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Ann Chen: Identifying the Zeitgeist of Canada's Proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline

Alberta, Canada -- 731. This is the length in miles of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline that will carry bitumen oil products extracted from the oil sands of northern Alberta to the coast of British Columbia. From there the oil will be exported by oil tankers to a demanding global market.

For the next nine months, I will travel slowly along these 731 miles, following this invisible oil trail that has come to symbolize the divergent concerns of these two Canadian provinces regarding the management and future of their respective natural resources. I will listen to and record the stories of the people and places I visit using photography, video and audio recording. I will also map my surroundings using the weather-balloon-and-kite-mapping kits developed by Public Lab, a citizen science nonprofit, and teach community workshops on how to use these tools.

I've been in Canada for a little over a week now. In many ways, Canada looks and feels a lot like the place I just left. What I am quickly picking up on is how complex and charged an oil-and-pipeline conversation can be. Perhaps I am seeking it out deliberately, but in Alberta I see signs of the oil economy everywhere. A streak of pale yellow dust coats the sides of the oversized double-cab truck parked across from me at the supermarket. It is the tell-tale sign of an oil sands worker. Searching for a sublet in Edmonton on Kijiji, a popular classifieds website in Canada, I often came across ads posted by oil workers in Fort McMurray looking to share an apartment. Workers up in Fort McMurray typically work long shifts. Ten days on, four days off. On those days off, many fly back home, often located in other provinces or further. Others come down to Edmonton, a three hour drive away and the closest city to the oil boomtown. One in three people in Alberta, I have been told, is connected to the oil industry. Here in Alberta, I only have to mention a few keywords about my project--oil sands, Northern Gateway, or pipeline--and people nod knowingly. Some responses I’ve gotten include, “that’s a controversial topic” or “you’ve come to the right place” or simply “good luck”. The first comment is the most common. In New York City where I lived before coming to Edmonton, I often found myself explaining the bitumen mining process or how the Northern Gateway Pipeline and the Keystone XL Pipeline are actually two different proposed pipeline projects, going in separate directions and through different countries.

Oil Sands and Pipelines

In the northern reaches of Alberta, a western province of Canada north of Montana, under swaths of boreal forest lies a vast oil deposit called the oil sands. Oil sand is a composite of bitumen, sand and water. The bitumen, once separated from the sand, can be transformed into usable, marketable crude oil. However, this process requires the oil companies to either surface-mine large tracts of land to reach the underground oil sands or use other, “in situ” techniques. Open-pit mining is the least used technique but also the most documented, photographed and reported, likely because it is the most visually damning. When people refer to the oil sands as Mordor, a term I’ve heard more than once in Canada, they are often thinking of open-pit mines. However, the majority of mining operations are in situ, a process which occurs deeper underground but with minimally visible above-ground activity.

In open-pit mining, once the oil sand is mined, steam technologies separate the bitumen from the sand while other methods prepare it for refining. While this is an incredibly basic overview of how oil sands mining works, it demonstrates how current technologies and methodologies to extract oil from the oil sands means that Canada now sits on one of the world’s largest oil reserves. Increasing global energy consumption is creating a strong interest in Canadian oil. With mining development increasing to meet supply demands, the transportation section of this supply chain needs to catch up, which is where the pipelines come in.

The Northern Gateway is in limbo. On July 17, 2014, the Canadian federal government approved the project, with 209 conditions. Some people say these conditions will be difficult to meet yet there are others who think differently. Since 2010, when the oil company Enbridge submitted its application for the Northern Gateway project to the National Energy Board, an independent federal agency regulating mainly pipelines, energy development and trade, a growing body of conflicting reports opposing and supporting its existence is being built by citizens, government, the company, journalists, scientists, academics and activists. From 2010 to 2013, a Joint Review Panel (JRP) commissioned by the Canadian Minister of the Environment and the National Energy Board, began a review process to determine whether or not to approve Northern Gateway. There were public hearings in towns mostly in British Columbia and a few in Alberta. All the transcripts are publicly available online. I’ve been reading through these transcripts again more thoroughly as part of my research. There are hundreds of pages of oral histories by individuals, many representatives of First Nations who live in the regions that stand to be affected, outlining the personal and broader importance of this land. Their stories and descriptions of the ecological richness and cultural importance of the Canadian forests and waterways sparked my imagination and formed the question that is the basis for my Fulbright project: Who or what stands to be changed by the construction and operation of this pipeline? It is this cultural, political and environmental zeitgeist, on the cusp of change, that I wish to understand and document. I want to create an artifact, a timestamp of this particular moment, when the fate of this pipeline and of the people who live along it has yet to be determined.

Online Interactive Map

All the data, imagery and research that I make and collect will be mapped to an online interactive map that will trace my journey from one end of the pipeline to the other. I want to meet with people that stand to be changed by the pipeline development: First Nations, farmers, homeowners, ranchers, fishermen, hunters, scientists, activists, oil workers, motel owners.

I am currently a Visiting Research Fellow in the English and Film Studies Department at the University of Alberta, where I will spend the next few weeks researching, setting up meetings and preparing for my first mapping workshop. Through the end of December, I will visit towns and communities along the Albertan stretch of the pipeline route. I will also make a few extended trips up north to visit Fort McMurray, the heart of oil sands extraction and Fort Chipewyan, a community downstream from the oil sands. If you are interested in taking part in a mapping workshop or would like me to organize one in your community, connect with me on Twitter at @pipelinemapping or @annhchen. I've also started a project blog where you can find announcements of upcoming mapping workshops, research notes, progress updates and links to related literature and projects by some very talented people. And if you see me wandering down the street in your town, please stop me and say hello!

Ann Chen, an artist and researcher from New York City, is one of five grantees selected from among 864 applicants for a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, which is the first of its kind. She will focus on mapping the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline in Canada through collective storytelling and citizen science. Follow Ann on Twitter @pipelinemapping, @annhchen, Instagram @pipelinemapping, Facebook, or her blog.

The first five Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellows, clockwise from upper left: Ann Chen, Daniel Koehler, Erin Moriarty Harrelson, Michael Waldrep, and Mimi Onuoha. Photographs courtesy of U.S. Department of State.

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