What Was Tom Steyer Doing In This Isolated Canadian Town?

CREDIT: Emily Atkin

Tom Steyer, left, talks with business partner and long-time friend Ted White outside the welcome sign for Fort Chipewyan, a remote community in northern Alberta.

Disclosure: Tom Steyer is a board member of the Center for American Progress, the sister organization of the Center For American Progress Action Fund, which houses ThinkProgress.

FORT CHIPEWYAN, ALBERTA – It was 16 degrees in subarctic Canada, but Tom Steyer didn’t bring a coat. He wouldn’t even buy one. Instead, he wore a light suit jacket, a dress-shirt, and what seems to be his signature flannel tie. His pants were secured with a beaded belt from Tanzania, which he showed off while visiting the only grocery store in the First Nations community of Fort Chipewyan. Steyer wondered aloud if the store sold beads.

Of all the places in the world, the First Nations community of Fort Chip is not the first place one might envision a California billionaire. It is quite remote. The only thing visible from the settlement’s shore is lake Athabasca, rock solid and snow-covered, surrounded by coniferous trees. Getting there can only happen by plane, save two months a year when it is also accessible by ice road. It’s pretty cold, too.

But Steyer was there on business. Broadly, he was in Alberta to see the tar sands, the most integral ingredient of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that he famously opposes. Specifically, he was there to meet with First Nations leaders in Fort Chipewyan, who claim their community has been ravaged by tar sands pollution.

“They’re clearly being out-resourced,” Steyer said at this end of his two-day trip, which was organized by his political organization, NextGen Climate Action. NextGen invited ThinkProgress on the trip.

The damage that has been done by tar sands mining in Fort Chip is not purely physical. There is no oil development near the community. Fort McMurray, Canada’s mecca of tar sands mining and refining, is 150 miles south. But the Athabasca river runs north, essentially making Fort Chip the drain of the tar sands faucet.

The undisturbed view when flying out of Fort Chipewyan, the First Nations community Tom Steyer visited last week.

The undisturbed view when flying out of Fort Chipewyan, the First Nations community Tom Steyer visited last week.

CREDIT: Josh Burstein/NextGen Climate ACtion

Pollution from mining in Fort McMurray has gradually seeped into Fort Chip’s land to the point where its largely traditional people can no longer hunt, fish, or swim to their leisure. Those who do become sick, and residents believe that has caused cancer rates to skyrocket in the last 30 years.

It has been both mentally and financially difficult for those in Fort Chip to cope with the pollution and sickness. Canadian government officials repeatedly deny that there is a cancer problem there, despite the lack of comprehensive health data. That has caused the First Nations groups there to distrust their assessments, and refuse any government-funded studies. In addition, filing legal protests of tar sands development is costly and time-consuming, so First Nations groups settle for “impact benefit agreements” with oil companies that require funding of community projects.

Steyer held numerous closed-press meetings with leaders of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) while in Alberta, presumably to talk about causes he could fund. He confirmed that the subjects of contributing to an independent health study and to the ACFN’s legal defense fund came up in those meetings, though he would not say what, if anything, he would ultimately support.

“I think we’ll go back and determine exactly what could be done,” Steyer said. “We want to have the most impact as possible.”

But the purpose of the trip was not just to consider funding the First Nations. It was also to bolster the activities of NextGen. Through NextGen, Steyer has pledged to raise $100 million to elect and protect lawmakers who, among other things, oppose the Keystone XL pipeline’s construction.

A two-man digital team from NextGen documented Steyer’s every move, explaining that they wanted to showcase tar sands’ impacts from an emotional perspective, honing in on the destruction of land and decimation of aboriginal culture. NextGen’s site has already published a blog post from Steyer about the trip.

An aerial view of tar sands mining, which is affecting Fort Chipewyan 150 miles away.

An aerial view of tar sands mining, which is affecting Fort Chipewyan 150 miles away.

CREDIT: Josh Burstein/NextGen Climate Action

Because he has been so outspoken about Keystone XL’s proposed construction, Steyer also said he came to Fort McMurray to see tar sands development for himself — to understand how it really works. He began his trip with a drive around what his itinerary named the “tar sands loop,” focused on a monstrous refinery operated by SynCrude Canada Ltd. He drove around huge frozen lakes of mining and refining byproducts — “tailings ponds” — distinguishable from regular lakes only by orange scarecrows that prevent animals from touching the waste. He was guided by ACFN Chief Allan Adam, and Calgary-based ecologist Petr Komers.

He then chartered an 8-seater Cessna to fly over numerous refineries and mining sites, while Chief Adam described what each one did. During the flight, the enormous white smokestacks from SynCrude’s refinery were ever-present, reminiscent of Mordor’s Mount Doom.

“I am legitimately up here to try and learn something, to get a better sense of the scope of the issues,” he said. “I think that understanding it better will let us do a better job. I don’t know exactly what the directly relevant point will be. But I would view it as, if you’re going to work on a problem, you should try and get a broad understanding of whats going on.”

What he ultimately took from the trip, he says, were a few things. First, pollution regulations in Canada are likely too lax, as evidenced by the unlined tailings ponds, stunning emissions, and pollution in Fort Chip. Second, the people in Fort Chip are “very formidable” in the face of that pollution. And third, that the amount of greenhouse gas emissions is not the only thing to consider when thinking about whether to condone tar sands extraction. President Obama, he said, might do well to consider that before approving the Keystone XL pipeline.

“If he wants to actually get [Keystone] in his heart and soul, he has to come to places like this, and he probably should come to this place,” he said. “If he wants to just answer the cold equation that he laid out [about greenhouse gases], he can do that anywhere he has a calculator. But the real question is, is this really something that’s going to be solved by calculators? Or is this really going to be solved by dedication to a value system?”

But like any trip abroad, Steyer took home more than just insights. As a gift from Chief Adam and the ACFN, he also took home a pair of handmade moccasins. They were, to his delight, beaded.