“For decades, mining the oil sands was an unprofitable experiment. Now, in a world running out of conventional oil, this is what’s left. And there’s a fortune to be made. This is the promise of the oil sands: guaranteed supply in an uncertain world. But is this a promise Canada can afford to keep?”
Renowned environmentalist and “Nature of Things” narrator David Suzuki offers those words in his thought-provoking opening to “Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands,” the latest documentary to hit Canadian television. For those of you who missed the film’s U.S. premiere at the Wilma Theatre last Wednesday night, the topic is a familiar one: Alberta’s increasingly controversial tar sands mining operation and the battle being waged by scientists, local indigenous populations and celebrities like James Cameron to stop the environmental devastation. “Tipping Point” is a must-see for anyone interested in putting Montana’s ongoing heavy haul debate into a larger context, and the Indy got an exclusive chance last Thursday afternoon to chat with two of the film’s key players about where exactly those ExxonMobil big rigs are headed.
The tar sands stand out as the single dirtiest, most resource-intensive oil extraction process known, requiring vast amounts of natural gas and as many as seven gallons of water to create a single gallon of oil. Yet the strip-mining operation—which covers an area of Alberta larger than Greece—is Canada’s leading source of oil production, and subsequently serves as an economic and political lynchpin no just for our neighbors up north but for the U.S. (the majority of our foreign oil imports come from Canada). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated last week that the administration is “generally supportive” of plans to construct an oil pipeline from the tar sands to Oklahoma and Texas. It’s just the sort of advocacy of Canada’s bitumen mining that hereditary Dene chief Francois Paulette says needs to stop.
“Putting a moratorium on the project would really help, so people can rethink what they’re doing,” Paulette, who has traveled across the globe speaking out against the tar sands on behalf of Canada’s First Nations, told the Indy. “And one of the huge backers that may do something is the American government. They really need to be more conscious no just about their environment but what’s happening in northern Alberta, to the First [Nations] people living there.”
Historically, the biggest concern for indigenous people living along the Athabasca River downstream of the tar sands has been the question of water quality. Part of “Tipping Point” follows biologist David Schindler, a professor at the University of Alberta, during his 2010 independent study of water contamination from the tar sands. Schindler’s was the first non-industry monitoring of water quality on the Athabasca; his science team found that 11,400 metric tons of airborne particulate had accumulated on the surface of the snow near tar sands refinery plants in just four months. The subsequent runoff—destined for the Athabasca River and Lake Athabasca—contained pollutant levels equal to a major oil spill. Paulette and his colleague George Poitras, an environmental consultant for the Mikisew Cree, believe that science goes a long way in explaining the deformities to fish and the unusually high levels of rare cancer among indigenous populations downstream.
“This catastrophe that is happening right now in our backyards is devastating not just the water but the plants, the medicines, the animals, the fish, the people,” Paulette says. “There’s an increase in stomach cancer, and this whole tie to climate change. Perhaps one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions comes out of the tar sands, and it doesn’t discriminate where it goes, where it falls.”
“Tipping Point” has yet to reach an American audience outside Missoula. But Poitras says he, Paulette and others are planning to hit the international film festival circuit hard. “Tipping Point” is scheduled for mass release across the U.S. later this spring. Poitras feels he’s already made huge strides in tar sands awareness over the past five years but knows the issue is still controversial for some. To him, the tar sands are as much a political concern internationally as they are an environmental one.
“The fact that Alberta and Canada have been heavily criticized by environmental critics, environmental think-tanks, scientists, and the fact that they show up at climate talks like Copenhagen and Cancun and are seen as the villain there because they’re trying to break up any potential opportunity for an adequate climate agreement, it’s all a result of the tar sands,” Poitras says.