A delegation of leaders from Canadian churches, indigenous communities and other groups that toured northern Alberta May 21 to 27 expressed concern that the rapid rate of exploration and expansion of the oil sands industry there has outpaced efforts to curb their environmental, health, and social impacts.
There must be “deeper public control” and “greater government regulation” of the country’s natural resources, members of the delegation said.
They also called for independent studies on the cumulative impact of the oil sands development on water and on the general health of the surrounding areas.
“Science has made real progress in seeking ways to reduce greenhouse emissions but, given the rapid pace of expansion, it’s finding it hard to catch up,” said the retired bishop of Saskatoon, Tom Morgan, who represented the Anglican Church of Canada in the 17-member delegation.
“We’ve talked to mining engineers and heard compelling stories about how they’re working hard” to lessen the impact of this economic development, he said, “but it doesn’t mitigate what’s happening…The expansion of production must be looked at.” He added that “it must be possible to slow the pace, work for a deliberate plan that will give some time for alternative sources of energy to emerge.”
Bishop Morgan said that the trip was “not about who’s right and who’s wrong; it’s about how we can mobilize society to address its own addiction to fossil fuels, given that our limited resources will run out.”
He added, “This is not the time for churches to be pitted against industries and, God forbid, for the people of Fort McMurray to think that their concerns are not our concerns.” Bishop Morgan said the delegation has heard from communities about how the industry has brought employment and helped build hospitals and schools. Still, he said, “the question is, is it not possible to come around the table and seek common cause which is the betterment of the earth and all of us?”
In an interview, Bishop Morgan said that, “because the oil sands is such a complex issue,” the delegation met a variety of interest groups, including oil industry representatives, environmentalists, local church leaders, politicians, civil servants and communities. The Canadian ecumenical justice group Kairos, of which the Anglican Church of Canada is a member, organized the trip.
Mary Corkery, Kairos executive director, echoed Bishop Morgan’s view, saying, “we’re all part of the problem; we’re driving this train.” She said that “we’re not pointing the finger at people who live in Fort McMurray and work in the oil sands industry.”
Appearing at CTV’s Canada AM on May 28, Ms. Corkery reiterated Kairos’ call for an energy policy “that is not so reliant on maximum profit from oil and gas.”
Bishop Morgan said that, during the visit to the indigenous community of Fort Chipewyan, delegation members saw how the lives of the people “have been changed dramatically; they have become alienated from the land they once knew.” Trap lines are now gone because of oil sands development.
Concerns have also been raised about the elevated rate of biliary cancer among its residents. Alberta health officials have confirmed that the cancer rates are 30 per cent higher than average but have not linked it to the oil sands.
“We don’t know what the combination of chemicals are doing to harm the health of people. We do know that the cancer rates and death rates are up,” said Bishop Morgan.
The remote village of Fort Chipewyan is located on Athabasca Lake, about 300 km downstream from the major oil sands site in Fort McMurray.
Concerns have been raised that oil sands development has compromised the water quality of the Athabasca River. The process of extracting bitumen (the thickest form of petroleum) involves injecting steam below the surface of fresh water aquifers, “and no one has answered what impact this has on aquifers,” said Bishop Morgan. “Mercury, arsenic and other chemicals are already below the surface. What happens when the sedimentary protection is removed? What happens when this is stirred up and becomes part of the aquifer?”
He said that he and other member of the delegation are “not sure if due diligence is employed” in the process, adding that no environmental impact studies are being done before lands are leased to oil mining corporations.
Tailing ponds that hold wastewater used to wrench bitumen from the oil sands have also alarmed residents. Tailing ponds now hold 720 billion litres of water that are laden with heavy metals, and questions have been raised as to what would happen if the dams break. “The challenge is how to move it from a primitive stage to an environmentally safe area,” said Bishop Morgan.
Bishop Morgan said that, during an aerial tour, he was struck by the “staggering” impact of surface strip mining on acres upon acres of boreal forests. “You can actually see how it’s been ripped apart. The work that’s going to be done there is reclamation, not restoration. You can’t restore it to its original state anymore,” he said.
Environmental groups have also said that the process of extracting oil and upgrading bitumen into synthetic crude oil releases greenhouse gases ten times more than typical oil drilling, a claim that is being contested by the oil industry and some scientists.
Bishop Morgan said that he and other members of the delegation are “going to distil the experience” and help educate Canadians about how their culture “has been caught up in the addiction to fossil consumption.”
Canadians need to be aware, he said, that the answer “is not simply transferring the addiction to alternative sources of energy,” but looking deeper into themselves. “When we reflect upon the vast gifts of creation, we remember that we should take our place in it, not above it,” he said.
Archbishop James Weisgerber, president of the Canadian Council of Catholic bishops and a member of the delegation, said that churches are speaking out about the oil sands because, “from a Christian perspective, we believe that God is intimately involved in the world.” Interviewed by CTV’s Canada AM, he added, “God has made us stewards of the world and when we look at a project like this and the ramifications it has on the environment, on the future of humanity, it would seem rather strange if the church were not involved.”
The other members of the delegation were the national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, Susan Johnson; Rev. Cheol Soon Park, moderator of the 134th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada; Donald Peters, executive director of the Mennonite Central Committee Canada; Rev. Bruce Adema, director of Canadian Ministries, Christian Reformed Church in North America; Dana Bush, Canadian yearly meeting of the Religious Society of Friends; Abe Janzen, executive director of the Mennonite Central Committee Alberta; Sr. Anne Lewans, Ursulines of Prelate, Canadian Religious Conference; former United Church of Canada moderator Bill Phipps; Ray Jones, hereditary chief of Gitxsan First Nation, South Hazelton, British Columbia; Terri Brown, former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada and a member of the Tahltan First Nation in B.C.; Fabricio Guaman, Accion Ecologica/Oil Watch South America, Ecuador; Michael Keania Karikpo, Oil Watch International, Nigeria; Ed Bianchi, Kairos indigenous rights program co-ordinator; and Sara Stratton, Kairos education and campaigns co-ordinator.