skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Elizabeth Shope’s Blog

Women Fighting Tar Sands Across North America

Elizabeth Shope

Posted October 17, 2012

, , , , , , , , , ,
Share | | |

Last week, an all-female delegation led by 1997 Nobel Peace Prize winner and Nobel Women’s Initiative Chair Jody Williams set out to Alberta and British Columbia in an effort to learn about the impacts of tar sands oil extraction and pipeline and tanker projects on women and their communities. Williams was joined by a group of women from the United States, Canada and Kenya who are all leaders in their work on environmental, social justice, and tribal issues. The delegation met with over 200 women from 13 communities, including Fort McMurray, Burns Lake Fort McKay, Prince George, Smithers, Terrace and Kitimat. They also met with aboriginal community leaders from the Nadleh Whut’en and the Saik’uz Nations, and government and oil industry representatives – listening, learning, and bringing attention to how tar sands are affecting the lives of women and their communities in Western Canada. They heard how these communities have faced contaminated water, increased health issues, and communities divided by issues of poverty and the fear of speaking out against the oil industry. Women and communities across the continent stand to be affected by the climate change, air pollution, water pollution, and pipeline and tanker spills that tar sands expansion would cause. Many are becoming community leaders and raising their voices against tar sands.

 Aerial view of tar sands credit: Nobel Women's Initiative

The tar sands underlie an area of the Boreal forest approximately the size of Florida; to date, tar sands mining has caused the creation of 65 square miles of toxic waste lakes, which are leaching 3 million gallons per day into the Athabasca River and watershed. First Nation communities have inhabited these regions for generations, with hunting, fishing and trapping playing a major component of their livelihoods. But in recent years, communities downstream from the tar sands have seen major changes in their land, water and communities alongside the growth of tar sands extraction: an abnormal number of fish with strange tumors, high rates of rare cancers. People in Alberta are worried. In a trip blog by Jody Williams, she writes:

I keep thinking about all the women we have met with who talk about all the breathing problems of the children in the communities… I keep hearing the voices of the women who said, ‘You can’t eat money and once our territory is ruined, we can’t get it back. Once our water is gone, we can’t get it back.’

Despite fear of the tar sands industry, people are fighting. Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation addressed the delegation about what her community is doing to fight for their rights and livelihood: The Beaver Lake Cree’s rights to hunt and fish for all time are enshrined in Treaty 6, but the tar sands industry has been infringing on their rights – using and polluting their land without their permission. So they are suing the Government of Canada; in March 2012, the Beaver Lake Cree were granted a trial for over 17,000 treaty violations.

No less concerning is the promise of pipeline and tanker spills that would accompany the proposed Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline to the Northern British Columbia coast or an expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline to Vancouver.

It’s not just communities in Canada that stand to face the impacts of tar sands expansion, though. Earlier this year, NRDC released a collection of videos called Voices Against Tar Sands that helps to document the stories of individuals fighting tar sands extraction, pipelines and refineries in their communities. Many of those fighting are women. Watch the stories of some of these women below.

The good news is that, as Jody Williams puts it, “Women around the world have been at the forefront of movements to reduce the impacts of climate change and build healthy, sustainable environments.” These movements are growing, and people are ready to be done fighting dirty energy. One woman in Prince George told the delegation, “I’m sick of spending my passion, creativity, and frankly my love fighting something that we don’t want rather than fighting for something we want.” We are ready for our clean energy future to become a clean energy present, and we are ready to fight for it.

Nobel Women's Initiative delegation meeting with women community members in Smithers, BC Credit: Nobel Women's Initiative

The Nobel Women's Delegation meets with women community members in Smithers, British Columbia to talk about tar sands and the Enbridge Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline.

Women Voices Against Tar Sands

Kandi Mosset – who was also one of the Nobel Women’s Initiative delegation members – grew up and lives in North Dakota, where she has experienced firsthand what oil development can do to communities. She is a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations on the Fort Berthold Reservation and works with the Indigenous Environmental Network, organizing with tribes to fight the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Kandi says “there are sacred sites out here, there are burial sites out here, there’s places that are holy that they want to just bulldoze right through.”


Debra White Plume is an activist, grandmother and member of the Oglala Lakota Nation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, who have been fighting the Keystone Xl tar sands pipeline, concerned about its effect on water resources. She says “I think our native nations are going to stay opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline and stay opposed to any other oil pipelines that come through here because we understand that water is a precious resource, it’s a gift from our Grandfather and it’s a gift for live, it’s a gift of life…”


Jane Kleeb is the executive director of Bold Nebraska and has led the local fight against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, standing up for landowner rights. Jane says, “We’re very worried about the water. This is Nebraska families fighting with everything we have to make sure our land and water is protected.”


Julia Trigg Crawford is a Texas farmer who is battling TransCanada’s attempt to build the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline across her land in court. Julia Trigg says, “My job description is to be a good steward of this place. I do believe that I can make a difference.”


Eleanor Fairchild is a Texas landowner who opposes the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline which would run directly through her land. She and her husband bought their land when her husband retired as an oil industry geologist. Eleanor says, “My husband used to say this land was heaven to him. The more I learned, the worse tar sands looked. I just want fair treatment.”


Erma Lee Smith was born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas next to the refineries and suffers from bronchitis. Tar sands could bring additional pollution to already burdened communities. Erma Lee says, “I’ve been having bronchitis since 1979 and I’m on a breathing machine.”



Debra Miller and her husband had their business closed down for several months following the tar sands oil spill in Marshall, Michigan. Deb says, "That pipeline break put a million gallons into our river, changed our communities forever. What is that doing to our tax base and our public safety?"  






Susan Connolly is a resident of Marshall, Michigan where more than 18 months later the largest tar sands oil spill in U.S. history is still being cleaned up. Susan and her children suffered in the days following the spill and Susan is a leader in the fight to make sure that the spill is cleaned up. Susan says, “This is the perfect opportunity to learn ... especially with the proposed Keystone pipeline that will run the same horrible crude. The only ones who benefit are the pipeline companies. The only job growth here is the workers cleaning up the spill.” 

Share | | |


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Stay Plugged In