HIGHWAY TO HELL: Big Oil's threat to salmon


loggingtruck.tarsands The Columbia and Snake Rivers are slated to be the conveyor belt for one of the world's largest intentional environmental disasters.

The mighty Columbia-Snake watershed is facing another huge challenge. An oil company focused on profits and a government failing its duties to people has reared a new threat to wild salmon and local communities. It comes in two parts – development of the Canadian oil sands beneath the boreal forests of northern Alberta, and Exxon's surprise plan to use the Columbia and Snake Rivers, plus Idaho and Montana highways, to ship huge mining machinery to those oil sands.



Canadian oil sands development is one of the largest, most destructive industrial projects on earth. Millions of acres of northern boreal forest is being strip-mined for bitumen that holds oil in a solid form. The oil is cooked out through a process that uses water equivalent to a city of roughly 2 million people. Toxic wastewater leaks directly into the environment at a rate of over 2.8 million gallons a day. The oil is then shipped in a continent-wide network of pipelines and tanker ports into the global oil market. Some of this vast web is in place; the rest is being built as fast as Canadian and American governments issue permits. Once at full scale, the development and its tentacles will operate for nearly half a century.

Along with its direct damage to lands, waters, fish and wildlife, traditional ways and nature-based economies, the oil sands (also called tar sands) is one of the single largest contributors on earth to climate disruption. As NASA climate scientist James Hansen says, "the tar sands constitute one of our planet's greatest threats. They are a double-barreled threat. First, producing oil from tar sands emits two to three times the global warming pollution of conventional oil. But [it] also diminishes one of the best carbon reduction tools on the planet: Canada's Boreal Forest."

gp.before.after2That double-barreled harm hits wild salmon. Damage to salmon and steelhead habitats, fresh and salt, caused by climate change is now occurring, more is already inevitable, and many of the salmon affected are already endangered. Which means wild salmon need the carbon-storing boreal forest, and don't need oil whose burning will do three times worse harm to waters than past oil burning.

One of the pipelines nearing approval, the Northern Gateway pipeline to the British Columbia coast, will also harm salmon the old-fashioned way. It crosses and will degrade important salmon habitats, and oil tanker traffic to come in its wake threatens salmon ecosystems all along the coast. Defending salmon habitats and economies is one reason Canadian First Nations, fishermen, and conservationists are fighting this pipeline.


logging.truckNow another tentacle of the oil sands is poised for the Columbia Basin. This fall, Exxon plans to start shipping huge pieces of Korean-made mining machinery – two-thirds the length of a football field, three stories high, weighing up to 344,000 pounds – to the tar sands. Rather than use an established route through the Panama Canal, then north on designated "high and wide corridor" roads from Texas, Exxon is near gaining federal and state access to a new route: up the Columbia and Snake Rivers by barge to Lewiston, Idaho, then up the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway through wild areas along the Lochsa River in Idaho, then across 350 miles of Montana to Canada. The sole purpose of this new route appears to be to increase Exxon's profits.

The Lochsa River's endangered salmon and steelhead will be further risked by this project. Highway 12 snakes up the Lochsa along the Lewis & Clark Trail in a National Wild and Scenic River corridor. Any accident will damage salmon habitats when the machinery falls into the river, and damage them more with the excavation and grading needed to get such huge stuff out of the river. The Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee has voted to oppose the project for this and other reasons.lochsa1

It appears from the sparse public record that this will be a permanent industrial corridor to the tar sands for decades (Exxon is providing little information, and the government less.) Which means the harms to Columbia/Snake salmon will occur for decades. 

There is a last harm. Salmon mean health for watersheds and people. When salmon are endangered, the bonds among salmon, people, and the waters we both inhabit begin to fray in a cycle hard to reverse. This conjunction of massive oil development in Canada, global climate disruption, and an industrial corridor on the Columbia and Snake to enable both, will further that fraying, diminishing salmon and people, now and to come.

From Pat Ford, exceutive director for Save Our Wild Salmon:

Save Our wild Salmon opposes Exxon's shipments because of harm and risks:
- to endangered salmon in the Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers, and thus to fishermen and fishing businesses;
- to British Columbia salmon threatened by the pipelines and tanker traffic Exxon's shipments will abet; and,
- to all salmon and salmon waters, as the huge amounts of carbon that tar sands mining and milling are adding to our atmosphere further heat up the waters that salmon (and people) use.

Northwest people, businesses, and towns are working hard to build clean energy, and reduce our carbon footprints for our good and for our planet's. In a matter of months, tar sands mining will eat up all the carbon we've saved. Our air, water and future are already in the oven. Now Exxon wants to use our rivers and roads so it can make billions while locking the oven door and turning up the heat.

It does not appear the U.S. Congress will tackle our energy and climate crisis anytime soon. People must succeed where the government has failed. One thing Northwest people can do is say NO to Exxon, say no to making our rivers and roads a conveyor belt for the dirtiest oil project on earth. We urge elected leaders in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana to join in saying no to Exxon.

As I write, Columbia River water temperatures are 72 degrees at Bonneville Dam, and Snake River temperatures are 70 degrees at Ice Harbor Dam. How much hotter do we want our rivers and streams to get?


Take Action: Contact Secretary Ray LaHood, Secretary Nancy Sutley, and members of Congress here.

Share with your network: Please forward this link – http://www.wildsalmon.org/tarsands to your friends and family.  Urge them to take action.


Good citizen website. Chronicles work by people who live along and use the Lochsa River who suddenly find this project bearing down on them.

Pembina Institute in Vancouver has a website on the tar sands and its effects along the British Columbia coast.

U.S. effects of the tar sands (though so far without mention of Exxon's proposal) are featured on a joint website of some national conservation groups.

A link for the Declaration against the oil sands and Gateway Pipeline by nine First Nations on the British Columbia coast.

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