Tar-sands trouble in Northern Alberta

How the tar-sands boom is quickly but quietly ripping up the forest and turning Northern Alberta into a global environmental hotspot

The road to Fort McMurray, Alberta, formally begins about 200 kilometres north of Edmonton, just past the busy Al Pac pulp mill and a small village called Amber Valley. Until 1970, Highway 63 didn’t even appear on a map. Since then the 240-kilometre-long, two-lane road has become the critical artery in and out of Canada’s fastest-growing city. Drivers in the know call it Hell’s Highway or the Highway of Death.

I have to admit that Highway 63 is probably one of the worst roads I’ve ever travelled. On any given day, thousands of logging trucks, SUVs, semi-trailers, buses and tanker trucks form a frantic parade to and from the mighty tar sands. Often a dozen different convoys of extra-wide loads carrying tires, turbines and cokers the size of houses completely dominate the highway. In fact, Highway 63 probably ferries the highest tonnage per kilometre of any road in Canada.

All of this heavy traffic encourages a certain do-or-die recklessness, particularly in the absence of any RCMP patrols. Drivers not only pass on solid lines on hills but also pass on soft shoulders at speeds that might alarm race-car professionals. (I’m told speeding tickets average 180 kilometres an hour.) If a wide load carrying tar-sands equipment blocks the view, an impatient driver typically swings onto the shoulder to catch a glimpse of what’s ahead and then darts out into the passing lane like a bat out of hell. Thursdays and Sundays are the worst. That’s when the shifts change at the mines and thousands of workers take to the road to return to their families and girlfriends in Edmonton. Many are tired, and some are pissed to the gills. A lot of people won’t drive those days because they don’t want to become another little white roadside cross, decorated with a hard hat or an overstuffed teddy bear.

The carnage here can be pretty graphic. In one notorious accident, a logging truck clipped the back of a parked flatbed trailer. The collision pitched the truck’s logs missile-like into an oncoming minivan containing two tar-sands workers. Trees and metal crushed both the 62-year-old driver and his 37-year-old passenger.

I begin with this lengthy road report only because, in retrospect, my drive to Fort McMurray seemed like the perfect introduction to a place that is fast becoming hell on earth and Canada’s most extreme destination.

Wildlife biologists say the tar sands will do in 50 years what a glacial advance might do in 100,000 years

By now, every Canadian has heard stories about the incredible tar-sands boom in Northern Alberta’s boreal forest. Experts predict that in the next decade, multinational oil companies will spend $125-billion to mine an area the size of Florida in order to exploit the vast reserves of bitumen. Less well-known are the environmental costs that have led the United Nations to describe the world’s second-largest oil reserve as one of the planet’s central “environmental hot spots.” Wildlife biologists say the tar sands will do in 50 years what a glacial advance might do in 100,000 years: completely uproot the forest.

Bitumen, which helped glue the Tower of Babel together, is easily the world’s foulest fossil fuel. It’s a mess of heavy tar trapped in sand and clay that requires Herculean engineering efforts to upgrade into oil. “You know you are at the bottom of the ninth when you are schlepping a tonne of sand to get a barrel of oil,” notes CIBC chief economist Jeff Rubin. The schlepping takes place in one of two ways. Companies either attack shallow deposits with huge Appalachian-size open pit mines or they drill deeper deposits with in situ (in place) technologies. In situ mining usually involves injecting superheated volumes of chemicals or steam into bitumen in order to melt it.

The open pit mines, essentially truck and shovel operations, will soon occupy 3,300 kilometres of forest. To extract just one barrel of oil from an open pit mine requires draining muskegs and fens, cutting down trees, rolling up the soil, and then digging up and washing two tonnes of sand in hot water. This costly process plus upgrading requires approximately $100,000 worth of infrastructure to produce oil at a rate of a barrel a day, and currently consumes enough natural gas to keep three million Canadian homes warm daily. Within a decade the tar sands could consume nearly a fifth of Canada’s natural gas supply. Even oil analysts consider the use of a clean fuel to make a dirty one poor alchemy: it’s “turning gold into lead.”

The in situ operations, which lie under 21 per cent of Alberta, are just as ugly. Although still in their infancy, in situ projects could industrialize 14 million hectares of forest with thousands of well sites and require the construction of 30,000 kilometres of access roads. In situ mining, then, has the potential to make a country-sized footprint on the land the size of, say, Greece, Nepal or Bangladesh. Compared to the open pit mines, in situ also uses nearly twice as much natural gas and spews nearly twice as much carbon per barrel as the open pit mines. (It’s a groundwater hog too, but the federal government has ignored this vital issue for years.)

The tar sands are now Canada’s single greatest weather maker

All in all, the tar sands are now Canada’s single greatest weather maker and single largest source of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. You just can’t mine a third-rate resource like bitumen without creating up to three times more carbon than conventional crude. So Canadian engineers have performed a dubious miracle in the tar sands: they have found a way to make oil as carbon-intensive as coal.

For nearly a century, the Alberta government has dreamed about getting rich from all the bitumen under its northern forest. (The feds in fact rake in even more money than Alberta.) In the 1960s, the province actually considered nuking the area to melt the oil out of the sand, but U.S. interests killed the idea. Timing, however, is everything in the oil business. Huge trucks the size of dinosaurs, low royalty rates and record oil prices have managed to do the same work as a nuclear bomb in just one decade. Nearly 60 per cent of the world’s oil investments now fuel frantic activity in the tar sands. As a consequence, upgraded bitumen currently fills up 50 per cent of Canadian gas tanks and supplies 10 per cent of North America’s oil. If the prime minister were to shut down production today, half of all Canadian vehicles would run out of gas. So this story is really about the hidden sacrifices being made in the Alberta bush so that all of us can continue the illusion of business as usual.

Fort McMurray, once the centre of the fur trade, sits at the confluence of two beautiful rivers: the Athabasca and the Clearwater. Last October, the rivers’ tamarack-lined banks glowed yellow as I drove down Beacon Hill into a postmodern corporate city that is home to 80,000 tar-sands miners, truckers, businessmen and assorted service workers from 70 countries. Most of the people don’t live by the water but in trailer parks or sprawling upland suburbs that oddly look like transplanted Calgary neighbourhoods. Here at the latitude of Ungava Bay, the traffic zooms by frantically. Everybody I talked to called it “overwhelming.”

My first stop in Fort McMurray was at the tourist information office where I learned that the town’s motto is “We have the energy.” The women operating the place bubbled with information, and said the most common question is, “Where do I apply for a job?” (The average tar-sands salary in Fort McMurray is a whopping $93,000.) Every day the visitors’ booth gets calls from people as far away as Germany, Brazil and Norway looking for work.

Given that each open pit mine occupies an area between 150 and 200 square kilometres in size, I thought I might need a map, so I popped into the offices of the Energy and Utility Board (EUB), Alberta’s energy regulator. The secretary, a pleasant émigré from Newfoundland, looked at me as though I had just asked her to take off her clothes. She said she didn’t know if they had any maps. She disappeared for a moment and came back with a black-and-white photocopy that didn’t even identify half the projects. I eventually bought one for $100 from a surveying company. On the frontier of the world’s largest capital project, free enterprise draws the maps.

According to its mandate, the Calgary-based EUB is supposed to be responsible for the “orderly, efficient and economic development in the public interest of the oil-sands resources of Alberta.” Yet it didn’t open an office in Fort McMurray until 2003. It now regulates 52 separate projects worth $90-billion with 20 employees on site. To date, the board has approved every company with a multi-billion-dollar project, regardless of its impact. Even objections by the mayor, medical staff or Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo can’t stop a mine.

After visiting with small businessmen and trailer park residents who called the tar sands “crazy-it’s something you have to see to believe,” I got in touch with Ruth Kleinbub-a well-known local environmentalist-and her husband Grant. (Environmentalists in Fort McMurray, a 24-hour-shift town, are as rare as albino buffalo.) The Kleinbubs can remember a time when Fort McMurray didn’t just run on bitumen and money. After moving to the area in 1981, the Ontario couple raised four children on the banks of the Clearwater River in an old community called Waterways. Their neighbour, a trapper, taught the kids how to hunt rabbit and weasel. The odd wolf often loped by, as did a mother bear. “You’d always see wildlife on your way to work,” recalled Grant, a welder. But that part of Fort McMurray is gone, he said. “McMurray was a northern community then and now it’s a city with southern ambitions.”

It’s also a city with southern problems. Mega problems. After six years of explosive growth in which the town’s population nearly doubled, the city waste water plant requires a $160-million upgrade. Garbage plugs the landfill site. The city has Canada’s highest rents and as many as nine people share an apartment. Service at most stores is stretched due to intense competition for skilled and unskilled labour. Compared to the rest of Alberta, Fort McMurray has 89 per cent more assaults, 215 per cent more drug offences and 117 per cent more impaired driving cases. To service more than 10,000 single men in work camps, the city boasts a thriving army of prostitutes and healthy STD rates. And thanks to chronic health-care shortages, Fort McMurray now has the dubious distinction of having the highest number of patients per family physician in the country: 4,500. Fort McMurray is Canada’s worst urban nightmare on steroids.

When I asked Ruth Kleinbub what she worries about most, her answer was short: “The land, water and air. Everything.”