Episode 1: Road to Athabasca Web Series

Episode 1 of our pilgrimage to bring the tar sands home features the voices of people who would be impacted by the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, and the stories of some of those most vulnerable if and when pipeline ruptures would occur.

When we biked to the tar sands last August 2015, the Trans Mountain pipeline had been proposed for “twinning”—a tripling of capacity. Now, ten months later, the Trans Mountain pipeline has been approved by the BC provincial government with 157 conditions. The National Energy Board held an 18-month review and concluded that the probability of a spill was “low.”

The Tsleil-Waututh Nation, in conjunction with many other indigenous nations of western Canada and the United States, believe otherwise. They pledge to resist the Trans Mountain expansion project because it poses major health threats to the people and wildlife of Cascadia.

“A million people would get sick within hours, in Vancouver, not if a spill happens, but when a spill happens.” Rueben George, Ceremonial Sundance Chief for the Tsleil-Waututh told us.

In Valemount, BC, botanist Barbara Zimmer shared her fears of the pipeline expansion, because of the damage it would do to her local community—and particularly to the delicate and biologically unique lichen forest she spent the last 15 years protecting.

The pipeline expansion could increase daily pipeline capacity from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day of crude, and up tanker traffic in the Burrard Inlet 7-fold, vastly increasing chances of a spill on land or sea. It’s easy to glaze over numbers like this, but it’s on each of us to figure out what this means—and more importantly what we choose to do about it.


See below for some additional context on some of the terms and ideas discussed in this episode.

Tar Sands 101

Tar Sands Vs. Oil: What’s the Difference?

The largest tar sands deposits in the world are located in Northern Alberta, a distance only marginally longer than San Francisco is from Seattle.

Dilbit & Bitumen

The term “tar sands” refers to a substance of sand, clay and tar bitumen that with intense processing can become oil (for more, see this great NPR infographic). After being extracted, the tar is mixed with a mega-cocktail of hot water, heavy chemicals, natural gas and light crude oil, thus generating a new substance: “dilbit,” or diluted bitumen. The stuff then gets pumped south through oil pipelines from Alberta, reaching tankers where it gets delivered internationally. It’s a substance that The Natural Resources Defense Council has called a “highly corrosive, acidic, and potentially unstable” blend of thick raw bitumen and volatile natural gas liquid condensate – raising risks of spills and damage to communities along their paths.

Risks from bitumen spills are not fully understood at this time. A bitumen spill behaves differently than a more traditional oil spill. When a spill occurs, and the hot mixture of chemicals, sand, and crude begins to cool, tar separates from processed water, sinking into the ground before it can be cleaned.

This leaves a lot of questions as to the full environmental impact of a dilbit spill.

Seismic Lines

Even without pollution, seismic lines are a type of “development” that begins the process of colonization. And, they—along with logging roads—are a first step in justifying further development.

Seismic lines also spell doom for Alberta’s boreal woodland Caribou. These animals require uninterrupted stretches of boreal forest to feed and survive. By cutting a grid through the forest, not only are they denied protections and shelter of the deep woods, but their predators multiply, feeding off of other animals taking advantage of the clearcuts. As a consequence, the herd in Jasper National Park is almost gone, and it’s projected that even if the clearcut lines were reforested, the forest would not be restored in time to save the Caribou population.

Alberta Culture: Love of the Land, Love of Oil

Albertans overwhelmingly proved to be warm, friendly people and they were more than willing to talk with us wherever we went. As we progressed through the province, we were given history lessons by quite a few people, and one of many stories that emerged was a land where poverty had been common until the promise of oil provided a salvation.

At the same time, when we would ask someone working on a pipeline what their favorite activity was, we would hear stories of vanishing into the backcountry, hiking, camping, and a love of nature. The discussion of how those two realities interact varied between people.

A few had a good idea what the impact of the bitumen was, and were working to survive. Many others had reactions varying from an uneasy tension around what they were doing, to people who believed the tar sands had nothing more than a local impact.

This tension between reliance on tar sands for economy and the knowledge of impacts extends to First Nations people who are contending with cultural destruction and the human health impacts of tar sands extraction, yet took pride in children who had become successful in the industry.

Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion

The Trans Mountain pipeline has been in operation since the 1953, and was designed to carry conventional oil products and natural gas from Edmonton, Alberta to Vancouver, British Columbia and Anacortes, Washington. Today it carries dilbit, water, natural gas, and chemicals.

The vast majority of the pipeline is underground and follows major routes and rivers, and can be identified by orange markers and straight clearcuts. It’s easy to consider it out of sight and out of mind.

The Trans Mountain pipeline currently transports 300,000 barrels of dilbit per day, and is proposed to triple to an expected 890,000 barrels per day, which would make it larger than the concept for the Keystone XL pipeline.

According to Kinder Morgan, the Trans Mountain pipeline has reportedly leaked 82 times in the past 63 years. A tanker leak at the main export terminal in Vancouver would reach deep into the Puget Sound region in a matter of hours.

Even so, the Trans Mountain pipeline has been little known by residents of western Washington, even though a spur of it extends from Vancouver, BC to Anacortes, Washington, supplying diluted bitumen to the Tesoro refinery.


Our journey along the Trans Mountain pipeline was an effort undertaken, in part, to make the unseen, seen. We wanted to connect with our bodies and our minds what it means that in this urgent time of climate change, we continue to extract dirty fossil fuels. There is so much about our energy landscape that we cannot understand or process because it is hidden from view. Oil spills are but one manifestation of the way that we cannot see how fragile our systems of energy production are.

Thank you for reading, watching, and sharing in this journey with us,

The Road to Athabasca

Erika, Derek, Phil, Amanda, Heather, Kyle


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