The government has exempted the oil industry from policies designed to protect wetlands, and it did not penalize the industry when it failed to meet environmental standards for its tailing ponds, according to government reports. Thousands of permits for oil sands extraction were issued last year, but only seven public hearings have been held.
Cal Dallas, Alberta's minister of international and intergovernmental relations in Edmonton, the provincial capital, insisted that oversight is strong. "No one cares about the environment of our province more than the people who live there," he said in an email.
"When we believe our strict environmental standards have been broken," Dallas said, "we hold operators accountable through a variety of compliance actions."
There were about 4,000 possible violations of environmental regulations from 1996 to 2012 related to oil sands extraction; Alberta authorities took enforcement actions in 37 cases, according to a July report, based on provincial records, by the environmental groups Treeline Ecological Research and Global Forest Watch Canada.
Yet with jobs scarce, some indigenous groups have made their peace with industry and the government.
The village at Fort MacKay, 100 miles upstream from Fort Chipewyan, is surrounded by mines and tailing ponds, with more on the way. For years, residents fought each oil sands project, and lost. But by the 1990s, they began to work with the industry to have a say in its expansion.
"It's like sleeping next to a huge elephant," said Jim Boucher, chief of the 560-person Fort McKay First Nation. "At the end of the day, we have to make the best of it."
When the wind blows from the south, Fort MacKay smells of tar. But the village has reaped millions of dollars and is building a new youth center, church and amphitheater. Subdivisions are being built in the hills above the village; the driveways hold Cadillac Escalades and the backyards tepees.
In Fort Chipewyan, where a youth center downtown is named for the oil company Syncrude, there is fear about the effect of oil sands development and resignation about its inevitability.
Alice Rigney, 62, a lifelong resident, wonders whether her breast cancer a few years ago was related to mining pollutants, and she'd like to see the waste ponds cleaned up. But the semi-retired teacher of the Dene language says she's also realistic: The wages the oil company is offering are too good for Canadians to turn down.
"I don't think we can win. I don't even know what winning looks like," Rigney said. As she spoke, she looked out her kitchen window where whitecaps had formed on the lake. "This oil is just too important for the rest of Canada."