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How Beaver Lake Cree Heats Up the Landmark Tar Sands Trial

The infamous Cold Lake oil spills, discovered on four well pads operated by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., spilled a total of at least 1.8 million litres of oil into surrounding forest and wetlands. Several fissures in the ground seeped oil into the area for months as the company and energy regulator tried to understand the cause of the release.
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A First Nations campaign to raise funds to conduct scientific research on the cumulative impacts of the oilsands has raised more than $27,000, surpassing its original goal of $25,000. The campaign ended yesterday after a short run of two weeks.

The donated funds will go toward the Beaver Lake Cree Nation's constitutional challenge to the cumulative impacts of oilsands development. The trial is important, says Susan Smitten from the group RAVEN (Respective Aborginal Values and Environmental Needs) because it represents the "first time in Canadian history that the Court is allowing this kind of challenge to widespread industrial activity based on the cumulative effects these activities have on the Beaver Lake Cree's constitutionally protected rights."

The Tar Sands Trial

The pending trial hinges on the First Nation's ability to demonstrate the cumulative impacts of oilsands expansion on their treaty rights. This is no small feat.

In an interview, RAVEN's Susan Smitten said "this case is about proving the cumulative impact piece by piece. Experts will be needed to show how each individual species -- from the ungulates to the fish -- will be or already are being affected by the tar sands industries. This means gathering a lot of data -- also about the impact on water, land and air."

This requires putting together data from disparate sources into comprehensive impacts report for a judget to digest, Smitten says. "Science will create a picture that shows definitively how the treaty rights are being infringed."

An obvious example, Smitten says, rests in the vanishing caribou herds from traditional Beaver Lake Cree territory.

"The woodland caribou report done by University of Alberta expert Stan Boutin showed the woodland caribou in the Beaver Lake Cree's traditional region have already declined by 70 percent since 1996. That science is a smoking gun that tar sands development is violating the Beaver Lake Cree's right to hunt and fish in the band's usual and accustomed places under the treaty with the government of Canada."

She adds: "What science will help to clearly show is that the expansion of the tar sands project is making it impossible for the band to hunt and fish: they can't find an animal, and if they do it is often inedible because it has been exposed to toxins. So the promises in the treaty are not being kept."

The fundraising campaign will in part support the band's much larger goal of raising $2 million to pursue cumulative impacts research and expert witnesses.

"I'm thrilled that so many people supported this cause," Smitten says. "I'm surprised that within two weeks the target of $25,000 was not just reached but surpassed. It tells me that there are many concerned global citizens wanting to do something real. They want to find a way to make a difference on an issue that until this legal action came along seemed too huge, to impossible, too overwhelming. But now there is a way to work for a better future."

RAVEN's vision, she says, "is a country that embraces the caretaker values of First Nations and their equitable access to the justice system within a thriving natural habitat. This legal action launched by some of our bravest citizens is a way to make that a reality."

A Problem of Regulation

One of the most popular government refrains about the Alberta oilsands is that the megaproject operates under the calculating eye of one of the most advanced environmental regimes known to the oil and gas industry. Yet, scientists and environmental organizations have said for years that neither provincial nor federal oversight is up to the task of monitoring the world's largest industrial project. Groups such as the Pembina Institute show that when the provincial government does make specific regulatory recommendations, in some cases they are completely ignored by industry. Other reports have shown that industry violations most often go unpunished.

One thing is clear: government regulation has been incapable of keeping pace with rapid expansion of the project. And despite government and industry claims to the contrary, the impact of that expansion has been significant.

And, according to the approval of the Beaver Lake Cree's legal battle, Canada's legal courts feel these impacts deserve a fair trial.

Cumulative Impacts

The oilsands have long been known to have a negative impact on many aspects of northern Alberta life. The disappearance of woodland caribou may be one of the most notable measures of the development's high costs, but so too are the health affects felt by local First Nations, who often live off the land. The Beaver Lake Cree are one of these nations.

Within the traditional territory of Treaty 6, the Beaver Lake Cree live on an expanse of land guaranteed by the Canadian government to support their traditional way of life. In 2008 the Beaver Lake Cree argued in an Alberta court that the government's ceaseless permitting of new oilsands projects was inhibiting their ability to practice traditional ways of life -- the very traditions guaranteed to them by the Canadian government since 1876.

The cumulative impacts, they said, had so fundamentally changed the nature of the landscape that hunting and trapping were becoming obsolete. At issue are the more than 19,000 project authorizations and some 300 individual industrial projects approved by the provincial and federal governments. The cumulative effects of the ever-growing oilsands development on locals species and ecology, including the presence of hydrocarbon contaminants in fish populations and lake sediment, are a direct threat to First Nation ways of life, say the Beaver Lake Cree.

When the government of Canada tried to have the case thrown out of court, the Alberta Court of Appeals responded with a judicious affront. The federal government, the Court of Appeals cautioned in April 2013, would benefit from taking the case seriously and should hasten to prepare for "litigation through trial."

Industrial Impacts Ongoing

Since then, the Beaver Lake Cree have experienced several unprecedented oil spills within their traditional boundaries. The infamous Cold Lake oil spills, discovered on four well pads operated by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL), spilled a total of at least 1.8 million litres of oil into surrounding forest and wetlands. The spills were related to a high-pressure steam injection process called Cyclic Steam Stimulation (CSS). Several fissures in the ground seeped oil into the area for months as the company and energy regulator tried to understand the cause of the release.

A total of two beavers, 51 birds, 106 amphibians and 62 small mammals died as a result of the spills and a portion of a lake was drained to expose an underwater fissure leaking oil into the water body.

According to Crystal Lameman, member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, the Cold Lake spills pointed to the often dangerous and experimental technologies used in oilsands extraction. The public knows very little about in-situ or underground extraction methods and yet the vast majority of oilsands deposits will be developed using these methods.

"We're putting our guards down," Lameman told me in a July interview, while industry and government put the First Nation's water at risk. "When we have spills like the CNRL spill, our aquifers are connected, so we know that the spills all have a connection to the water."

Lameman says these kinds of accidents, even if they don't immediately or directly affect human beings, "affect those beings that cannot speak for themselves. And it is those beings that we have a constitutionally protect right to live off of, to hunt, fish and forage for. But if they're drinking toxic water, they're breathing toxic air, then how can they guarantee to us that those animals are in their purest form?"


The Oil Sands and Canada's Environment

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