Marlene Orr lives in Ft. McKay, Alberta, a tiny hamlet of two First Nations groups at the center of Canada's tar sands deposits, the largest petroleum reserve outside of Saudi Arabia. Ft. McKay is ground zero for tar sands extraction; the giant Syncrude and Suncor mines are to the south, Total E&P's source is to the west, and Shell's mine lies to the north of town, on the far shore of the Athabasca River.
Like almost everyone in Ft. McKay, Orr's livelihood is dependent upon the burgeoning tar sands industry. She owns a small company, First Nations Welding, that works for the mining companies. Her husband, Mike, has served as one of the elected councilors for the Ft. McKay area since 1998 and helps manage the community's relations with industry. So it wasn't an easy decision when, last November, the couple went to the CBC to expose what they called a dangerous waste disposal pond not far from Ft. McKay's main fresh water source.
Taking organic material found in sand and turning it into synthetic crude oil requires vast amounts of water and a multitiered distillation process. The demanding procedure creates tons of waste, which the oil companies then have to find someplace to store. Usually the sludge is collected in massive tailings ponds created for waste disposal. The ponds are insulated on all sides, surrounded with barbed-wire fences, and equipped with sound cannons to scare off migrating waterfowl. It was a shock, then, when during a hunting trip, Orr's husband and one of her daughters discovered a three-sided tailings pond whose excess was slowly filling into a creek bottom.
"When I first saw the video of the tailings pond on Mike's phone, I was sick, I couldn't sleep," she told me when I traveled to the tar sands region earlier this year. "When I saw it myself, I was with six people, and everyone was just completely silent. I wanted to cry. Our lives changed."
When the couple took their video to the media, the issue generated a few days of controversy. To the surprise of the community, regulators with the provincial government said the pond was legally permitted to have three sides and that a natural slope on the fourth side would eventually serve as a containment. The pond, despite what the Orrs may have thought, was within its permit.
"How can a three-sided tailings pond be built without anyone in this province knowing?" Orr says. "That's so fundamentally wrong."
"To speak out publicly was not a decision that Mike and I entered into lightly," she continues, saying that they're now ostracized from their community. "But sometimes you have to do what you have to do. We are trying to create change."
They are not alone in their efforts. Since Saturday, more than 250 people have been arrested at the White House in protest against American involvement in tar sands expansion. The protesters demand that President Barack Obama reject the plan for a 1,700-mile-long Keystone XL pipeline that would stretch from the boreal forests of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Because it crosses international borders, the proposal needs State Department approval to move forward -- meaning the administration ultimately makes the decision. Environmentalists have come to see this decision as a major test of whether President Obama is serious about tackling climate change. Before getting arrested on Saturday, Gus Speth, a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and a former chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said: "We have to draw a line in the sand somewhere, and this is the perfect place to draw it. It's a new, controversial, unconventional fossil resource, with a tremendous potential to harm the global climate."
The arguments against Keystone XL are familiar to those involved in the ongoing debate over energy. Pipelines leak and rupture: The existing Keystone I pipeline, owned by a company called TransCanada, sprung 12 leaks in its first year of operation, including a 21,000-gallon gusher in North Dakota in May. The process of extraction inflicts massive destruction: Oil companies clear cut the forest and then strip-mine the land to get at the heavy petroleum. But environmentalists' main worry is global climate change: They argue that Earth's already carbon-soaked atmosphere can't sustain the greenhouse-gas emissions that would come from expanded tar sands extraction. According to Cambridge Energy Associates, a barrel of oil from the tar sands involves at least 40 percent more emissions to get to your car than does the average barrel of oil consumed in the U.S.
Canada is the United States' top source of imported oil, selling us more than 2 million barrels daily, roughly 700,000 of which are from the tar sands. For decades, the oilmen in Calgary and Edmonton have argued that it's better for the U.S. to get oil from our neighbors than it is to be dependent on emirs and dictators. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Conservative (and the son of an Imperial Oil accountant), made the case during a February meeting with Obama: "The choice that the United States faces in all of these matters is whether to increase its capacity to accept such energy from the most secure, most stable, and friendliest location it can possibly get that energy, which is Canada, or from other places that are not as secure, stable, or friendly to the interests and values of the United States."
Some have even made the claim that Canadian oil is "the most ethical oil in the world." The main proponent of this idea is a Tory commentator, Ezra Levant, who wrote the 2010 book "Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada's Oil Sands." According to Levant: "On every key measure, from women's rights, to gay rights, to Aboriginal rights, to the sharing of the oil wealth equitably among workers, to environmental protection, Canada is hands down the most ethical major exporter of oil in the world."
In January, the newly appointed environment minister, Peter Kent, sparked headlines when he parroted Levant. "It is ethical oil," Kent said of the tar sands. A Conservative Party communications operative, Alykhan Velshi, has taken the idea beyond credulity. "When people buy coffee, they want to buy fair-trade coffee," he recently told The Globe & Mail. "This is a similar sort of idea."
Just one problem: There's no such thing as fair-trade gasoline. As far as the market is concerned, there's no real difference between a barrel of oil produced in Canada and a barrel produced in Saudi Arabia. Unlike buying coffee, you don't get to choose where the crude comes from when you pump your gas. Energy economist Phil Verleger calls the claim that more Canadian oil will mean less oil from someplace else a "fairy tale." Pumping more oil out of Canada will just give us just that: more oil.
More important, the case for ethical oil relies on the premise that Canada is an ethicao society. On that point, many in Canada's First Nations population would disagree. "It's Canada's duty to consult with the First Nations prior," says Lionel Lepine, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. "That's all we are asking for, is for them to slow down and to work with us. And right now they are working on their own, without any respect for Aboriginal people and without any respect for our treaty rights. If they keep on doing what they are doing, they will destroy everything."
Lepine lives in Ft. Chipewyan, a settlement of a thousand people downriver from the main complex of tar sands mines. According to a 2009 study by the Alberta Cancer Board, the cancer rate in Ft. Chipewyan is 30 percent higher than normal. Most residents blame the oil industry. "Cancer in our community had never been an issue until development started to happen 40 years ago," Lepine says.
There are also complaints that the growing industry has made it harder to hunt and fish. "You can't fish in the river now," says Andrew Boucher, a Ft. McKay elder. Even the fish, they taste like tar."
Such concerns have led one First Nation group to file a lawsuit against the federal and Alberta governments. The suit claims that the oil mining has violated their treaty rights, which guarantee them access to fish and game. The case is currently slogging its way through the Canadian court system. While it's not clear whether a Canadian Supreme Court ruling in favor of the First Nation would force a shut down of the tar sands extraction, it would certainly debunk the notion of ethical oil. Something isn't "fair" if it's based on a broken contract.
Just like that three-sided tailings pond the Orr family discovered, the tar sands oil may be lawful. But that's not the same as saying that it's right.