Paradise Lost

Our Trip to The Climate War's Ground Zero

Darren Aronofsky and Leonardo DiCaprio went to the Canadian tar sand deposits, which exist under an area of forest and wetland the size of Florida. Until the drilling begins. This is a journal of their journey.

Brandi-Ann Milbradt

Even before there was a script for my last film, Noah, I was interested in the environmental message in scripture. Man and woman are kicked out of paradise; 10 generations later the land is so filled with violence that God destroys Creation in order to begin again. Stewardship vs. dominion became a big theme in the film.

In representing the fallen prediluvian world that garners God’s ire, my team and I researched the parts of today’s modern world that are most violated by the hand of man.

We quickly narrowed in on the tar sands. Petroleum from up here is often called the dirtiest oil in the world. Some quick image searches made us realize we wanted to represent this destruction in our film. For every barrel of oil refined from Canada’s tar sands, four tons of dirt, rock, and bitumen must be dug up, enough to fill Yankee Stadium every two days. The scale is massive and the walls of our offices were quickly covered with images of the destruction. They made me want to go and see it with my own eyes.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, organized the trip with his team. He asked if there was anyone I would like to invite and so I emailed Leonardo DiCaprio, whom I’ve known a bit over the years. Leo wrote back right away and said the trip sounded fascinating and he would love to join.

What follows is a journal I kept during the journey.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

7:30 a.m.

My partner Brandon and I awake at the crack of dawn for a canoe ride on the milky blue glacial waters of Lake Louise. High in the Canadian Rockies it is one of the greatest views I have ever witnessed. Summer is starting to retreat and the morning air is already nippy. Paddling across the glassy flat surface feels like sliding through warm butter.

I take inventory of the beauty knowing that in a few hours I’ll be in Fort McMurray, the main city servicing Alberta’s tar sands. I have seen photos and read articles about the environmental damage. But I wonder what it will feel like to actually finally be there.

2 p.m.

The first thing you notice on the turboprop out of Calgary to Fort Mac is that everyone is wearing baseball caps with camouflage designs.

The one guy who stands out is a red-headed guy with delicate glasses and a bushy bright beard reading a cookbook called Truck Stop Recipes. He’s carrying a violin case, but I am corrected when he tells me it’s a baritone ukulele. Turns out he’s a locally renowned political folk singer heading north to reunite with his wife and two young children. His wife works for Suncor, a Canadian Petrol company that was among the first to operate in the tar sands.

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He’s immediately on the back foot when I mention that I am going up there with the Sierra Club. I ask him why. He thinks they’ve made up their mind about the tar sands and his wife informs him that it’s not as bad as everyone is saying.

Then I find out that Neil Young is his hero. Not so long ago, Neil Young had come up to the tar sands and compared the devastation to Hiroshima. It set off a media storm.

I’m wondering how my new travelling companion is going to come to terms with the rift between his wife and his hero.

Stuffed into the pouch on the back of the seat in front of me is the local newspaper. The cover story is about how over 1,000 aboriginal women have gone missing since 1980. That’s one woman every 12 days. The other statistic that sticks out in the article is only 4 percent of Canada is native but they make up 23 percent of the jail population.

When you land in Fort Mac, a town of 100,000, you immediately are overwhelmed by the slickness of the brand new airport. It’s a black modern box with a Starbucks, an Earls and a top-of-the-line gift shop. I was expecting something more frontier-ish.

A guy with a baseball cap tells me that the frontier one closed last month. The times they are a changing…

7 p.m.

So now, here we are, Michael, Leo and myself sitting with Erin Flanagan of the Pembina Institute, one of the organizations that oil companies still engage with because their science is irrefutable.

She tells us how little the federal and provincial governments have done to regulate the tar sands. In fact, they’ve done everything in their power to make the process easier, by eliminating most oversight and regulation.

In one instance, they reclassified certain buffalo as domestic bovines so that the land they inhabited lost protective status granted to endangered species. Not only did it allow development of a delicate habitat, but hunters could now hunt the threatened species from a helicopter. And they did.

Moreover, the government penalizes less than 1 percent of violations. Someone puts it aptly: It is all corrupt. Someone else says it doesn’t feel like Canada, feels more like Russia.

Thursday, August 21

7 a.m.

We’re up early for a tour of the tar sands hosted by Suncor, the Canadian petrol company.

The Canadian tar sand deposits exist under an area of forest and wetland the size of Florida. In order to access the deposits, the forests must be strip-mined, drilled and flushed with water, creating a radically different landscape and more than 50 square miles of toxic waste ponds to store the deadly runoff.

Even most oil companies acknowledge the disruption caused by strip mining; that is one reason why they have developed In Situ. On the surface, In Situ appears less disruptive than its alternative, but this is only an illusion.

In Situ requires carving a grid of trucking roads across the boreal forest, which, from above, makes the land look like graphing paper. While it preserves a checkerboard of forest, the result on wildlife is devastating. The trucking roads make it easier for predators to wipe out prey. And these “in roads” are only the beginning.

The other hidden cost of In Situ is the amount of gas is needed to burn to create steam to capture this oil. It turns out it’s enough steam to heat every home in Canada.

Michael keeps his cool until he sees piles of Petroleum Coke on the banks of the Athabasca. He tells us about the devastating consequences of these toxins entering the watershed. He’s stunned at the irresponsibility of the storage of these dangerous substances.

Oil companies contend that oil has always leaked into the river. This, in fact, is one of their big arguments and it works well to confuse base lines. But no one can deny that the quality of the water has changed in northern Alberta. In fact, the oil companies have supplied expensive water-filtering plants for the local communities. But still, no one drinks that water either. And in some places, oil companies truck in bottled water weekly.


We join Suncor for a presentation at their offices. Everyone in Fort Mac has a presentation. The fight for our planet is waged over PowerPoint.

The slides they present are filled with inconsistencies and data manipulation. I am surprised they feel comfortable showing data like this. As compared to Erin’s information last night this is laughable. We start to argue some points but they are overly defensive and their answers are circular.

“We will look into that,” seems to be the failsafe. At a certain point I can’t take it anymore and I ask them if they believe in the science. They all immediately shake their heads yes. I ask them how can they resolve that with what they are doing. Circular answers again.

Let’s take their wind arguments. On a positive note, Suncor has a wind division. They have six sites and make 250 megawatts of power. That’s about half of a single small-to-medium sized coal plant. But, the presenter points out that their wind power development has leveled out for the last year. The reason is on the next slide, which is filled with public NIMBY complaints. People don’t want their view messed up and they don’t like the low-end noise they make.

They are fair arguments, I guess, but not when you put it up against accusations of toxic drinking water causing weird cancers.

There’s no real discussion here.

I was so stunned by the shabbiness of their arguments that it made me wonder how powerful this multitrillion-dollar industry is. If this is the best information these guys can script, if these are the most impressive minds they can send out to meet with the head of the Sierra Club, either they:

a) don’t take us seriously

b) have no fucking defense.

2 p.m.

By law, the oil companies must “reclaim” the land and return it to how it was. After a lunch with vegan options we take a tour of Suncor’s attempt at reclamation.

How does one replace millennia of pristine growth? The results are comedic.

To begin, they lay down two layers of plastic membranes, protecting the new growth from the toxins below. Then they install sump pumps to remove remnant toxic waters.

The landscape looks something like the marsh behind the Toys ‘R’ Us where Tony Soprano might bury a body in Jersey. It doesn’t come near to replicating the diversity we see in the untouched wetlands.

The great irony is when we start to discuss the tailing ponds. They are lake-sized pits used to store the toxic water that is a byproduct of the mining process. But they are not lined. They don’t use plastic membranes to stop the toxins from leaching into the Athabasca River or the watershed.

When we ask why they protect their reclaimed lands but not the natural rivers, it’s the same answer: “We’ll look into it.”

We end the tour on a bluff overlooking a mine in the distance. It’s the closest we can get because of safety issues. Massive trucks 20 feet tall rumble into the mine empty and return with 400 tons of tar sand. The mines never close. Not even on Christmas and New Year’s. The mining of the earth truckload by truckload happens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year and they project that this will be going till at least 2070.

7 p.m.

We join Chief Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) tribe for dinner. He is grounded and realistic. Some would call him stubborn for holding out on payoffs from the oil companies. He tells us about the $6 million offer he got last year to be a spokesman for a pipeline.

The day just gets more upsetting when we hear about aboriginal rights in Canada.

It’s funny because as an American you somehow always think Canada is on the right side of the issues. But their First Nation treaties are constantly under siege. There are policies to breed out members of First Nation and an overall strategy to remove them from their land in the same way they removed the buffalo.

On top of that, Canada has no real equivalent to the Environmental Protection Agency, and no comprehensive air and water protections. And the present government just removed protections on most of the country’s lakes and rivers. It’s stunning.

The government wants industry to regulate itself. We did the same thing in America with Wall Street. That didn’t work out so well either.

Friday, August 23

6 a.m.

We make our way to Fort Chipewyan, a First Nation town and Alberta’s first trading hub. The Cree and Dene bands both live here.

The only way to get here is by plane or boat, so most supplies are flown in. The result is that a gallon of milk at the local market costs $12.55.

Chief Adam offers us some of the local medicine called rat root. Tradition claims it can help fight cancer. The Chief doesn’t tell us to chew it slowly, to savor it. I chomp down on it like Bubble Yum. A bad mistake. The flavor is unlike anything I can identify and it’s overpowering. I’m warned the worst thing I can do is spit it out. So I muscle through.

Since rat root comes from a plant that grows on the edge of the lake there are concerns that the plant is carrying toxins.

A few years ago they stopped drinking tap water here. No one eats the fish. In fact, commercial fishing has been suspended entirely because the lake is considered polluted. I wonder about the local fisherman; could they file a class action suit? Even in New York City, where the natural landscape has long since vanished, we can safely fish and drink from nearby waters. Centuries of development does not compare to the recent devastation in Alberta.

We talk to some young hunters who explain how they can’t pass on their traditional way of life to their children. They cannot teach their children in the winter how to cut open a hole in the lake to drink water. They can’t eat traditional foods because the insides of birds and fish and even moose are plagued with black spots and extruding tumors.

Oil companies remind us that oil leaked into the water long before they arrived. But something has changed. Not a soul we meet thinks their lake is safe. Everyone agrees there is more sickness than ever.

For a moment of levity, Leo was challenged by David Beckham to do the ALS ice water bucket challenge. Leo decides it would be great to do up here. We invite the community to participate. Leo joins Chief Adam, Chief Courtoreille and Michael on a hill in front of the late-day sun over Lake Athabasca. I get into director mode and help line up the shot. Everyone gives a good cheer as the ice rains down.

After we tour the river we fly on a single-prop plane back to Fort Mac.

The sun is setting as we pass over the open mines of the tar sands. From this view what blows me away is how much dust is coming out of the mines. Huge plumes are backlit by the dying sun.

Saturday, August 23

7 a.m.

Gitz Crazyboy (his real name), a member of the ACFN, take us to Fort McKay, a small hamlet on traditional aboriginal grounds that is smack in the middle of a bunch of mines.

We pass a tailing pond on our way. Scarecrows have been posted atop the lake dressed in orange suits and green hard hats. Propane cannons boom every 10 seconds, 24/7/365 to scare away the birds. A few years ago birds began dying after landing on these lakes and getting slathered in bitumen. But there aren’t any birds trying to land today. In fact, when I scan the sky there aren’t any birds anywhere.

I am stunned by the town’s handsome new band hall, by its modern pre-school and elderly center. They put most other city community centers to shame. But here’s the catch: Look closely and you see that most of these buildings were built by oil companies. There is so much money, so much greed, it’s hard to find anyone who is completely clean.

But there is still right and wrong. And when there’s this much money and this much power against people who have been on the defensive for over five centuries, battles must be picked.

I keep thinking about kindergarten. One of the first lessons we learn is to clean up our mess. The oil companies have reclaimed 1 percent of what they’ve annihilated. And it is arguable if that 1 percent is truly reclaimed.

Anyone can see from the ground or air that it’s a big fucking mess. No one really argues with the massive amount of pollution and toxins. No one really argues with the greenhouse gas stats.

Yet the oil companies and the governments of Alberta and Canada want to expand. They want to expand when the technology to clean up what they’ve already done doesn’t exist.

It is time to slow down and study what is happening. It is not time to expand.

Driving back to the airport I can’t help to think about the Old Testament God and his pact with Noah and Noah’s family. Believe it wholeheartedly or look at it as a founding myth of Western culture. Either way, the message is the same: If you take care of creation everything will be in balance. But if you destroy creation you destroy yourselves.

Join the People’s Climate March on Sunday September 21. And to learn more go here.