Science Matters: Lubicon struggle shines light on regulatory failures in Canada’s oil and gas industry

Here’s your weekly Science Matters column by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola.

Consensus is growing that the failure of governments to effectively regulate the banking sector is largely responsible for the huge economic mess we’re now facing. Throughout the past few decades, those who were entrusted to protect the public interest have accepted as gospel the idea that governments should get out of the way and let markets self regulate, with disastrous results.

Unfortunately, that ideology has infiltrated our governments’ thinking beyond the financial markets. At the heart of many of our most pressing environmental crises is the same belief that governments should abandon their regulatory responsibilities and allow the private sector to get on with business. (Think of the mess we’ve seen with weakened regulations for food and pharmaceuticals.)

I was reminded of this regulatory failure in early October when TransCanada Corporation, one of the world’s largest pipeline companies, was granted rubber-stamp approval for a massive gas pipeline across northern Alberta. The pipeline will eventually bring natural gas from the Canadian north over to the Fort McMurray area, where it will be used to fuel further tar sands exploitation.

I say “rubber-stamp” because the company was so sure the approval was in the bag that it purchased and moved all its equipment and materials into the area before the Alberta Utilities Commission even issued its decision.

The pipeline will cross lands belonging to the Lubicon Lake Indian Nation, a small aboriginal community that has fought for decades to have its ancestral lands in the boreal woodlands of northern Alberta recognized and protected. Throughout that time, the Lubicon have seen their traditional way of life eroded as their lands have been leased out to oil and gas companies at a breathtaking pace. They’ve seen more than 2,000 oil and gas well sites, 32,000 kilometres of seismic lines, and more than 2,000 kilometres of roads pushed through their forests. The Alberta government approves on average 100 new oil and gas installations in Lubicon territory each year.

The Lubicon Nation is concerned that the new pipeline will not bring long-term benefits to the community, but will instead bring more feeder lines, more clearing, and more gas exploration and other industrial activity that will further fragment and degrade their once-rich hunting and trapping grounds in the boreal forest.

I have followed the Lubicon struggle with great interest. They were a people who lived traditionally off the land until the 1970s when they discovered that development – seismic lines, electrical lines, roads, etc. – was beginning to have an impact on their territory. They chose to fight the plans of the multinational Japanese paper company Daishowa Inc. to clearcut their boreal forests, and for years, they worked tirelessly to protect their land. I was honoured to help them raise money for their struggle, which ultimately proved effective in keeping the loggers at bay.
Not once but four times now the United Nations has chastised Canada for failing to resolve the Lubicon land-rights dispute, calling what is happening to the Lubicon an abuse of their human rights under international covenants. In August, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination wrote to Canada, saying there are “doubts as to whether the Government of Alberta and the Alberta Utilities Commission may legitimately authorize the construction of a pipeline across Lubicon Territory without prior Lubicon consent”. Even Amnesty International has called for a halt to the pipeline until the Lubicon concerns are met.

But none of that seems to have stopped Alberta from approving TransCanada’s jumbo gas pipeline right through the heart of Lubicon lands without Lubicon approval.

In the vacuum left by governments that have historically ignored their peoples’ concerns, the Lubicon government is insisting on its own regulatory process that would do more than rubber-stamp increasing environmental and social disruption.

Their struggle is not new. From Haida Gwaii to Lubicon to Grassy Narrows and countless other aboriginal communities, First Nations people have stood up against powerful industrial interests and indifferent governments. We should support the Lubicon and their actions to safeguard the idea that governments can and should regulate the economy in the public interest.

Ultimately the Lubicon’s struggle is about keeping all of us safe. The responsibility of governments to protect the environment hasn’t received the same attention from politicians as the recent financial collapse, but in the long run environmental deregulation by government threatens to do a lot more damage to our economies, the health of our ecosystems, and our well-being.
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