Fort McMurray Oil Sands and the Women Reversing Its Damage (Video)

Fort McMurray oil sands products makes it to a gas station

Find out about the Fort McMurray oil sands and the women reversing its damage in this video

In 1991, a pipeline running from Alberta, Canada, and through the US state of Minnesota, ruptured and spilt at least 1.7 million gallons of oil in Grand Rapids city. It was the largest ever inland oil spill in the US.1 In 2010, another massive oil pipeline spill severely polluted the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.2 Both incidents illustrate how the Fort McMurray–based oil sands industry in Canada impacts the US.

The impact of Canadian oil sands spills

Both the 1991 and 2010 oil spills were with pipelines run by a Canadian company, Enbridge. Based in Calgary, Alberta, the company transports the controversial Canadian oil sands product from Canada to the US through different pipelines and multiple states. Between 1996 and 2014, Enbridge has been responsible for over 1000 oil spills spewing nearly one billion gallons of oil. This has impacted local economies, communities and wildlife.3

Now, a growing group of women are fighting back. In June 2021, around 2,500 people – along with activist and actress Jane Fonda – showed up to protest against Enbridge’s new Line 3 pipeline, which will carry Canadian oil sands oil through sacred Native American land.4 However, protests against Enbridge Line 3 have been happening for the past five years.

Why is Enbridge Pipeline 3 so controversial?

Oil sands are a particularly controversial form of fossil fuel due to their outsized impact on the environment. Worse, pipelines carrying oil sands have a higher risk of spillage than conventional oil, say critics.5 Furthermore, the proposed new Enbridge Line 3 runs through sacred Native American tribal land. 

The current Enbridge Pipeline 3 transports oil from Alberta to Wisconsin, via northern Minnesota. Both the company and its critics accept that it is severely degraded and a health hazard. It is running at half pressure due to severe corrosion. The company plans to leave its current pipeline in the ground and build a new one. The new pipeline will be the largest project in Enbridge history, carrying up to a million barrels per day of “one of the dirtiest fuel on earth”, say critics.6

Environmental impact of oil sands

National Geographic magazine refers to the oil sands industry as the “world’s most destructive oil operation”. The oil sands industry is based in the middle of Canada’s pristine and important boreal forest ecosystem, carving out an area the size of Florida.7 Oil sands need between three to four barrels of fresh water per barrel of oil to pump them out of the ground.8

Companies use a tremendous amount of energy to extract, process and transport this oil to other countries. Even worse, mining oil sands leaves large amounts of waste-byproduct, which sits in ponds. These ponds are so large that they can even be seen from space.9 All these factors make Canadian oil sands more energy-intensive and environmentally destructive than other oils.10

Moreover, pipelines carrying oil sands must operate at higher temperatures and pressures. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that pipelines in the upper Midwest carrying oil sands have spilt 3.6 times more oil per pipeline mile than the US average.11

Water Protectors
Water Protectors from Honor The Earth

Fort McMurray oil sands vs. the Water Protectors

Canada’s oil sands industry is concentrated mainly around Fort McMurray in Alberta. The Water Protectors from Honor the Earth are a group of women activists opposed to the Enbridge company’s Line 3 pipeline. The company says that it has no choice but to build a new pipeline as the current pipeline is too old.

However, it is building a new pipeline through the Great Lakes region in the upper Midwest region in the US. The proposed pipeline runs through Native American territory, where water is held as sacred and should be protected. The Water Protectors are deeply concerned that an oil spill from the Enbridge pipeline would destroy their sacred lands. The pipeline would pass through treaty-protected tribal lands of the Ojibwe People.12

Key issues with the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline

Furthermore, the proposed route for the new Enbridge Line 3 goes through some of the most pristine lakes and wetlands in the region, and some of the largest wild rice beds in the world. It crosses Minnesota’s most delicate soils and shallowest aquifers. “Taking care of the water is our responsibility, and we take that responsibility seriously”, says Winona LaDuke, executive director and a co-founder of Honor the Earth.13

Funding oil sands vs. renewable energies

“We can not sit idly by and watch the expansion of the fossil fuel industry at a time when we need a massive expansion of the renewable energy sector. We see that expending $7 billion or so on a new fossil fuels pipeline when there is no adequate water piping system in the city of Flint Michigan is unconscionable.”14

Honor the Earth points out that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the Office of Administrative Hearings all expressed serious concerns about the project.15 However, Enbridge disputes these claims. Enbridge was given its final approval under US President Donald Trump.16

Jane Fonda
By Ted Eytan, MD

Jane Fonda’s take on Alberta’s oil fields

The actress Jane Fonda has long been a climate activist. However, she is particularly incensed about Alberta’s oil sands fields. “[Alberta’s pipelines are] bringing very destructive tar sands under 200 bodies of pristine water, but look at the big picture — we are barreling toward a true catastrophe, an existential catastrophe, which is the climate crisis”, she said to CNN recently. “Climate scientists are universally telling us we have to cut our emissions in half and we can have absolutely no new development of fossil fuels.”17

In March 2021, Jane Fonda was in Minnesota to protest the Canadian company Enbridge’s Line 3, which will transport over 760,000 million barrels of toxic oil sands per day.18 “This is the pipeline that they want to lay under the headwaters of the Mississippi”, she says in a video she posted to Instagram. “Tar sands oil, the worst! And we’re here to try to stop it!”.19

Effect on the local tribespeople

Fonda has spoken out against oil sands for years. In 2017, she met with First Nations tribespeople in Fort McMurray to listen to their experiences with the oil sands industry. “The huge oil sands bitumen mines blighted the beautiful landscape”, she told CBC News. “It’s like someone took my skin and peeled it off my body over a very large surface. It made my body ache to watch it.”20

Now, Fonda is adamantly against the impact that Alberta’s oil fields are having on US land. “Even if the [Enbridge] pipe doesn’t leak – I mean, if the pipe leaks, it’s over. And for the tribes, this is an existential threat. And I didn’t really understand that until I got here.”21

Oil sands project workers

While Jane Fonda may fiercely oppose the industry, she doesn’t blame the people who work in it for the damage caused. “We should thank the workers for doing such dangerous, dirty jobs, but help them understand this is a new era for the salvation of the planet. If the fossil fuel industries hadn’t lied to us for 40 years, we could have started the transition decades ago, and it could’ve been an incremental, gentle transition.”22

Jane Fonda and the Water Protectors are now urging US President Biden to act against Enbridge Pipeline 3. At a recent protest against it, Moneen Nasmith, an attorney with EarthJustice, said, “Particularly from a climate standpoint, the case for a brand-new, massive tar-sands pipeline is extremely thin and frankly nonexistent”.23

Sources

  1. MPR News. (2021). 30 years later, echoes of largest inland oil spill remain in Line 3 fight. [online] Available at: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2021/03/03/30-years-ago-grand-rapids-oil-spill [Accessed 14 Jun. 2021].
  2. Hasemyer, D. (2016). Enbridge’s Kalamazoo Spill Saga Ends in $177 Million Settlement. [online] Inside Climate News. Available at: https://insideclimatenews.org/news/20072016/enbridge-saga-end-department-justice-fine-epa-kalamazoo-river-michigan-dilbit-spill/ [Accessed 14 Jun. 2021].
  3. 350. (n.d.). Spill Data. [online] Available at: https://world.350.org/kishwaukee/files/2017/02/EnbridgeMajorSpills_1996-2014.pdf.
  4. Pipeline protesters seize Minnesota construction site in bid to stop $4 billion project. (2021). Washington Post. [online] Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2021/06/07/pipeline-protest-line-3-minnesota/ [Accessed 14 Jun. 2021].
  5. Biello, D. (2013). Does Tar Sand Oil Increase the Risk of Pipeline Spills? [online] Scientific American. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/tar-sand-oil-and-pipeline-spill-risk/ [Accessed 14 Jun. 2021].
  6. Stop Line 3. (n.d.). ISSUES. [online] Available at: https://www.stopline3.org/issues/ [Accessed 14 Jun. 2021].
  7. Leahy, S. (2019). Alberta, Canada’s oil sands is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] Environment. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/alberta-canadas-tar-sands-is-growing-but-indigenous-people-fight-back.
  8. NRCAN. (2016). Oil Sands: Water Management. [online] www.nrcan.gc.ca. Available at: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/publications/18750.
  9. Leahy, S. (2019). Alberta, Canada’s oil sands is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] Environment. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/alberta-canadas-tar-sands-is-growing-but-indigenous-people-fight-back.
  10. Israel, B. (2017). The Real GHG trend: Oilsands among the most carbon intensive crudes in North America. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/blog/real-ghg-trend-oilsands.
  11. Biello, D. (2013). Does Tar Sand Oil Increase the Risk of Pipeline Spills? [online] Scientific American. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/tar-sand-oil-and-pipeline-spill-risk/ [Accessed 14 Jun. 2021].
  12. Honor The Earth. (n.d.). Welcome Water Protectors. [online] Available at: https://www.honorearth.org/welcome_water_protectors [Accessed 14 Jun. 2021].
  13. Tabuchi, H., Furber, M. and Davenport, C. (2021). Police Make Mass Arrests at Protest Against Oil Pipeline. The New York Times. [online] 7 Jun. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/07/climate/line-3-pipeline-protest-native-americans.html.
  14. Honor The Earth. (n.d.). Welcome Water Protectors. [online] Available at: https://www.honorearth.org/welcome_water_protectors [Accessed 14 Jun. 2021].
  15. Honor The Earth. (n.d.). Welcome Water Protectors. [online] Available at: https://www.honorearth.org/welcome_water_protectors [Accessed 14 Jun. 2021].
  16. Tabuchi, H., Furber, M. and Davenport, C. (2021). Police Make Mass Arrests at Protest Against Oil Pipeline. The New York Times. [online] 7 Jun. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/07/climate/line-3-pipeline-protest-native-americans.html.
  17. Twitter. (2021). https://twitter.com/therecount/status/1402284213278326788. [online] Available at: https://twitter.com/therecount/status/1402284213278326788 [Accessed 14 Jun. 2021].
  18. Tabuchi, H., Furber, M. and Davenport, C. (2021). Police Make Mass Arrests at Protest Against Oil Pipeline. The New York Times. [online] 7 Jun. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/07/climate/line-3-pipeline-protest-native-americans.html.
  19. www.instagram.com. (2021). Jane Fonda on Instagram • In Minnesota protesting to #StopLine3. [online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/CMgX5Aeptyk/ [Accessed 14 Jun. 2021].
  20. CBC. (2017). Jane Fonda in Fort McMurray: “Listen, I’m not against you,” actress tells resident during parking lot squabble. [online] Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/jane-fonda-in-fort-mcmurray-listen-i-m-not-against-you-actress-tells-resident-during-parking-lot-squabble-1.3929813 [Accessed 14 Jun. 2021].
  21. Marsh, S. (2021). Searching for Jane Fonda at the Line 3 Protests. [online] Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. Available at: https://mspmag.com/arts-and-culture/finding-fonda/ [Accessed 14 Jun. 2021].
  22. Marsh, S. (2021). Searching for Jane Fonda at the Line 3 Protests. [online] Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. Available at: https://mspmag.com/arts-and-culture/finding-fonda/ [Accessed 14 Jun. 2021].
  23. Tabuchi, H., Furber, M. and Davenport, C. (2021). Police Make Mass Arrests at Protest Against Oil Pipeline. The New York Times. [online] 7 Jun. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/07/climate/line-3-pipeline-protest-native-americans.html.