hand, they had to fight against these plants, but they had to develop business relationships with them as well. They needed the money from development. Now, communities choose to do economic deals to build businesses and employment, and a lot of people both work in the industry and really value the environment. Some communities make deals involving certain areas that maybe they don’t use as much, and they take that money to fund litigation to protect places that are more important. It’s not that they don’t have any control over these development, but the regulatory dynamic where the Alberta Energy Regulator makes these decisions purely based on public economic benefit. Communities still have power—especially by building relationships with individual companies—to negotiate, to protect certain spaces and to get compensation.

Your contemporary research looks at how the impact assessment process deals with Indigenous knowledge. In which way have Indigenous communities been involved in this process?

I was working with the Métis community that is based around Fort McMurray as an impact assessment consultant. We were doing Indigenous land use mapping. A colleague and I found that a lot of land users were sort of reluctant to share some of their information. We think that’s because they are often forced to give up this sensitive information about their land for a process that does not respect their knowledge. The Alberta Energy Regulator, the regulatory body that makes decisions about development, aims to approve projects based on a public economic good. They will consider local environmental concerns, but they won’t make decisions based on that. It has almost never prevented a project from getting approval. Communities are forced to submit all this sensitive information, but it is kind of an inevitable process that these projects are going to be approved. Part of our research was pointing out these problems, offering ways for improving that knowledge and that negotiation process.

As part of your research you have spent a considerable amount of time on the ground. What are your impressions?

I first started going to Fort McMurray in 2013 and I have been going there up to a dozen times a year for the last seven years. I still work with the community as a consultant. It is actually a very beautiful area. Most of the images of the area in the media are focused on the extractive sites, but the rest of the area is actually full of incredible landscapes.

What is your outlook to the future? Will it be possible to reclaim the destroyed areas and to find a balance between industrial, social and environmental needs?

In the Northwest territories, there are so many examples of mines on smaller scales coming in, promising benefits, and then going bankrupt or shutting down the project. The communities and the government are left with these abandoned projects that haven’t been reclaimed and which haven’t offered any significant economic benefits to the communities. The environmental impacts of the industry are rapidly outstripping reclamation. The damage is done and it affects mostly indigenous people. Some studies show that reclamation doesn’t accommodate Indigenous land use, even if it is done properly. It is a really difficult situation.

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