What cause do Native Americans have to believe so much risk is inherent with oil pipelines? Oil companies tout statistics of their safety and comparative incident levels to other transport. What is it about pipelines that has hundreds of tribes across the U.S. and Canada uniting to the point that even ancient enemy tribes with very real and painful pasts between them are standing up together? An answer to that question, can be found in Canada. There have been hundreds of pipeline spills on First Nations indigenous territory there. They have been devastating. Native people in the United States have been aware of these issues their northern brothers and sisters face for a long time. Many tribes in the U.S. have strong ties with Canadian First Nations that have nothing to do with colonial borders. Tribes in the U.S. have been staging protests for years of tar sands equipment and oil headed to or from Canada, as well as pipelines like the Keystone XL. Now, many of the same patterns that Canada has been exercising when it comes to indigenous lands and pipeline development, are happening in the United States. That is why the people at Standing Rock are trying to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline; they do not want to endure what they know their indigenous relatives in the north have already suffered.
The Alberta oil sands operations are the second largest source of crude oil in the world after Saudi Arabia. The oil sands deposits encompass over 50,000 square miles of Boreal forest sub-surface, an area almost the size of Florida. They are bisected by the Athabasca River system, a primary source of water and food subsistence for the indigenous populations of the region. All of the surface earth and trees must be removed via strip mining to access the oil underneath. As of now hundreds of square miles of forest have been disturbed by surface mining. Oil sands production uses 2-4 barrels of water to produce one barrel of crude oil by extracting bitumen tar from the sand and soil. Over 20 billion cubic feet of water are diverted from the Athabasca River every year to perform this process. Lakes of toxic wastewater so large they can be seen from space are created to hold and reclaim the tailings produced. They sit right next to the Athabasca River, and it has been estimated that a billion gallons of wastewater leak from the lakes each year.
Over 800 spills have occurred on indigenous land in Canada from the pipelines that transport tar sands bitumen (which is much more toxic and difficult to clean up than regular oil). The remote fly-in community of Ft. Chipewyan that sits downriver from the wastewater lakes has had rare cancer rates spike to an extremely abnormal level. Fishermen find deformed fish and hunters find infections and diseases in local game populations. Herds of caribou have been decimated or dispersed by mining operations, and have become much harder to utilize for subsistence along with other wild food sources. Most remote indigenous communities have nothing more than “convenience store” items at local stores, if they even have stores. So the loss of subsistence is a serious problem. The oil sands operations are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, (compounded by the fact Boreal forest is being removed to create them). Oil sands emit twice as much sulfur dioxide per barrel as other oil production sites. These operations have become increasingly detrimental to the indigenous cultures present where they take place. Both in terms of destroying a cultural way of life, as well as in the physical health and well-being of the people affected. Some of those communities are among the last indigenous communities in North America that still rely almost entirely on subsistence from the land around them, and their cultures, histories, and heritage are closely tied to that subsistence lifestyle. Their way of life is under threat by resource development. Over 130 Canadian First Nations have stated their condemnation and rejection of tar sands development, and the dangerous pipelines and shipping required to facilitate it.
The following images demonstrate one reason why: