Saturday, January 12, 2008

Canada's oil sands - "There is nothing on this planet that compares with the destruction going on there".

FORT CHIPEWYAN, Alberta — Like a great silver snake, the Athabasca River glides though a spongy-wet wilderness of spindly forests, lakes and marshes 650 miles north of the U.S.-Canada border.

Breathe 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.

What’s being clawed from the earth there may surprise you. It’s America’s next tank of gas.

As 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, and perhaps one day running cars on cleaner hydrogen.

In 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 creating many, from the destruction of migratory waterfowl habitat to rising greenhouse gas emissions and growing concerns about pollution and cancer.

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.

“These compounds 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 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.

This 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.

When 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.

Already, Alberta’s 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.

Scores 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 announced.

From the air, the footprint of development reveals itself in a tic-tac-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.

“Since 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.

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 be lost.

“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.”


You can sense it in the frustration of biology professor Suzanne Bayley with the U.S. motorists who are fueling the boom.

“What 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.

Here is the full article.