deeply, though, and you catch a whiff of fresh, hot tar. In the river,
fish are speckled with shiny, wart-like blisters. And in the tiny
Indian village of Fort Chipewyan, people are coming down with leukemia,
bile duct cancer and other diseases.
Those who aren't physically
sick are worried sick. Much of their unease is directed upstream at a
moonscape of strip mines, tailings ponds and clouds of dust and gases,
including climate-warming carbon dioxide.
Joseph Wandering Spirit says some of the fish he
nets have cysts and blisters. "The fish are sick," he says. He also
admits taking oil company payments. "I realize it may be wrong, but I
need the money." Tom Knudson /
What's being clawed from the earth there may surprise you. It's America's next tank of gas.
reserves of crude oil tighten and gas prices soar, the quest for a
backup energy source grows more heated. Already, a biofuels industry
based on corn is booming. There are dreams of adding switch grass and
wood chips to the mix, perhaps one day running cars on cleaner hydrogen.
northeast Alberta, though, the race for a stand-in fuel is taking a
U-turn, one in which fleets of dinosaur-sized trucks and shovels larger
than two-car garages are tearing apart a rich mosaic of woods and
wetlands to extract some of the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet –
more than two-thirds of which is exported to the United States to be
refined into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.
All new fuels pose
environmental challenges, but Alberta's proxy petroleum is filled with
them, from the destruction of migratory waterfowl habitat to rising
greenhouse gas emissions and growing concerns about pollution and
Last month, a new report catalogued industrial
contaminants – from arsenic to mercury to polycyclic aromatic
hydrocarbons – downstream of the digging zone and concluded that more
independent scientific inquiry is urgent.
Jim Law, the spokesman
for Alberta's minister of the environment, disputed the report's
conclusions, saying, "The development of the oil sands does not proceed
at the expense of the environment." But Kevin Timoney, an Alberta
ecologist and the report's author, disagreed.
are already at levels sufficient to cause harm, (and) levels are
increasing in concentration," Timoney said. "There is no logical
explanation … other than industry activity."
The new Persian Gulf
stockpile of energy under Alberta's swampy woodlands, an estimated 175
billion barrels of oil, is the largest reserve in the Western
Hemisphere and the second largest on Earth, behind Saudi Arabia.
oil doesn't slosh into a barrel like conventional petroleum. It clings
to dark, gooey layers of sand and clay that look like cookie dough when
dug out of the ground. Alberta's oil isn't really oil at all, but
bitumen, used for canoe patching by early fur traders and more recently
for road sealing and paving.
Coaxing bitumen out of sand and clay
and upgrading it into synthetic petroleum is so costly and
energy-intensive that for years most companies ignored the region.
crude oil prices climbed over $50 back in 2004, however, companies
began rushing to Alberta as if it were a new Persian Gulf. Today, that
rush is a stampede.
The road from Edmonton to Fort McMurray – the
frontier outpost where the digging starts – thunders with big-rig
trucks hauling mining gear. In town, dollars flow so freely some call
the place Fort McMoney. Near the airport, a billboard barks out the
bonanza spirit: "We have the energy," it says.
tar sands oil field produces 1.3 million barrels a day, three times
more than Alaska's Prudhoe Bay. By 2016, daily output is expected to
rise to 3 million barrels, exceeding the oil production of Venezuela.
of companies are active in the area, from U.S.-based Chevron and
ConocoPhillips to homegrown Petro-Canada. This year, projects,
expansions and acquisitions totaling more than $50 billion have been
From the air, the footprint of development reveals
itself in a tick-tack-toe grid of oil service roads slicing into wild
country, in the silver glint of pipelines and heavy equipment.
On the ground, a sign at one of the oldest operations,
Syncrude-Canada's Mildred Lake mine north of Fort McMurray, assures
visitors that there is nothing modest about the place.
operations began in 1978, we've moved over 1.4 billion tons of
overburden," the sign reads, referring to the rock and soil over
bitumen deposits. "This is more dirt than was moved for the Great Wall
of China, the Suez Canal, the Great Pyramid of Cheops and the 10
largest dams in the world, combined!"
The disturbance is so
extensive that the United Nations Environment Program has placed
Alberta's tar sands oil field on its list of 100 hot spots of
environmental change, a roster that includes the Yangtze River Valley,
drowned by China's Three Gorges Dam.
Critics say operations like the Mildred Lake mine,
pictured, send industrial contaminants downstream, threatening wildlife
and human health. But the booster spirit rules in nearby Fort McMurray,
where petrodollars flow so freely that some call it Fort McMoney. Tom Knudson /
In coming years, oil development is expected to spider-web across a
landscape more than three times as large as Lake Tahoe, making the
Alberta oil field the largest industrial zone on Earth. Wetlands vital
to migratory ducks and geese, trails worn smooth by centuries of wood
buffalo and wilderness ponds where loons lift their crazy laughs will
"There is nothing on this planet that compares with the
destruction going on there," said David Schindler, an ecology professor
at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. "If there were a global prize
for unsustainable development, the oil sands would be the clear winner."
officials say they are working to resolve the problems, including
reducing the climate-warming greenhouse gases emitted in upgrading
bitumen into refinery-ready crude oil.
"It's heavy oil; it does
generate more carbon dioxide in the refining process than light oil,"
said Greg Stringham, vice president of markets for the Canadian
Association of Petroleum Producers. "But there are significant
mitigative measures that can be taken."
One company has found a
way to use cooler water in upgrading, consuming less energy – and
emitting less carbon dioxide, Stringham said. Others are pursuing ways
to capture CO 2 and store it underground.
though, expect such gains to be outpaced by the rapid clip of
expansion. "While they say they are bending the curve a little bit in
terms of where emissions are going, they are not achieving a real
reduction," said Nashina Shariff, associate director of the Toxics
Watch Society of Alberta.
Among industry observers, some are skeptical.
put it all together and you say this isn't a solution, this is a
problem," said Matthew Simmons, chairman of Simmons & Company
International, an investment bank in Houston that specializes in energy
research and trading.
Native people feel the pain
For local residents, the impact can be very personal.
can hear it in the trembling of Frank Marcel's voice as he leans on a
walker outside The Northern – the only grocery store in Fort Chipewyan,
100 miles north of Fort McMurray – and talks about fear in the
"Before the oil companies, everybody was
out on the land, fishing and trapping," he said. "Today, we're even
scared to eat a moose.
"People used to die of old age. This generation now, everybody seems to die of cancer."
can see it in the pained expression on Celina Harpe's face as she
describes the drum-like migraines that hold her hostage when fumes from
the tar sands blow through Fort MacKay, a native village virtually
surrounded by tar sands operations.
"One whiff of it and your
head just starts to pound," said Harpe, a retired community health
nurse. "It's so strong we have to close the doors and windows."
You can sense it in the frustration of biology professor Suzanne Bayley with the U.S. motorists who are fueling the boom.
bugs us the most is Americans are not really even attempting to
conserve," said Bayley, who teaches at the University of Alberta,
Edmonton. "Why should we destroy our environment for a thousand years
for people who are on a binge?"
With 5 percent of the world's
people, the United States burns 44 percent of the world's gasoline,
according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. No nation
plays a bigger role in keeping America on the road than Canada, which
exports around 2.2 million barrels of oil a day to the United States,
roughly a third of it from Alberta's tar sands.
About the writer:
- Call The Bee's Tom Knudson, (530) 582-5336. Travel and research
for this story were underwritten by a grant from the Alicia Patterson
Foundation in Washington, D.C.