First Nations youth protest proposed massive oilsands mine at UN climate conference

First Nations youth from Canada are at a United Nations climate change conference in Madrid, Spain, demonstrating against a massive proposed oilsands mine in Alberta.

The provincial government of Alberta and the federal government are considering approval for what would be one of the largest oilsands open pits ever built. 

“This is taking us in the wrong direction,” said Eriel Deranger, executive director of Indigenous Climate Action (ICA) and a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Alberta.

ICA is an Indigenous-led organization that doesn’t accept funding from corporate or government sources. It runs based on individual donations. 

Since 1995, world leaders have come together annually at the Convention of the Parties (COP) to negotiate how to address the global crisis of climate change. The Paris Agreement, signed in 2016, aims to keep global temperature increases within two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to reduce the risk and impacts of climate change. 

This year the focus is finalizing the agreements around Article 6 of the Paris Agreement that would allow countries to work together in lowering greenhouse gas emissions through carbon-friendly technology and carbon markets, which allow for emissions trading between countries to meet climate targets.

Youth with Indigenous Climate Action say the emissions from the proposed oilsands mine would be a betrayal of Canada’s climate change commitments. (Allan Lissner)

The goals of ICA’s demonstrations at COP25 are to bring attention to the extraction industry in Canada and lobby for recognition of Indigenous rights in climate change negotiations while bringing Indigenous-led solutions to climate change forward.

Proposed mine located near national park

Teck Resources’ proposed Frontier project would be 292 square kilometres, one of the largest oilsands mines to date.

At full capacity, the Frontier project would extract 260,000 barrels of bitumen a day. Oil sands are a mixture of sand, clay, water and bitumen, which has to be extracted before it is refined into synthetic crude oil. 

In open mines, such as Frontier, large shovels scoop oil sands into trucks which then is dumped into crushers to process large chunks of earth. Once the sand is crushed, hot water is added to the sand then the mixture is pumped to an extraction plant through pipelines for further refining.   

The operation would be located 100 km north of Fort McMurray — 17 km from Poplar Point First Nation and 30 km from the boundary of Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site.

Oil sands are a mixture of sand, clay, water and bitumen, which has to be extracted before it is refined into synthetic crude oil.  (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

It’s estimated the project will employ up to 7,000 people during peak construction and 2,500 people throughout operations. It’s estimated that the mine will contribute $55 billion in provincial royalties and taxes and $12 billion in federal income and capital taxes. 

Emissions a concern

According to the Pembina Institute, the Frontier project would contribute six megatonnes of carbon emissions annually. 

“The biggest thing why this is so relevant in the climate negotiations is this project will create six megatonnes of emissions annually and has a life cycle of over 40 years,” Deranger said.

“We’re talking about setting emissions caps, and in our country we’re talking about truth and reconciliation with Indigenous communities. We’re talking about conservation and protecting the last remaining biodiverse regions of the world. And this project violates every single commitment Canada has made.” 

In 2016, Alberta set an emissions cap on oilsands operations of 100 megatonnes annually. The Pembina Institute estimated oilsands emissions at 77 megatonnes in 2018. 

“We want to remind the Canadian government of their responsibility to stolen lands, and remind the world that climate change is not just a random phenomenon, it is the result of a destructive colonial relationship with the natural world,” said Ta’kaiya Blaney who is an ICA Indigenous Youth Delegate and member of Tla A’min Nation located along the southwest B.C. coast. 

“Climate change is a colonial problem and to successfully fight climate change we need Indigenous rights. We need Indigenous sovereignty and Indigenous solutions.”

In an emailed statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for Tech Resources said “the regulatory submission for Frontier was the most detailed and comprehensive in oil sands history, incorporating extensive environmental and social data, and more than a decade of community engagement.”

Teck has agreements with 14 Indigenous communities within the project area including Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation and Fort McKay First Nation. Teck said these agreements set a framework for co-operation in environmental stewardship and economic opportunities. 

Teck said 90 per cent of the water used in processing will be recycled, greenhouse gas emissions will be half of the oil sands industry average and that land reclamation of affected areas will begin as soon as active mining is complete. 

COP25 meetings continue until Friday.

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