A TransCanada oil pipeline pumping station in rural Nebraska.
A TransCanada oil pipeline pumping station in rural Nebraska.

Credit: shannonpatrick17 on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Melina Laboucan Massimo is a Lubicon Cree from northern Alberta, Canada, who wants people to understand the magnitude of tar sands mining devastation to her community.

One single site of tar sands extraction near where she lives is the size of Washington, D.C., she said. “So think of your city being completely scraped out, and that’s what’s happening to our homeland.”

She and other women gathered at a restaurant here on the evening of the largest environmental demonstration in U.S. history, on Feb. 17, to tell their stories of opposing TransCanada Corporation‘s Keystone XL pipeline project, which would bring hundreds of thousands of barrels a day of tar sands from northern Alberta across the entire U.S. mid-section to the Texas Gulf Coast for refining and export.

Massimo discussed ancient forests that have been chopped down to create a moonscape.

“The boreal forest is an ancient forest,” Massimo told the gathering. “It’s pristine; it’s beautiful. A lot of our medicines are there; a lot of wildlife. It’s such a beautiful area they call it the Lungs of the Earth. There are already 2,600 oil and gas wells taking up 70 percent of our territory.”

Massimo said that since 1978, over $14 billion worth of bitumen, the sludgy tar-like substance that is the dirtiest form of oil, has been extracted from her traditional territory, without any revenue going to her community. “My family still has no running water, to this day,” she said.

Tar sands are found underneath 54,000 square miles of Alberta. Mining it requires a tremendous amount of water–at least four barrels for each barrel of tar sands extracted–which is causing its own serious environmental problems.

Instead of income, Massimo said there are toxins. “You see this dotted all over the landscape: Danger. No entry. Poisonous gas. So if people want to pick berries, or make medicine, or go hunting, you can’t go into these areas which our families have done for thousands of years.”

Amplifying Concerns

Massimo works with the direct action group Greenpeace, and the Minnesota-based Indigenous Environmental Network, to bring native concerns about the exploitation of tar sands to a wider audience.

Tar Sands Panel
A February 2013 panel where women shared their stories of opposing the Keystone XL pipeline project.
Credit: Melinda Tuhus

During the Washington gathering, indigenous women were given the floor for “Women of the Land Speak: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Tar Sands to Renewables.” The evening panel featured women who are fighting the project, from both ends–the North and South. Some of the indigenous women also invited audience members to come to Alberta in early July for the First Nations’ annual healing walk around the tar sands.

The Southern leg of the project has already been approved and is under construction, making the hoped-for veto from President Barack Obama for the bigger project appear less likely.

On March 1 the U.S. State Department released an environmental impact statement saying approval of construction of the pipeline was “unlikely to have a substantial impact” on the climate or the exploitation of tar sands, likely paving the way for its approval.

A coalition of local landowners and mostly young activists from Texas and beyond formed the Tar Sands Blockade to try to nonviolently disrupt the construction, by locking themselves down to sections of the pipeline and building and occupying platforms high up in trees along the route to prevent workers, at least temporarily, from felling the trees to lay the pipeline.

Julia Trigg Crawford, another speaker at the February event, is the farm manager of her family’s property in northeast Texas. Her family took TransCanada to court over the pipeline. The corporation already owns and operates the Keystone pipeline carrying tar sands across the U.S.; the Keystone XL pipeline would be bigger.

“Our family took a stand about three years ago, saying, ‘We don’t believe you, TransCanada, have the right to take our land for your pipeline by eminent domain.’ After months of testimony and thousands of pages of documents, the judge sent a 15-word ruling from his iPhone that said, ‘TransCanada can take the Crawford’s land.’ But we’re not going down that easy. In late February our family filed an appeal with the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. TransCanada has billions riding on this little 1,200-foot section of land that we’re not willing to give up,” she said.

Keepers of the Water

Chrystal Lehman is a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, who works with the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Sierra Club, with chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada, to try to stop tar sands mining on native land.

“We have a belief that women are the keepers of the water,” she said. “That’s our responsibility. It’s not by chance that women carry their children in their womb in water; the way we have that connection to Mother Earth.”

Since tar sands extraction has devastated their land in northern Alberta, Lehman said, that “the old people talk about how the fish don’t taste good any more. And they talk about the time when they could take their dipper from their bag and drink the water. You wouldn’t do that today, because you’d get violently ill, if not die. This is what our future looks like; this is what your future looks like too, if we all don’t stand up together in solidarity and work together. I do this because I have children, and my children deserve those basic human rights, to drink clean water and breathe clean air.”

Eleanor Fairchild is a 78-year-old farmer, great-grandmother and the widow of an oil executive. She was joined by actress and activist Daryl Hannah in blockading TransCanada bulldozers with their own bodies in October 2012 to try to stop the company from laying the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline through Fairchild’s 300-acre ranch in eastern Texas. Both women were arrested for trespassing–even though Fairchild was on her own property.

‘So Much Power’

Fairchild said she didn’t initially oppose an oil pipeline. But then she learned that it would be carrying heavy crude in the form of bitumen and that the company had no intention of replacing the grass or trees that would be uprooted in the process. There were also no concerns about erosion or the impact on the spring water on her property.

“At this point TransCanada is on my land, and the pipe’s in the ground,” Fairchild said. “One thing I can’t understand in this whole thing is how TransCanada has so much power in the U.S.–it’s a foreign company.”

Dave Freeman, energy adviser to President Jimmy Carter and former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, substituted for a female panelist who couldn’t attend the event last month. He said it’s important to keep an eye on better alternatives to burning oil to supply our energy needs.

“Whether we win or lose on the Keystone XL, the fight is just beginning,” Freeman said. “We need a broader vision than just pointing out the horrors of what we’re using, and that is a world that is powered by solar, wind, biomass and storage. Solar and wind aren’t just future technologies; they are today’s technologies. California went from next to nothing to 20 percent renewable; it’ll be 33 percent by 2020.”

He added that, “Renewable energy can be 100 percent of our power and could put millions of people to work in the process. We have to decide that everything new has got to be renewable.”

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