Years ago I toured the Fort McKay and an Oil Sands production facility. I was struck by the sheer scale of all aspects of the facility: the trucks the size of a small house; the tailings of sulphur, which formed a bright yellow block the size of an apartment building, and the pit, which seemed to stretch to the horizon. The oil company took my group to view some reclaimed tailings, which had been replanted with vegetation, and now had a small band of buffalo. If I remember correctly, the buffalo were cared for by the local aboriginal people.
What the company’s tour guide did not discuss was the issue of water, and the huge pools of contaminated water that no technology can currently clean. While most attention with the oil sands has focused on the issue of carbon, the issue of local environmental destruction is also pressing, and the impact that this industrial scale development has on regional communities. Amongst these communities are the indigenous peoples of the region. Much as is the case with fracking from North Dakota to Texas, how people view environmental issues is often influenced by their economic interests. For this reasons, many aboriginal communities have been divided not only by the Oil Sands, but also by issues of pipelines or mining.
I am teaching an online “Introduction to International Studies” course this quarter, and the most popular course materials have not been articles, podcasts or videos, but rather storyboards. Students love the interactive aspect of these media, which are often also beautiful. The Guardian has an excellent story board on the tar sands, which examines both the environmental and human questions raised by this development, which I highly recommend.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University.