Skip to content

Reporting back from Copenhagen

Reporting back from a packed room (not kidding – room seats 40, there are over 100 people here) at the Klimaforum (people’s alternative summit in Copenhagen) at the, Join the international movement against the Canadian tar sands panel.  Moderating the panel is Clayton Muller Thomas, tar sands campaigner with the Indigenous Environmental Network. Included on the panel is Eriel Deranger, an Athabasca Fort Chipewyan community member and Rainforest Action Network (RAN) campaigner, Jess Worth, New Internationalist editor and UK tar sands campaigner.

Brace yourself – this is a long blog. I felt that the discussion was so informative and powerful that it was worthy of relaying to readers here.

Clayton kicked off by the panel by talking about the vastness of the tar sands, the largest industrial energy project in the world. He described how infrastructure in the tar sands dwarfs other massive projects.  Clayton explained that the IEN approaches their tar sands campaign from a human rights perspective. This includes challenging the lack of consultation with nearby First Nations and the overriding of rights enshrined in Treaties with the Canadian government. The tar sands are a climate justice issue in Canada. The tar sands are a sacrifice zone. Nearby first nations rights are being overpowered by the drive for dirty oil painstakingly extracted from the ground in Alberta (producing three times the amount of emissions as conventional oil production in Canada).

Eriel Deranger spoke next and began by reading a statement from an Athabasca Fort Chipewyan leader with a message for Copenhagen. He describes being let down by government, industry and the world in seeing continued investment in the tar sands. The tar sands are having a disproportionate impact on indigenous people.  The tar sands are directly impacting the way of life for the people of Athabasca Fort Chipewyan nation. He describes their way of life as dying. He describes their people as dying. Lakes and rivers are being poisoned. Animals are being poisoned. He describes industry and government as dangling “carrots” in front of indigenous communities promising jobs and what amounts to be a very small piece of the profits pie, meanwhile these offers as contributing to the destruction of his community. He also links the local impacts being experienced with global impacts, “If we continue to move forward in tar sands, everyone will be impacted. Right now minorities are paying the high price for oil for the rest of the world.” The statement ended powerfully affirming a need for an international campaign against the tar sands and the will to take direct action, to challenge with litigation those that are destroying their way of life.

Eriel then went on to describe her personal experiences as a community member. She describes ground zero as about 250 km south of the community of Fort Chip where her family lives. In the not too distant past, hunting, fishing and trapping was her family’s way of life. The tar sands are destroying this way of life and the ability to practice their culture. Eriel describes very vividly and passionately how the tar sands are destroying what was once pristine land.

She challenges everyone to see how we are all contributing to the tar sands because we are all addicted to oil. Tar sands have no place in a clean energy future, she says. While people speak about the tar sands from an energy security perspective (primarily energy security for the U.S.) climate change is the biggest security threat of our time. Eriel believes we shouldn’t be worrying about where to get oil but rather how to move humanity forward and get off of our addiction to oil.

Eriel also spoke about First Nation rights to consultation under Treaty rights and how these rights are not being respected. She describes how weak consultation is, and how communities are in a very difficult position, and how there are currently legal challenges underway.

Eriel then spoke to the RAN campaign targeting institutions helping to finance the tar sands and how this is a way that individuals can help stop the tar sands.

Maude Barlow spoke next. Maude began by emphasizing how important it is to show solidarity for the leadership from the First Nation communities. “We are here to support in any way we can and will do all that we can.” Maude then described reading an article on the metro and quoted, “Leading business leaders joined Mayors prior to the conclusion to the climate summit for Mayors at the Copenhagen City Hall yesterday to herald the benefits for public-private partnerships in funding sustainability projects. Business leaders encouraged Mayors to run their cities like great companies. Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines said, “this week if governments do not come to a resolution then I think it is up to business to actually force through resolutions to this issue.” Maude described this quote as why we are all here in Copenhagen, why we will continue to lobby our  own governments for a real deal on climate action that advances climate justice and why we will continue our protests including targeting and denouncing the role of corporate lobbying at COP15 and beyond.

Maude referred to the tar sands as Canada’s Mordor where there is the death of nature.  Maude emphasizes that there is a direct link between tar sands emissions and Canada’s pathetic emission targets and why Canada has become an eco-outlaw (in the same timeframe that the Harper government proposes a 3% reduction below 1990, tar sands emissions are predicted to triple!).  Maude focused her contribution to the panel on two areas; water and trade. Every barrel of oil requires 3 to 5 barrels of water to produce. This is putting significant strain on the Athabasca river, the flow of which is diminishing as a result of climate change (glaciers feeding the river are receding).  She emphasizes the vastness of the tailing dams that hold the toxic water resulting from tar sands production. The Syncrude dam is second only in size to the Three Gorges dam in China. According to one report, 11 million litres of toxic water leech daily into surrounding land and water. Maude discusses David Schindler recently  released report that finds the tar sands pollution is five times as great and twice as wide spread as industry figures say. Toxic emissions from the tar sands are equal to a major oil spill occurring every year. Meanwhile the Albertan and Canadian governments continue to deny the extent of tar sands destruction.

On trade, Maude describes the history of the Council of Canadians in challenging free trade agreements which run roughshod over people and the environment. She describes how these agreements create a constitutional level of law above domestic law (including environmental and health regulations) making anything that is restrictive to trade open to challenge. She highlights both the proportional sharing rule and chapter 11 under NAFTA as against the public interest. Chapter 11, for example, could be used by corporations to seek financial compensation against any legislation by the Albertan government that would restrict tar sands operators use of water.

Present in the audience, Elizabeth May, Leader of the Canadian Green party, was then invited to speak. She emphasized the need to convey the trajectory of the tar sands going from too expensive to invest in, to the boom we are now witnessing in a relatively short period of time. May’s discussion of the economic impacts of the tar sands was particularly interesting given the often emphasized perspective that the tar sands drive Canada’s economy. Even the OECD says that Canada is skewing our economy and endangering economies across country by prioritizing tar sands. The huge focus on investing in the tar sands are actually hurting natural gas industry. 400,000 jobs lost as a result of the rising Canadian dollar which is the result of the tar sands frenzy. Canada has the lowest royalty rates in the world meaning that Canadians are seeing little of the economic benefits of the tar sands. Meanwhile the tar sands are having serious social and environmental consequences. May also describes the tar sands as a key reason for Canada’s poor climate action.  In particular, she argues that Prime Minister Harper explicitly wants to see the expansion of the tar sands. She recalls hearing Harper once talk about wanting to see 5 million barrels a day extracted from the tar sands while industry executives in the room questioning, at the time, whether this level of production was possible.   May describes the tar sands as contaminating our political process, our climate policy and our democracy.

Jess Worth focused on how to build an international campaign on the tar sands. She describes the UK campaign as having 3 main platforms:

  1. Solidarity with FN peoples
  2. Target UK support for tar sands
  3. Blame Canada

Solidarity: climate justice in action. She describes the tar sands campaign as the first campaign where the climate movement in the UK has really started to put climate justice principles into action. The campaign is taking the lead from indigenous communities and IEN and attributes the strength and success of the campaign to this relationship.

Even though tar sands are being extracted in Alberta, they are part of the UK carbon footprint. UK bank and financial institutions are driving investments in the tar sands. She focused on the case of British Petroleum (BP). BP are the new kids on the block, only recently deciding to move into the tar sands. BP just signed a deal on Sunrise partnership. The corporation is holding off on moving in and starting the extraction process – it is sort of liking buying the house but not having decided when to move in. The campaign sees this as a strategic window of opportunity. Jess then described a number of actions in the UK targeting BP including taking over a BP presentation at an Oxford graduate recruitment event which ended in Jess having the opportunity to lobby the head of BP UK who told her that if the indigenous people in Canada don’t want this project, then of course they won’t do it.

Blame Canada. She describes actions that target Canada, previously having the image (not necessarily based on reality) as a peaceful green nation, as being very effective. The Canadian press has covered it extensively and Canadians have responded by joining tar sands campaigns.

Following Jess, James, a key UK activist for tar sands campaigns, also discussed the campaign targeting BP. He talked about the need to challenge the political and financial alignment BP is seeking from politicians, banks and financial institutions in order to move forward in the tar sands.