Into the Heart of Darkness

By Winona LaDuke
Special to News From Indian Country October 2010

When 750 Nez Perce, or Neemoopoo people, accom-panied by 1,000 horses fled the Cavalry on a 1,200 mile route through the mountains, valleys and rivers of Oregon, Idaho and Montana in l877, their route was treacherous and their commitment to their survival as a people deep. It is some l40 years later, and a new industrial road seeks to follow a similar route, pushing to the heart of Indian country into the darkest chapter of American oil expansion.

Dubbed the Heavy Haul, some 200 trucks, many of them literally the size of the statue of liberty on its side, are proposed to traverse some of the most perilous parts of the territory of the Neemoopoo, the Blackfeet and other Native peoples.  Destined for the Athabascan tar sands, gigantic specialized trucks will carry monstrous mining equipment imported from Korea, to the largest and most destructive industrial project in history as part of the first phase of a 50 year expansion. The supply route begins in Oregon and includes the Columbia River, Highway l2, and up through Lolo Pass into Montana and then north into Alberta, the heart of darkness, or “Mordor” as the tar sands are commonly called.

An analogy from the last century would be the ovens made for the gas chambers in the Nazi Prison camps.  If the ovens had to be shipped across Allied territory, perhaps a few Inglorious Bastards would try and stop the trains.  In this case, sixty years later, the ecological equivalent of the gas chambers is scheduled to pass right in front of millions of people and through Native territories.

For the past two years, Exxon Mobil, through its subsidiary Imperial Oil and an array of oil companies  have been courting transportation and state authorities in Idaho and Montana, promising a new boom of economic development in jobs and road expansion along the lifeline of the Tar Sands Project. The hearing processes has been fast tracked in an effort to keep the heavy haul project outside public scrutiny, and at the hearings, industry executives have offered a balkanized, minimalist representation of the project as a small interim excursion through a particular road way, rather than the massive movement of industrial oil machinery that the project actually represents.  Soft peddling is the media strategy used by big oil. Exxon’s Ken Johnson represented the colossal and precarious project in Idaho hearings as “safe and efficient.”

Another Exxon representative, Harry Lilo, said he hopes the novelty of the huge loads will wear off quickly: “We’re hoping about the time the fourth or fifth one goes by, people are going to say, oh, there goes another one.”

That is pretty unlikely. A practice run is planned for mid-2010 using a truck configuration that represents the largest of the anticipated loads The companies are having some trouble even practicing.   The trucks will have 12 rows of axles with eight tires per axle and be equivalent in size to seven semis – two long, two high and three wide. An initial trucking proposal is brought to us all by Conoco Phillips and recently met with opposition in the courts.

Just for reference:  As of 2009, there had been only four trucks of almost comparable size on American highways. Those trucks averaged l30,000 pounds and traveled a total of around 78 miles.

The Heavy Haul loads are each twice that big, and will travel almost 1,000 miles.  Each load is up to l50 tons or more. Highways, most of which are two lanes on the proposed route, are not engineered to sustain these loads. The maximum loads discussed in most state Department of Transportation regulations are 15 tons.

The Federal Department of Transportation provides for loads up to 80,000 pounds on the interstate highway system (although a newly proposed bill called the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act of 2010 would raise that limit, heartily benefiting a project like this).  The loads, however, exceed even the “safe and efficient act proposals” at almost four times present regulations, weighing in at 300,000 pounds. 

Likewise, the Exxon Mobil project continues to draw criticism from not only state citizens, but from tribal communities that lie in the path of this transportation brigade. In fact, early this summer, the Nez Perce tribe passed a resolution opposing the heavy haul stating, “The project would establish a dangerous and unacceptable precedent in one of the most beautiful and pristine federally protected corridors in the US.” The Nez Perce also noted that the tar sands project utilized “an environmentally destructive method that will have proposed negative impacts on the First Nations of Alberta.”

In effect, this is a haul into hell, as the roads are the pathway to the most destructive project on the planet. The Athabascan tar  sands require an immense investment of resources including  energy, money and infrastructure. In their wake, they lay to waste hundreds of thousands of acres of pristine boreal forest, kill a multitude of species and are contaminating one of the largest watersheds in North America- the Athabascan river system.  In the midst of Dene, Mikisew Cree and other Indigenous communities in the north, new forms of cancer and diseases  are becoming more prevalent. . As we watch the devastation to the south in the Gulf of Mexico, we look to the north and find the same level of destruction, it is just out of the eye of the media.

Consider this: the US is the largest oil market in the world, and that addiction means the US  as a country, will do almost anything to feed that addiction. An area the size of Lake Superior is slated for strip mining for tar sands. At present, the Province of Alberta and Canada (considered to be a “Climate Criminal” because of this project) has leased over 65,000 square kilometers of land for tar sands development.

Environmental regulations in Alberta are very lax, to say the least. Tar sands production is licensed to use more water than Alberta’s two major cities – Calgary and Edmonton – combined. That water is turned into poison, laced with chemical sludge, and is polluting the entire Athabascan River system. Geese, ducks and other wild life land on the sludge ponds perish. Alberta grizzly bears are now listed as threatened (numbers dropping by over 100 animals during the past decade) largely because of the loss of and contamination of their habitat as a result of the massive industrialization of the north. The forest and all that live there, not unlike the storyline of Avatar, are about to be destroyed.

The project is, recognized by economists as  grossly inefficient.  Daily, tar sands producers burn 600 million cubic feet of natural gas to produce tar sands oil, enough natural gas to heat three million homes. Ironically, natural gas is considered a relatively clean fossil fuel, and essential to a reduced carbon economy. Instead, this natural gas is used to produce very high carbon fuel.   In fact, the  carbon emissions for the project surpass those of 97 nations in the world combined. 

At every link in the tar sands, communities are working to oppose the project. The oil from tar sands is being sent through pipelines to American consumers and the pipelines are meeting with deep opposition, spurred in part by safety issues raised by the recent oil disasters in Michigan and the Gulf of Mexico. What is the real potential of a disaster ? Well, real enough that Governor Otter of Idaho has mandated that both Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips post $10 million in bonds prior to transportation in the event that either company has a ‘mishap.’

Meanwhile, Idaho residents fight the project and cross their fingers in hope that the $10 million bonds are unnecessary. Others affected by the tar sands, however, have already had their unfair share of oil mishaps. Take for instance the people in Michigan who live on the Kalamazoo river where tar sands company, Enbridge (one of the largest pipeline contractors) recently spilled over 1 million gallons of oil causing families to evacuate homes and contaminating water over 30 miles away in a matter of days.

This spill made Enbridge’s all-time worst spill in the history of the company. Overall, Enbridge’s mishaps include twenty-three spills in Michigan and Minnesota since 1999, several of which have not been remediated.

In late August, the first set of Inglorious Bastards appeared - a set of lawyers representing resort owners, a travel agent and various individuals who live along Highway l2. In a suit against the Idaho Department of Transportation which had authorized an initial test shipment through the state, Idaho Judge Bradbury   issued a temporary restraining order on the first set of shipments. As would be expected the oil companies (here represented by Conoco Phillips) have filed an appeal. The case will be heard in October in Idaho.

Whether it be pipeline spills, the hauling of mammoth machinery or the squeezing of mud-like bitumen to get oil, the tar sands project is a dangerous ecological and moral set of steps for even an oil addicted economy.  Some states are already well hooked up – Minnesota, for instance gets some 85% of its oil from the tar sands, and as policy makers push for a non-foreign oil economy, they seem to miss, that Canada is a different country, and the environmental and human rights impact of the tar sands, is also borne at our pumps.

With some 4.6 billion barrels of bitumen, and fifty years of projected profits for the likes of Exxon and Conoco, the tar sands project is marketed as an alternative to dependence on Middle East.

The reality is that some oil comes at too high a price, and whether that is the oil from the deep wells of the Gulf or that from the Boreal Forest of Cree and Dene people.

As well, there are some economics which bear noting – a hundred billion dollars spent on creating pipelines, infrastructures, energy systems, and roads for tar sands oil to head to American markets, could probably reboot some of an antiquated rail system in the same region – and promote a cleaner energy economy.

The history of this region – one filled with courage, horses, and Neemeepoo people beckons us to be not only vigilant at this time, but to be the people those ancestors would be proud of today.