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The Oglala Sioux Tribe’s rally Feb. 11 against the Keystone XL Pipeline showed the extent to which the multi-billion-dollar tar-sands crude-oil industry has galvanized cross-boundary opposition in the interest of earth justice.
While mainstream media have failed to inform decision makers of the preponderance of indigenous input into the controversy, native peoples’ governing bodies, traditional councils and non-profit groups have, nonetheless, been at the forefront of the movement to stop the tar sands and halt the pipelines.
The bulk of the pipeline coverage has addressed political and profit motives, even though indigenous leaders have – time and again — pushed the envelope of the argument even beyond its energy and climate-change components to bring the focus back to earth, land and water rights.
The rally in Rapid City, South Dakota, at the population center of the Great Sioux Nation, was remarkable for being convoked by the governmental authority of the second-largest Indian reservation in the United States.
It was the most recent link in a chain of pipeline that are helping hold the worldwide grassroots line against corporate greed and domination.
From the tar-sands capital of Alberta Province in Canada to the White House lawn to the U.N. climate negotiations summit in Durban, anti-pipeline demonstrators have raised awareness throughout the past year. They have helped revive a lagging spirit of dissent in the realm of party politics in the United States, by making the pipeline permit decision a 2012 presidential election issue.
They insist that the US $7-billion Keystone XL isn’t just any old pipeline. It is the second of two pipelines that TransCanada Corp. has slated with the intention of boosting tar-sands mining prospects by shipping the raw material from south-central Canada across the U.S. heartland to market at Gulf of Mexico refineries and export terminals.
Close on TransCanada’s heels in the permitting process is Enbridge Inc., which wants the Canadian government’s blessing to build the US $6-billion Northern Gateway Pipeline. It would pump tar sands from the U.S.-Canada border province of Alberta to the Canadian Pacific coastal port of Kitimat in British Columbia.
Green-lighting these projects will clear the way for increased tar-sands production and more pipelines. Opponents call tar-sand crude the “dirtiest fuel in the world.”
In 2008, when TransCanada Corp. applied for the Presidential Permit from the U.S. State Department that would allow Keystone XL to cross the border from Canada into the United States, the Athabasca Chipewyan and other indigenous First Nations of Canada already had an arduous history of resisting tar-sands mining in their communities. They attested to treaty violations; water pollution; damage to hunting, fishing, and plant resources; cancer, and birth defects related to the development.
Tar sands contain a heavy low-grade oil called bitumen, just like the Rancho La Brea National Natural Landmark in Los Angeles and similar sites scattered around Latin America that are well-known as traps preserving wildlife through the ages.
In Alberta, oil companies strip mine the tar sands formations or use natural gas and water to make steam for injecting underground to heat and release the desired bituminous oil from the deposits. The producers use additional heat to blend the resulting toxic hydrocarbon product with lighter natural or synthetic petroleum-based hazardous chemicals to create a dilution of bitumen (called synbit or dilbit), which is runny enough to pump.
Making oil from tar sands bitumen produces 3-5 times more greenhouse gas pollution than conventional oil production, according to Canada’s National Energy Board. Tar-sands production is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas in Canada.
An unspoiled 65,000 square kilometer area of Canada’s Boreal Forest (equivalent in size to California’s Mojave Desert) is susceptible to tar-sands extraction. This would destroy parts of the world’s biggest terrestrial carbon storehouse and of the planet’s largest forest wetland ecosystems.
It takes about 28 cubic meters (1,000 cubic feet) of natural gas to produce one barrel of bitumen from in-situ (injection) wells and about 14 cubic meters (500 cubic feet) to produce one barrel of bitumen from mountain-top removal projects, according to the water board.
The water requirements for tar sands projects are from 2.5 to 4 barrels of water for each barrel of bitumen produced, it says.
The water ends up creating toxic tailings lagoons that never have been reclaimed. According to an independent analysis using industry data, the lagoons leak more than 1 billion gallons of contaminated water into the environment each year, polluting communities hundreds of kilometers downstream.
TransCanada wants to build Keystone XL over the water supply of the Oglala Lakota Nation and Rosebud Sicangu Oyate. Keystone I, the first TransCanada tar-sands crude bituminous oil pipeline through the Northern Plains, has had 14 spills during its initial year of operations.
Enbridge is responsible for 610 pipeline spills, including one tar-sands crude accident in the Kalamazoo River watershed in Michigan state in July of 2010 that remains to be cleaned up, according to the Polaris Institute in Ottawa. Enbridge says it is investing $12 billion to expand its North American pipeline and terminal network primarily to get oil sands to U.S. refining markets.
Existing tar-sands refinery fence-line communities in Alberta, and those charted for refineries, such as Port Arthur, Texas and Elk Point, South Dakota, face increased emissions of carbon dioxide and other unhealthy emissions from the operations.
Many decision makers, such as Republican U.S. Congressmen who are trying to force President Barack Obama into approving the pipeline without environmental consideration, are not yet privy to Native American and First Nations position, largely because their mainstream media sources, isolated from the heartland and its voices, have failed to provide fair coverage.
Four Sioux tribes’ federal lawsuit to stop the first TransCanada pipeline for breaking treaty obligations, violating federal trust relationships and ignoring religious cultural protections was only narrowly sidestepped after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s motion for dismissal was granted.
Cree actress Tantoo Cardinal and several other native public figures purposely resigned themselves to arrest during a two-week sit-in at the White House in August and September 2011 that organizers of the 84,000-strong 350 Dot Org climate crisis action group considered to be the United States’ “largest environmental civil disobedience in decades”.
U.S. tribal government leaders and Canadian aboriginal governors drafted the Mother Earth Accord and collected signatures from a number of Great Plains organizations opposed to the Keystone XL, which they submitted to the Obama Administration in October 2011.
After at least 70 Canadian First Nations agreed to block the Enbridge proposal, Chief Bill Erasmus, Dene Regional Chief of Northwest Territories and representative of the Assembly of First Nations, Canada’s largest tribal organization, as well as numerous other chiefs, testified against it in Canadian government permit hearings and against Keystone XL in U.S. permit hearings from October 2011 through January 2012.
A delegation of the non-profit Indigenous Environmental Network raised the issue during native peoples’ caucus meetings and street actions at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in South Africa in December.
Leaders from Canadian and U.S. indigenous backgrounds sponsored a gathering in January on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to strengthen women’s participation in the movement.
Representatives of First Nations and the Navajo Nation, which is the largest U.S. Indian reservation, were on the Feb. 11 rally agenda, as organizers vowed they would keep building alliances until they get their way.
Sooner or later the body politic will be faced with taking the indigenous stand seriously. When that happens, the seemingly desperate last-ditch effort to prolong the Peak Oil Era with tar-sands will have been exposed for the destructive, counterproductive and deadly force that it is.
Talli Naumanis a longtime Americas Program collaborator and columnist, and a founder and co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness, an independent media project initiated in 1994 with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.