Alberta’s Nefarious Tar Sands
After I got arrested in Bohemian Grove (all for a good cause : the piece I wrote for Vanity Fair– see Dispatch #57, “Bohemian Tragedy”– helped stopped the Bohemian Grove Club’s clandestine logging of its magnificent redwoods) the fam and drove up the coast to Vancouver and from there over the glorious Canadian Rockies to Calgary, where my wife’s brother Alpha, who works for Canadian Pacific Railways keeping the tracks in repair lives, and I flew up to Fort McMurray, the hub of Alberta’s tar sands. It was July, 2008. The price of oil was $140 a barrel– its highest ever. The sands were booming, and Canada was beginning to flex its muscles as an emerging global superpower, no longer a second-tier backwater. Two months later, the recession hit, and the oil and real estate bubbles popped. A lot has happened since I wrote this. Dr. John O’Connor, who became a good friend over the phone– he was practicing in Newfoundland because the Alberta College of Physicians, doing the bidding of Big Oil, had disgracefully revoked his license for reporting the rare cancers that were appearing upstream from the sands among the native people of Fort Chipweyan– has been vindicated and is now back at work in the community he loves and is devoted to. Kevin Timoney showed in a series of scientific studies that carcinogenic toxins from the tailing ponds were in fact seeping into the Athabasca River, which the oil scientists were doing everything they could to discredit. Over the last year, the sands have recovered some of their momentum. The Chinese government bought one of the operations, after a vigorous debate in Ottawa about whether Canada should be selling its resources to the government of another country. But getting the heavy crude to the Pacific so it can be sold to China and the rest of Asia is facing a huge battle by the first nations in the path of the proposed pipeline and by environmentalists. The Keystone pipeline to Houston was nixed by Obama after a mighty protest in front of the White House led by Bill McKibben. With hydrofracking freeing up a lot of shale gas in the U.S. (and causing growing concern about the earthquakes and other impacts it is causing), the U.S. is not so eager to get more of the sands’ “dirty oil,” at least while Obama is president. Plus there is a lot of new gas coming on line in Canada. But the sands and its problems, which the oil companies and the Alberta government are beginning to face, and which this piece lays out, are not going away.
Greenpeace Does An Action At Tailings Pond 2
July, 2008. Two months before the meltdown.
Through the windows of our chopper, an emerald-green
Bell Lone Ranger, my burning eyes take in what is either– depending how you look at it– the greatest horror show on earth, or the pillar of America’s energy security and the key to Canada’s emergence as a superpower, : the tar, or oil, sands of northern Alberta. In the last ten years this 140,000-square-mile larger than Florida or England deposit of bitumen, a viscous, tar-like goo which yields a heavy synthetic crude, has spawned the largest, most heavily capitalized ($200 billion so far), most toxic, polluting, expensive, energy-intensive, water-consuming, greenhouse-gas-emitting industrial activity on the planet.
There are 2,800 lease agreements covering almost a third of the reserve, and big plans to expand from 8 to 23 plants and crank up production fivefold by 2020.
Everybody and his mother are here : Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell (one third of its world-wide oil reserves are here), British Petroleum, the French giant Total, the Chinese have a share in a small operation, but just makes the U.S. nervous, even environmentally conscience-stricken Norway’s Stattoil has just negotiated a lease and is planning to build a $16 billion extractor. They have no choice. It’s the only game in town for the private companies, with conventional oil sources running out everywhere and 90% of the world’s reserves nationalized. 60% of the world investment in oil is here. $200 billion so far has been sunk into making this work. 151 financial institutions in 18 countries are providing loans, owning, managing or issuing new shares in the oil patch, as Albertans fondly call their $1.5-trillion-dollar asset. With the price of crude at a historical high of $147 a barrel, the place is booming. This is the second largest oil field in the world, after Saudi Arabia, and though only one in five Americans realize it, Canada, not the Middle East, is our biggest foreign oil supplier, and more than half of it, 1.3 barrels a day– 17% of our entire daily infusion, including from domestic sources– is coming from here. With an estimated 1.7 to 2.5 trillion barrels, there’s potentially enough to keep up the present rate of production for 450 years, although at the current state of the extraction technology, only 173 million barrels are recoverable.
At this point less than one percent of the deposit has been gotten to. The assault is still in its early stages, but the scale of the devastation is already apocalyptic. It’s been called a Gigaproject, Mordor of the North, and (by the New Yorker’s Virginia Kolbert) Brobdinagian (although
the number of readers who know what that word means is Lilliputian). It’s a literally nauseating spectacle. Fumes from the stacks of phantasmagoric Boschian (if I may cut loose with a few big words myself) extractor and upgrader plants are seeping into the cabin of the chopper, along with VOC’s or volatile organic compounds, evaporating in the summer heat off the dozen tailings ponds, with fifty square kilometers of surface. 100 tonnes of the carcinogenic VOC benzyne a year alone, and the ponds are only responsible for two of at least a dozen types of pollution, most of them hidden like underground pipes leaking or outgasing from 90-ton hydraulic shovels ripping into the tarsand walls. That’s why this is called “dirty oil.”
Thanks this abomination or godsend (I’m not supposed to influence you one way or the other), Canada’s carbon emissions have risen 22% since l992. It has become the fastest-rising emitter in the developed world, so there’s no way it can meet its Kyoto commitment to reduce its emissions to 6% below its l990 level between 2008-2011.
At this point, Canada is on track to miss its target by 30%. The conservative government in Ottawa, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the son of an Imperial Oil executive, and a native Albertan, is now trying to revise its commitment to bringing Canada’s emissions down to 2006 levels by 2020. The media is reporting from enviro sources that Harper is trying to get an exemption for the sands, so that its emissions won’t even be counted in the new North American inventory that is going to have to be done if there is going to be a cap and trade system that will get both countries carbon footprints under control, but his people deny it. “Canada used to be up there with the greenest countries,” laments Jessica Wilson, a spunky 27year old Greenpeace activist sitting next to me. “Now we’re the climate assholes of the world.”
We’re over one of Syncrude’s big pits now. A joint venture between Canadian Oil Sands, Imperial Oil (wich is a sbusdiary of Exxon Mobil), Petrocanada, Conoco-Phillips, Murphy, and three other oil companies, Syncrude has been operating since 1978 and is the biggest player in the sands. Last year it produced 105.8 million barrels, and it’s sitting on 12.7 billion, so it’s here for the long haul. What it, and the other, older operations do, is basically a form of strip-mining. First the vegetation and the soil– tellingly referred to by the industry as “overburden,” the annoying surface stuff standing between you and the paydirt– is scraped off. The trees are trucked to a pulp mill up the Athabasca River, which runs through the middle of Syncrude’s 285,000-acre lease. The rest is pushed up into windrows and burned during the winter, or pushed back into the spent pits, step one of the “reclamation” process.
The pit is like a gigantic sandbox. Hydraulic shovels on huge treds, costing $12- 13 million apiece, are shearing off its dirty grey walls in benches with their 90-ton buckets and dumping them into waiting lines of 440-ton heavy loaders. From here the trucks– orange Caterpillars and yellow Komatsus– look like dinky toys, but each of their tires is 3.4 meters high and costs sixty grand. 150 feet down the machines hit the black, bitumen-soaked sand, which a procession of heavy loaders, like a file of busy ants, is taking to the extractor plant, a pollution-oozing complex of vats and pipes and stacks at Syncrude’s Mildred Lake Facility across the river. There they dump the sand on to a conveyor belt, which feeds into the separation vessels– basically gigantic steam-heated washing machines, which separate the bitumen from the sand. Each grain of quartz is coated with a sticky film of tar, like an m and m. The bitumen rises to the surface as a buoyant froth, which is skimmed off and fed into the adjacent upgrader, where in a series of processes that took decades to figure out, and are still being refined, its complex chain of hydrocarbons is broken down and reorganized, hydrogen is added, carbon is extracted in the form of coke, and it is turned into synthetic crude. The residue, a sludgy mix of sand, clay, water, heavy metals, napthenic acids, polycyclical aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) and other carcinogenic, mutagenic, and embryogenic substances, is piped to various tailings ponds on the property.
Only Syncrude and a few other operations have on-premises upgraders. The rest have to pipe their extracted bitumen (which is too viscous to move through pipes on its own, so it has to be cut with diluent– either liquified natural gas piped from Alberta’s gas fields or with light crude brought up by rail from the States) to Upgrader Alley in Edmonton, 300 miles so south, or to Sarnia, an even more vast, pollution-oozing petrocomplex in Ontario, or directly to the States, where it is not only upgraded, but refined, in petrohubs like Cushing, Oklahoma and Houston. Synthentic crude still has to be refined, and there being only refineries in Canada, most of this is done in the U.S., which has 24, so Canada is not getting the profit from this secondary, value-added manufacturing process, which it is not happy about. Not only most of the oil, but most of the profit from mining the oil patch– typically of Canada’s resources– flows south, into the big Texan max of Big Oil.
700,000 miles of pipeline are moving diluted bitumen or synthetic crude from here all over the continent. Syncrude’s stacks alone are emitting 260 tons of sulphur a day, contributing to the stinky brown pall of pollution that drifts east into Saskatchewan and is precipitated as acid rain hundreds of miles away.
I should explain that while oil sands and tar sands are synonymous, the synonyms are bitterly politicized. Which term you use immediately identifies which side you are on. The industry calls them the oil sands, and the enviros and independent scientists (not in the employ of the province or the industry) call them the tar sands. I’ve been angrily corrected by both sides. So I’ve decided in this piece, in the spirit of the new frugality and of keeping up at least a veneer of objectivity (and lowercasing in deference to the late Las Vegas casino resort) to just call them the sands.
We are looking for Tailings Pond 2 of Syncrude’s Aurora North site, which five hundreds migrating ducks made the fatal mistake of landing on last April 27. Only one survived. Ten thousand waterfowl a year are estimated to be killed in the tailings ponds. In most cases the sludge quickly waterlogs their feathers, and they just sink. The sands are on a major intercontinental flyway. A hundred thousand birds can pass through in a single day. The oil companies are suppose to have propane cannons installed at the tailings ponds, and big metal scarecrows called Bit-U-Men bobbing in the sludge to deter them from landing, but Syncrude’s spokesman explained that a freak spring snowstorm had prevented their activation at Tailings Pond 2.
A concerned citizen had reported this sickening incident to Alberta Environment’s hot-line. Greenpeace, which had been looking for something that would encapsulate and draw world attention to the horror of what is going on in the sands, had found about it, and faster than you can type www, the story had traveled around the world. I remember my stomach turning when I read about it in the Montreal Gazette. Syncrude and the Alberta government, which had been trying to sell the world on the industry’s new eco-friendliness, suddenly had a public relations Chernobyl on their hands. The image of Canada itself, of Canada the good, green and environmentally reponsible, was tarnished. Even Prime Minister Harper was forced to say, “we can do better than that. This should not be happening.”
Alain Moore, Syncrude’s p.r. man, must have received hundred of media inquiries but still, three months later, he was unable to tell me what species of birds they were. Tundra swans, sandhill cranes, and the last few hundred wild whooping cranes on earth pass through the sands twice a year. The whoopers nest in the Athabasca delta, 150 miles north. “Shows you how much of a fuck they give about the ducks, eh ?” I said to Jessica, using the intensive postpositive particle Canadians are so fond . Most of the birds were mallards, which I suppose we should we grateful for, but there were some buffleheads, and a few loons., which anybody who has ever heard them knows, are fantastic creatures.
Syncrude’s reaction was to tighten security around the
pond. It was liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars of provincial and federal fines, but Alberta Environment, the provincial agency responsible for levying them, was dragging its feet. Andrew Nikiforuk, the Calgary-based author of Tar Sands : Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, one of several good books about the debacle, told me the Alberta government is a “classic petrostate. Thirty percent of the province’s revenue comes from natural gas and the tar sands. The same party has been in power for 30 years. It’s like Mexico’s lengthy rule by PRI.” So it has been turning a blind eye to the impacts of the mining, to put it mildly, and Greenpeace decided to do an action at the pond, to remind everybody about the ducks, so their deaths weren’t in vain. Which is what Jessica and a video cameraman who is filmin git (his name is Gaia) are doing in the helicopter. I am just tagging along. The pilot thinks we are on some kind of a press junket and want to see the pond where the ducks were snuffed. He used to work for Syncrude, but now he finds what’s happening in the sands “vile and horrific.”
We get to the pond, which is three kilometers in circumference. Jessica texts frantically. Where are you ?I can can’t see you. Right next to the big pipe, comes the answer, and below us, beside a huge pipe that is spewing a steady gusher of puke-colored sludge into the pond, we can see four of Jessica’s confederates, who have snipped the chain at a gate and driven up to the pond and unfurled a large banner that says
NO MORE DIRTY OIL
STOP THE TAR SANDS.
We do several passes until Gaia says he has what he needs, and fly back to Fort MacMurray, the wild neoWestern boomtown that services the sands and its work force, Jessica rushes back to her hotel room to get the footage and the press release out to the media. It will in the evening news all over Canada. Syncrude will sue Greenpeace $150,000 for trespassing. And only the following February, nine months later, after being threatened with a lawsuit for failing to do its duty by a coalition of environmental groups, will Alberta Environment announce that charges will be filed against Syncrude. It could be fined $500,000 by the province for failing to provide appropriate deterrents to wildlife, and another $300,000 in federal fines for violating the clause in the international migratory bird convention that forbids putting harmful substances in water frequented by migratory birds. Some of Syncrude’s directors could even be looking at jail time. But the enviros and the press could not help noticing that this was one of a number of announcements by the province, all demonstrating a new seriousness about dealing with the environmental and social impacts of exploiting its asset, that came out the week before Obama was to visit Ottawa. During his campaign, Obama had expressed solidarity with the growing movement in the U.S., started by forty mayors and Governor Schwarzengger, to have nothing to do with dirty oil, especially from the sands. He called oil in general “a nineteenth-century fossil fuel that is dirty, dwindling, and dangerously expensive.”
At least the supporters and the detractors of developing the sands agree on one thing : those 500 dead ducks were a drop in the bucket. “There’s plenty more where they came from,” blogged one pro-sands duck hunter, pointing out that the North American duck population is at an all-time high of forty-two million. And a new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Calgary-based Pembina Institute,and the Boreal Songbird Initiative says that each summer between 22 million and 170 million birds breed in the 22 million acres of Boreal forest that could eventually be razed for its underlying bitumen. Among them are short-billed dowitchers and long-billed curlews, which winter in South America; evening grosbeaks, olive-sided flycatchers, red-necked phalaropes, Sprague’s pipits, cackling geese and greater white-fronted geese, and dozens of well-known, garden-variety species without which the web of life as we know it– the creation, if you believe that’s what this is– could not exist.
Not only all the big oil companies, but all the major environmental groups on both sides of the border have converged on this remote wilderness for a final, epic confrontation. “Either they clean it up, or shut it down,” Rick Smith, the director of the Toronto-based Environmental Defense, puts it bluntly, and Mike Hudema, the director of Greenpeace’s tar sands campaign, says even more caterogically that “there is no place for the tar sands in the new green economy.” “The tar sands are the line in the sand,” Elizabeth Barratt-Brown, a veteran of the Natural Resources Council (NRDC)’s Boreal campaigns, told me. “We have to do it right. If this thing is allowed to continue, if we put tar the size of Florida into the atmosphere, forget it : we’re over the cliff.” In February the NRDC declared the Athabasca-Peace delta one of its “biogems,” an area of special importance for the world’s biodiverisity that it is going to fight tooth and nail to protect. I’ve worked with the NRDC on some of their other biogems, and they mean business. They aren’t going away until the place is saved. The same day Alberta Energy issued a directive ordering the companies in the sands to cut their daily tailings production in half by 2012. Great news, if they do it, but the enviros’ reaction this was just more theatre for Obama. “They’ve said stuff like this in the past, and nothing happened,” one of them told me. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
The impression the flyover leaves me with is that this is clearly something that should not be happening, as Steven Harper said about the duck deaths. The whole thing is wrong. It’s like a heroine addict, in Al Gore’s arresting analogy, who can’t any veins left in his arms, so he’s looking for ones in his toes. What good is ripping open this teeming wilderness going to do for Alberta in the long run ? Its rivers, lakes, forest, people and wildlife will be poisoned for generations to come. A few Albertans will get very rich, Big Oil will continue to rake it in, the four percent of the world’s population that is consuming 25% of its fossil fuel and doing nothing to reduce its consumption, will get its daily fix. Is it worth the sacrifice, to keep dirty oil flowing to a fading empire, as Andre Nikiforuk puts it ? Even the local Roman Catholic bishop for the diocese of Wood Buffalo, which takes in most of the oil patch, Luc Bouchard, issued in January a pastoral letter questioning the “moral legitimacy” of the massive operations. “The Earth is a gift that undamaged, allows people to sense God’s existence. Therefore, even great financial gain does not justify serious harm to the environment.”
It probably is the greatest horror show on earth. If there were an international tribunal in the Hague that prosecutes crimes against the planet next to the one in the Hague where crimes against humanity are tried, and there should be the sands would on the top of the indictment list. So this is what America does to the world, I think to myself with shame and revulsion.
De Nile ain’t just a river in Egypt
I fly up to Fort Chipewyan, a mixed
community of 1200 native Albertans in the Athabasca Delta, 150 kilometers north. An unusual number of cancers, including six cases of a rare biliary-duct cancer whose normal incidence is 1 in 100,000, has been reported by its local doctor. The cancers are the type that are brought on by exposure carcinogens in the
environment, and the likeliest source of the carcinogens are the operations in the sands upstream (and south; the Athabasca, like half the rivers in Canada, flows north, eventually into the Arctic Ocean), which have been leaking and spilling and seeping arsenic, mercury, and PAH’s in to the Athabasca for years. But the industry doesn’t admit this. It has done its own scientific studies that show there are no contaminants whatsoever in the river or the delta from the tailings ponds or any oilsands operations. In response to the doctor’s report, five people in three government health agencies have filed a complaint against his license with the Alberta College of Physicians. He is accused of causing undue alarm, overbilling, blocking access to files, and five other things. It’s a real character assassination, and typical
corporate behavior, as I learned in Bohemian Grove. Its cheaper to smear the whistleblower than to address the problem. “That’s what they always do. Don’t take it personally, I will tell Doctor O’Connor.
From the higher elevation that the ten-passenger propeller plane is flying at, the damage seems more self-contained. In the distant east and west, the pits and ponds and pollution-oozing petroplants give way to the endless spruce, poplar, and larch, spongy muskeg, snaking rivers, and long, slender fingerlakes of the Boreal Forest– a dead-flat landscape, planed by glaciers, teeming with life and a crucial crucible of the world’s biodiverisity.
d, accelerated growth and reproduction schedules, activated by the brief summer light and warmth. Ed Stelmach, Alberta’s premier and one of the sands’ biggest boosters, is fond of pointing out that the sands coprise only .1 % of the Boreal. Maybe this is how people get the idea that Canada is green.
We fly over a huge tailings pond, held back by a 325-feet high, two- mile-long earthen dyke, right on the river’s left bank. This is Suncor’s Tar Island Pond. Built in l967– Suncor was the first company to get large-scale production going in the sands and with its 417,000 barrels-a-day is the second-largest player in the sands, after Syncrude– this was the first tailings pond, but is not the largest. The largest in the sands– in the world, is the Syncrude’s Tailings Dam, which receives 500,000 tons of tailings a day.
How could they put the pond so close to the river ? It’s obviously an accident waiting to happen. One torrential rainstorm, hundred-year-flood, or tornado (Tornado Alley is being pushed north by global warming and has already reached Edmonton) and all the toxic sludge goes into the river. The answer is that in l967 the word ecology was still only known to a few scientists, and all Suncor was thinking of was convenience. There are still no setbacks, which is unconscionable.
Actually the accident is already happening and has been for many years, according to a new study by Environmental Defense and the Calgary-based Pembina Institute based on the industry’s own estimates. The 12 tailing ponds in the sands are leaking 11 million litres of sludge a day. Almost six million litres a day are seeping directly into the Athabasca through the Tar Island dyke. The rest seeps through the bottom of the ponds (even though the industry claims they “self-seal” over time) and works its way down into the groundwater, and eventually, some of it at least, back up into the surface water, the rivers and lakes, through the porous limestone bedrock under the sand. But Chris Fordham, Suncor’s manager of strategy and regional integration told me that the ED study is based on modeling, and “ours is based on actual water sampling above and below the dyke, and no contaminants are coming into the river.” What about the pipe from the wastewater pond from the main plant, which Kevin Timoney (an ecological consultant who has been doing independent water samplings for Fort Chipewyan) says is putting eleven billion years of toxic wastewater directly into the river), I asked, and Fordham said the discharge from the pipe is monitored regularly, and it isn’t putting anything toxic into the river either. “The water is primarily used to cool the vessels in the extractors and is not process-affected,” he assured me.
Some of the contaminants in the slurry, notably the PAH’s, are mutagenic. A two-jawed walleye was just caught in the delta, where the Athabasca and the Peace rivers pour into Lake Athabasca, and other deformed fish– pickerel with bulging eyes, tumorous lesions, contorted spines and fins– having been turning up downstream from the oil patch in the native fishermen’s catches with increasing regularity. The people in Fort Chip complain that the fish don’t taste like they used to, they have an awful oily taste, but they still eat them. It’s either fish or junk food, which has to be flown in and costs a fortune.
Timoney tested the lakewater at Fort Chip and found elevated levels of twenty contaminants, including PAH’s, mercury, and arsenic, toxins which he says could only come from tailing ponds. But Alberta Health did a study that found no more arsenic at Fort Chip than there is in other native communities in the province far removed from the sands or any other industry. Timoney calls the study “tobacco science.” It’s gotten pretty nasty.
Fifteen minutes after leaving the oil patch, we reach the delta, which is formed by not only Athabasca emptying into Lake Athabasca, but another big river, the Peace. It the largest inland boreal delta in the world, and a spectacular wilderness, as gloriously wild and fecund as the Amazon.
Hundred-pound lake trout and gigantic pike ply the lake, and the whoopers nest here. Four major flyways used by billions of birds converge here.
But it’s a poisoned wilderness. I can see an irridescent, hundred-yard-wide oil slick sitting on the water among the delta’s grassy islands. This is not a natural spill. These have been happening forever, but this doesn’t seem to be the problem, because the cancer rates in Fort Chip only been rising in the last ten years. Timoney says such a large slick “could only have been industrial. The natural seepage, while also toxic, is small and virtually invisible.” He estimates that the industry is contributing 90% of the oil in the river.
Fort Chipewyan was the first European settlement in Alberta. It was founded in l778 by a fur trader for the Northwest Company named Peter Pond, who was the first white man to see the “bitumenous foundations,” as the explorer Alexander MacKenzie called them eleven years later. Mackenzie plunged a 20-foot pole into one of the tar pools on the surface of the sands, and encountered no resistance. The local Athabascans mixed the tar with spruce pitch to caulk their canoes.
There is an old clapboard church on rocky knoll overlooking the lake. Jesuit Black Robes came from Quebec to save the native’s souls. Mercredi– Wednesday– is a common surname in Fort Chip today, which has Athabascan Dene, Cree and Metis residents, each with their own chief and elders, whom I spen dthe day visting with. I see none of the cultural demoralization, obesity, or drunkenness that plague other first nations communities in the Canadian north. The people I met were funny and smart and articulate and on the ball; no one was going to pull the wool over the eyes. Several of the young women were stunning. ”
Lionel Lepine (pr. LepEEny), one of the half-dozen employees of the Industrial Relations Corporation, gives me a tour of the community in his pickup. “I’m only thirty, but I seen a lot of changes,” he tells me. “I’m starting to feel old. The green weeds in this cove never used to be here. The water’s been going down drastically. The oil companies say they’re only using one percent of the water, but it’s a crock. They make everything sound so pretty, like the best things are going to happen to this community.”
This is another problem. The lake has gotten so shallow in the last few years that the entire aquatic ecosystem of the
delta could collapse, if the planned expansions happen. David Schindler, a renowned aquatic ecologist at the University of Calagary says that during the winter months the oilsands operations take more like 10 or 15% of the Athabasca. Suncor, however, says it has cut its water consumption in half in the last five years, and the other companies make similar claims.
“Suncor comes down here and does special events for our kids,” Lepine goes on. “They’re encoding our children. I won’t say brainwashing. When you’re done school come work with us. I ended up driving a heavy hauler for Suncor for five months, until I started thinking, they’re putting our ancestral grounds in the back of these trucks. I told my boss –I was on the night shift– I can’t do it another night. I’m quitting cuz all I’m doing is assisting is in the destruction of my ancestral land. And then I found my passion in life : traditional environmental knowledge. If the industry wants to expand, I do a traditional land impact study for them, which they are now required to submit with their application. We’ve taken them to court a couple of times for treaty infringement, but the battle is only beginning. The whole oil patch is in our core traditional area, and we aren’t getting anything out of it.”
We listen to the undulating yodel of a distant loon. Lepine tells me, “the loons are sacred to us. They have all kinds of crazy vocalizations that once you know what they mean tell you what the conditions are on the water.
“This is untouched god’s country,” he enthuses.
“You won’t see any rez dogs here. The dunes are wicked (a mile of the south shore is a mobile white dune system with vegetation founded nowhere in in the world). But our graveyard is filling up fast. Funerals are becoming a common thing. Water is boss here. It feeds everything. But you can’t drink it any more. There’s been a lot of unexplained cancer deaths here, and a lot are still living with it. We all know that the disease is in the water.”
Alice Origmey, whose people have lived in Fort Chip since time immemorial, tells me, “It’s a helpless feeling, like David and Goliath. They think we have stupid written on our forehead and are just going to fall by the wayside.
But there’s a lot of things we can do in the courts these days to stop them or at least slow them down. One thing the elders always talk about is if there’s anything magical in this world, it is water. But what’s happening here is a slow spill, and we’re getting the same toxins that showed up after the Exxon Valdez disaster. 500 ducks die and the news goes around the world, but we have six deaths and they throw the book at Dr. O’Connor. We’re talking about nominating him for physician of the year.”
Like most of Canada’s native people in Canada, Alice was sent as a child to a residential school. This one was run by nuns.“We never got a hug, only beatings,” she recalled. “You weren’t allowed to touch the person next to you. I came out of there a shell. I lost my language, the ability to make judgment calls. My mom was sent to the same school in l926-32 and she always said if those nuns can make it to heaven we have a chance. They were mean. I got physically abused. If I got sexually abused, it’s something I blocked out. At my age, I don’t want to know. I’m on a healing journey.”
The residential schools are Canada’s dirty secret, one of several in fact, like the refusal to take Jewish refugees during the war. Like any country, it has no lack of skeletons in the closet. What’s unusual is the degree to which the culture suppresses its dark side under this facade of Canada the Good. The rape of the sands could have been another dirty secret for years, given their remoteness, but nothing is secret any more. With the internet and Google Earth it’s very hard for bad environmental actors to conceal their dirty deeds.
The playing down of Fort Chip’s health crisis and the smear campaign against Dr. O’Connor, was getting a lot of embarrassing press for the industry and the province. The first person to express concern about unusual rates of disease he was seeing in first nationals communities in the sands area, especially Fort Chip, was actually Dr. Michael Sauve (accent on the e), an internal medicine specialist in Fort MacMurray since l993. “John [Dr. O’Connor] and I were both noticing them,” he told me. “We were looking at the same elephant, but only getting a tiny corner of the picture. The problem with front-line observation is that it’s ancedotal, and in such a small sample population– only 701 people actually live in Fort Chip– it’s harder to establish statistical significance. John wasn’t seeing bile duct cancer yet. The alarm was not so much about specific diseases, but the bed occupancy of the hospital in Fort McMurray, which was going up dramatically. Now he has three confirmed cases, with tissue samples, and three suspects others. There also a thirty-year old man who has plasma cytoma, which is a flag for environmental pollution. ”
I reached Dr. O’Connor in Nova Scotia, where he has relocated since his license to practice medicine in Alberta was threatened with revocation. He still comes back a week a month to treat his patients in Fort Chip. O’Connor grew up in a working class family in Limmerick and still has a strong Irish brogue, although he’s been living in Canada since l976 ck. “I had been working in a smaller, poorer, and more remote native community,” he told me. “When I came to Fort Chip in l993, I didn’t know what to expect. I was slow off the mark. I didn’t connect the dots at all. The only reason I recognized the bile duct cancer is that
my father died of it. It’s a rare disease. From the onset of symptoms– loss of appetite, then you get jaundiced in the course of a few days– to death is only six weeks. Bile duct
has an environmental component. There in another cluster in Sarnia, where there’s a lot of exposure to petrochemicals. But we’re also getting an increased number of people diagnosed with colon cancer, leukemia, and lymphome and autoimmune diseases like lump, rheumatoic arthritis, and thryotoxicosis., which can occur in any organism with a thyroid. Birds that nest near tailings ponds in the U.S. have been found with significantly higher rates of thyrotoxicosis.
“I saw six patients with bile duct in a matter of months,” he went on. “There was nothing like that in Fort MacMurray, a community of 90,000, so that set off alarm bells.” In 2006 he was interviewed by CBC and expressed his concerns, and the next thing he knew, the complaint was filed against his license. The Alberta Cancer Board did a quick and, according to Timoney, slipshod and methodologically flawed study of the community that concluded, like Alberta Health’s arsenic study, there was nothing was nothing out of the ordinary in Fort Chip. The community did not accept the findings and hired Timoney to do his water studies. Suncor had a big spill in l982 that came down to the lake and closed down the commercial fishing for the season, and Syncrude has had a number of spills in this decade, none of which it has been fined for. But Timoney said it was a mistake to single out a discrete event as the explanation for the high levels of contaminants. It is more, as Alice Origmey put it, like a slow spill. Toxins are coming down in small amounts all the time, and their parts per million are rising steadily.
The same week in February that the new tailings directive and the charging of Syncrude were announced, the Alberta Cancer Board came out with a second, much more rigorous study of the health situation in Fort Chip that confirmed that it has, indeed, a unusually high number of cancers. Dr. O’Connor was vindicated. We had become friends after many hours of chatting on the phone, and he
called me with the great news that the Alberta College of Physicans was going to close his file. “I’m on cloud nine,” he told me. “But I still totally can’t grasp it. I can’t believe how in this day and age they could have done what they did. It’s a sin. The government still isn’t interested in doing anything about it, and I hold them personally accountable. Lives are at stake, lives they are charged with protecting. This is happening on their watch.”
The report only recommends that the health situation warrants “closer monitoring”– the same as a government
study in l999.
The horror show in the sands has to be seen in the context of Canada’s economic history, which has always been about extracting and exporting its prodigious resources. There are bigger and older pits in Quebec than anything in the sands : in the Val d’Or, Thetford Mines, and Asbestos. But nothing as vast as the wasteland here.
In l922 a farmer turned named Robert C. Fitzsimmons arrived in Fort McMurray to make his fortune from the “huge pools of oil” that he thought would be below the surface, but he drilled over a thousand feet down and there was no gusher. This was not a deposit that could be accessed by conventional drilling. That decade open-pit extraction method was developed by a governmnet mining scientists named Dr. Karl O. Clark, and in1930 a small plant at Bitumont, a hill of solid black tar, produced 300 barrels of heavy crude. But only twenty percent of the sands’ bitumen at most can be extracted. The rest is too deep and has to be brought up by various in situ methods, which also started to be developed in the twenties. The most common one is steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), which involves drilling two L-shaped wells parallel to each other into the bitumen layer and injecting it with steam, which liquifies the bitumen in the ground (in situ), so that it can be siphoned up. Other methods include toe-to-heal air injection, vapor extraction, and cyclic steam stimulation. They and liquifying the bitumen with unheated water are the focus of a lot of r & d these days. The problem with in situ is that it requires even more energy than extraction. On the plus side there are no tailings ponds, with all their issues. And Jim Prentiss, Canada’s minister of the environment, told me that if the steam were produced by hydro or nuclear power, in situ oil would have a smaller carbon footprint than even conventional. But hydro and nuclear have their own serious issues.
In the fifties an American named Manley Natland, who was working for the Richfield Oil Company of California (which would become part of the Syncrude consortium a decade later), proposed boring 13,000-foot deep holes and detonating nuclear bombs, whose extreme heat he thought would melt the bitumen out of the sand and create a huge cavity into which billions of barrels of liquid hydrocarbon would pool. Edward Teller
of the Manhattan Project thought it was a great idea, but rich new fields of conventional oil were found in Alaska, and it never got off the ground.
It wasn’t till the late sixties that serious extraction in the sands got going. The Texan oilman J. Howard Pew, the president of Sun Oil and the seventh richest man in the world, sunk millions into what became known as “Pew’s Folly” and today is Suncor. The operation was launched in l967. Pew brought in German O & K bucketwheel extractors, which had been designed to strip-mine coal and took five years to assemble and are said to have been the largest land vehicles in the history of machines. Then Imperial Oil took the plunge and built Syncrude next door. Syncrude started using gigantic draglines that could move sixty times more sand than the bucketwheel. Now all the mining is done with hydraulic shovels and heavy loaders.
In l973, in retaliation for America and its allies’ support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, OPEC turned off its taps on the West, provoking an oil crisis and angry lines at America’s pumps. Once the world’s number-one supplier of oil, the U.S. was now importing one third of its daily consumption. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, put together an initiative called Project Independence, which stated “there is an advantage to moving early and rapidly to develop tar sands production” because it “would contribute to the availability of secure North American supplies.” Herman Kahn, a military strategist specializing in nuclear war for the RAND Corporation, then the Hudson Institute, hyped the sands as “a global godsend” which could eventually produce two or three million barrels a day, and organized a global consortium, made up of the U.S., Japan, and several European countries, that would put up the cash. The Koreans offered 40,000 workers, but Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declined to open the sands up to froeign exploitation for “economic reasons.” The energy crisis passed, and the U.S. turned to Mexico, where huge conventional fields had been just been found, and worked out a “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia, which became our biggest supplier until the sands surpassed them three years ago.
Then came the overthrow of the Shah by the ayatollas in l978, which cut three million barrels from OPEC’s daily
exports. This was eventually made up by Saudi Arabia, but
the price of oil shot up, making the sands’ expensive sythentic crude more attractive. With America once again anxious about its oil supply, President Jimmy Carter created the Energy Security Corporation, whose mission was how out how to make synthetic crude from the countries’ vast deposits of coal and shale– which still hasn’t been done, and Obama is talking up again. America is the Saudi Arabia of coal, he said recently, and developing this technology is key to energy independence. But it has to be “clean coal”– as tall an order as greening the sands.
In the early eighties, after a report came out on how 90% of the foreign investment in Canada was American, Trudeau decided to “Canadianize” the country’s oil and gas resources and created Petrocanada and the country’s first National Energy Program, which delivered the revenues from their exploitation to Ottawa. But this did not sit well with Alberta’s premier Peter Lougheed– according to the Canadian constitution, a province’s resources belong to it–
or with President Reagan, or with the American oil companies, who had huge investments in Alberta’s natural gas and oil fields. From now on, Trudeau decalred, their activities would be subject to scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Agency. This, Sun Oil protested, was an “egregious affront.” In what the activist and writer Tony Clarle calls a “capital strike” (as opposed to a labor strike), 400 American conventional rigs in Alberta were dismantled and taken over the border, and Lougheed, to show Ottawa who was boss, cut Alberta’s supply of oil to the rest of Canada by 15%.
Another decade was lost, and nothing much happened till the late nineties. This time the government of Alberta, having established owndership of its resources, was the catalyst. Its new premier, Ralph Klein, established a Generic Royalty Regime, whereby any company that wants to go into the sands has to pay only one percent of its profits to the province until its capital expenditures are paid off, then it goes up to 25%. China and India were experiencing specular growth in the new global economy and in their industry and middle classes, and the demand for oil was skyrocketing, but conventional reserves worldwide were depleting. People started talking about “peak oil.” It was in this context– demand exceeding supply and making the price of oil go up– that the sands finally started to take off.
One of the first things George Bush did after taking office in 2000, was to appoint a task force, headed by his vice-president, Dick Cheney, to formulate a national energy policy. Its report, which came out in June, 2001, three months before 9/11, declares the sands “a pillar of American energy security.” Mexico’s production by then was in decline, and Venezuela and Russia had nationalized their reserves. The Middle East was iffy and fraught. Saddam Hussein, the last person whose coffers we wanted to be filling, still running controlled Iraq. The game was tightening for the private oil companies. There weren’t many places left for them to go any more. Alberta’s bitumen was looking better all the time. The only problem was that it was still very expensive. Oil has to be selling for sixty-seventy dollars a barrel to make becoming a player in the sands worth it, and it was only up to twenty. But with Klein’s generous incentives, more companies took the plunge.
Many factors can affect the price of oil. Every time Chavez threatens to cut us off, there is a shock.
Washington manipulates the price by withholding or releasing crude from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a network of salt caverns on the Gulf Coast where 727 million barrels, worth $85 billion, are stockpiled. Half a dozen “oil fixers,” powerful middlemen and commodity brokers scattered around the world, have a big personal influence on daily spot prices. The big day for Wall Street’s
commodity market is Wednesday, when the U.S.’s weekly
consumption figures come out. Knowing what a quarter of the world’s consumption is doing is key information for your trading strategy.
Fear of terrorism can have a big effect. Every time Oromo rebels attack one of Royal Dutch Shell’s facilities in the Niger delta, there is a surge in the world price of crude. That is why Shell, which has had a lease in the sands since the fifties, has become the new player. A third of its global reserves are now here.
9/11, of course, was the big one. The graph of oil’s price from then on begins to resemble the “hockey stick” — the nearly vertical rise of the global mean temperature since l970. After a 2003 article in the influential Petroleum Journal, which everybody in the industry reads, reported
that there was 450 years worth of bitumen in the sands, any companies that had gotten the message realized this was the place to be. From then on, it was boom-time. The fulcrum of financial and political power in Canada moved west,
from Ottawa to Calgary. Cheney’s pilgrimage to the sands in 2005, with T. “Scooter” Libby in tow (both of them hoping to get in a little duck-hunting), was the crowning.
The sands had arrived. (Cheney declined to be interviewed for this piece.)
Tony Clarke argues in his book, Tar Sands Showdown : Canada and the New Politics of Oil In an Age of Climate Change, that Canada lost sovereignty over its energy resources in l992 when it signed NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. The treaty’s proportionality clause obligates Canada to continue exporting oil and gas to the U.S. at a rate equal to the average of the last three years. Even if it is facing a shortage, it can’t cut back without incurring severe economic penalties. “Decisions about how Alberta’s oil and natural gas resources are distributed are largely made by the industry itself, and increasingly by U.S. market demand” — i.e. in Houston and on Wall Street, and by the American consumer.
The main reason why oil hit its all-time high of $147 a barrel last summer is that venerable investment banks like Goldman Sachs and J.P.Morgan, an especially Lehman Brothers, were speculating madly on oil futures. There was not only a real-estate bubble, but an oil bubble. The price of oil had become detached from the realities of supply and demand and taken on a life of its own. Lehman had, and Goldman Sachs still has, their own little Fort Knoxes, with millions of barrels of black gold they can put on the market or add to, depending on how the commodity is trading.
Lehman had bet hundreds of millions, that oil was going to go up to $200 in September, and when it didn’t, firm frantically tried to play it the other way, going short, and ended up being wiped out, and this was what would bring down the whole house of cards.
But who knew this in July ?
Certainly no one in Fort MacMurray, where it’s party time 24/7, and such fantastic amounts of cash are being made and blown that people have taken to calling it Fort MacMoney. At the epicenter of the sand’s richest and most accesible bitumen deposit, where the Clearwater River comes into the Athabasca, Fort McMurray is the administrative, trading, and population center of the municipality of Wood Buffalo, which is as big as Tasmania.
Officially, David Blair, an official of the munipality tells me, Fort MacMurray’s population is 85,000, but there is a hidden population of another 40,000 or so living in garages, basements, cars, and tents, and only enough infrastructure– road, water, sewage, power, health services, schools– to handle 30,000.
But isn’t the municipality getting $72 million a year in taxes ? Yes, says Blair, but we need around $15 billion
to keep up with the projected expansions. They’re talking about raising the number of plants from eight to 23 by 2020. We’re projecting a population of 280,000. We’re going to need mokre bridges and roads. They put in a world-class $250-million recreational facility on Macdonald Island, but someone forgot about the roads. The traffic jams between shifts are twenty miles long. If there’s a emergency here, we’re screwed.
“Eight guys are living in a house, each paying $800-1000 for a room,” Blair goes on. “My barber closed up shop because his rent was raised from $3500 a month to $9000. Another 30,000 are living in camps out at the mines. There are five regional airports, but only one of them is sanctioned. They’re flying Mexicans directly from Mexico out to the camps, Chinese and East Indians.” The Hell’s Angels, according to the chopper pilot who flew us ove the pond, control the bars and strip joints and the flourishing drug trade (coke and crystal meth, mainly) and sneak dressed as miners into the camps. The Wood Bufallo phone book has ten pages of escorts.
People are flocking here from all over the world. Most of the taxi drivers are Somali. Fifteen Venezuelan oil field engineers, poached from Chavez, are here with their families. The girl at the front desk of my hotel is from Tiblisi. There are thousands of Newfies, twenty-somethings from Newfoundland, and as many Quebecois. 40 is old in this town. All the streets have surveillance, supposedly because there are so many Arabs, the municipality is worried there could be a terrorist cell. A bomb at Mildred Lake could do some real damage. Even my wife’s niece, Stella, who is Rwanda, and her husband Titi, who is from Benin, have been here for a year with their two little kids. We have dinner the night of Greenpeace’s action. Titi works as a mechanic, repairing Komatsu Tedex hydraulic shovels. Stella does payroll for a hydraulic pump company that drills tests holes. Together are pulling in two hundred grand a year between them, big bucks in Canada, especially for African immigrants. They’re splitting the $6000 for their little ranch house with Titi’s brother and his wife and plan to stay another five years, then come back to Montreal, where they will have saved enough Titi will open his own garage. “This is the best chapter of our lives,” Stella tells me. “And there haven’t been many.”
After dinner I hook up with Jessica Wilson, who reports that the action got fantastic coverage. We decided check out the night life. Jessica is wearing a t-shirt that says, STOP THE TAR SANDS. That should get some conversation going. We enter a dive called Diggers and
are frisked by the bouncer, who has a French accent and is probably an Angel. Inside, a tall mulatto girl is doing some
acrobatic pole-dancing, taking it off for an enthusiastic multi-ethnic all-male audience. Everybody saw Jessica on the news and cheers. Greenpeace, I realize, is Canada’s conscience.
We are invited to shoot Yaeger/Canadian Club/tequila shots with three electricians, a painter, and a pipe insulator who says he worked for Syncrude, and a lot of the time they didn’t turn on the airhorns to scare off the bird, “not that they don’t care about the environment, but this is all about..” and he rubs his thumb and first and middle fingers together. “We’re the fifty-first state,” he complains. “Canada is for sale. They take our timber, oil, even our water they want to sell overseas.”
The painter from ‘Peg (Winnipegg) and says he is pulling in $300,000 a year. “The last guy I worked for had 200 guns in his house and was dropping five hundred a day at the shooting range” he tells us. We go outside to see his crotch rocket, a sport bike with a big windshield that you crouch behind while flying like a bat out of hell. There seems to be crotch-rocket sub-culture in Fort MacMurray. On the way to the airport this morning, we saw a rocketer who had been decipitated by a semi.
A guy in a mud-covered pick-up with a red flag on a tall aerial, known as a buggy whip, so it doesn’t get crushed by the big machines in the pits, patches out, leaving a black line of diesel fume hanging in the air. Jessica screams after him, “Stop fucking up my planet !” A Canadian with cojones.
Sands in Limbo
By the end of the year, the picture was very different. The oil bubble had burst, the bloom was off the boom, and the entire future of the sands was up in the air. The price of crude had plunged to thirty dollars a barrel, and the credit usually available to the industry to see them through such downturns was in lock-down. Suncor’s puts its ten-billion-dollar Voyageur Project on hold. 7,000 workers were laid off, although their absence was hardly noticeable in stuffed-the-gills Fort McMoney. Stattoil– everybody had been looking forward to see how the Norwegians were going to do it, with their reputation for state-of-theart greenness– announced that it wouldn’t be building its upgrader till 2016. One by one the companies suspended their expansions. It was, the Petroleum Economist reported already in November, “testing times for Alberta’s oil sands.”
Despite the province’s $25 million campaign to
to clean it up the image of the sands (which critics were saying would be much better spent cleaning up the actual mess), it was getting dramatically more negative. There was a groundswell of revulsion all over the world not unrelated to the one that swept Obama into office (Bush and Cheney having presided over what was essentially a two-term petrostate). This is going to be very hard to reverse. Once a perception is lodged in the public’s mind,
that’s the way they see it. The enviros keep coming out with studies exposing the dirty underside of the industry, and the first nations have taken three companies to court for treaty infringemens. Every day brings new unfavorable press. Even the National Geographic, normally supportive American imperialistic ventures, came out with a scathing article and spread in March.
Obama himself, with his campaign promises to get American off dirty oil, makes the industry very nervous. The Cheney imperative– American energy security at any cost– has been replaced America needs to become energy-independent, but the energy has to clean, and the economy has to be put back on track, but not at the expense of the planet. So where does this leave the sands, which aren’t greenable and aren’t in America ?
On February Obama flew to Ottawa to meet Prime Minister Harper, bringing with him Carole Browner, Clinton’s superb director of the Environmental Protection Agency, who is heading his green dream team (he has even appointed has a new special envoy on climate change, Todd Stern, to the State Department). Both the industry and its detractors found encouragement in Obama’s few, carefully modulated public sentences on the sands.
America still gets 1.3 million barrels a day of bitumen and synthetic crude from the sands, so obviously Obama didn’t want to say, on his first visit with our most important ally and trading partner, we don’t want your dirty oil. If Canada turned off the faucet, the Midwest would be dead in the water in a matter days.
But who else can Canada sell its oilsands crude to ?
Piping it to the Pacific Coast and selling it to China and India is prohibitively expensive. There are forty-some first nations and a national park that a right a way would have to be negotiated with, and the enviros would fight it every step of the way and it would take years. The other way– piping it east to Montreal, is also a very costly proposition, impossible in current economic conditions, and has been deep-sized by Encana, the parastatal trying to do it. So American and the sands need each other, until something better comes along, and I don’t see the relationship ending, particularly since most of the action up there belongs to Big Oil.
The oil sands, Obama told the Canadians, have a big carbon footprint, but technology can come up with ways to reduced it. He specifically mentioned carbon sequestration, or CCS (carbon capture and storage). He also raised the possiblity of offsetting the sands’ emissions by cap and trade– buying carbon credits from industries that are keeping CO2 out of the air, like wind farms.
But he also emphasized the need to get green, alternative energy on to the North America grid as quickly as possible and to make America complete independent of
foreign sources of energy, and developing clean coal technology. When he said America is “the Saudi Arabia of coal,” one can only imagine the anxiety attacks that must have caused in Calgary.
The problem with CCS is that, like everything having to do with energy, it is fraught. Of the three options for getting rid of your carbon– the air, the water, or the ground,
the last is probably best, definitely from the global warming standpoint, but you are still poisoning the earth, and eventually the groundwater, with the same carcinogenic, mutagenic, and embryogenic substances that are plaguing the people of Fort Chip. Jim Prentiss, Canada’s environment minister, sang the praises of the Wayburn Project in Saskatchewan, which is injecting carbon brought up by rail from coal-fired power plants in South Dakota
into an oil field and making it more productive, “so CCS is not only commercial, it can he profitable,” he told me, “and this is just the sort of cross-border collaboration in clean-energy we need more of.” But CCS is not going to the silver bullet for the sands. The technology is not there, and it is very costly, and there is no guarantee it is going to work. The best study of its application there suggests that it will only be able to capture five percent of the emissions, and not until ten years.
“There is no free lunch,”Rick George, the president and c.e.o. of Suncor, told me. “ We would prefer it if God has given us light sweet crude no sulphur. But this heavy synthetic crude is what we have to work with, and our role is to do it responsibly. We’re doing everything we can. We’ve cut the amount of water and energy we use to produce a barrel by 40% in the last five years. But nothing is fast enough or good enough for our critics.”
Marcel Coutu, the chairman of Syncrude and the c.e.o. of Canadian Oil Sands Trust, which has the largest share of the seven partner’s in consortium, was similarly
peeved. “It baffles us,” he told me. “We know as much as anybody about this industry, but no one in the mainstream media has shown an interest in hearing our side of the story.” This is because you haven’t been granting interviews, or even tours of your operations, I restrained myself from saying. And what the industry has been putting out seems transparently to be nothing more than greenwashing, whitewashing, and spin.
“We know how Canadians feel about the development of the oil sands,” Coutu continued. “We’ve done polls, and two-thirds support it. But the environmentalists have mounted a very zealous assault, and the media has picked up on it and is fanning the flames. But the data do not support the degree to which they are upset. We are such a small component of the world’s emissions– only .01%, and only 5% of Canada’s, and only 1% of North America’s; most of the emissions are from coal-fired plants in the U.S. It’s being blown out of proportion. We’re only producing
a million of the 85 million barrels that are being produced daily worldwide. But– and this is important– we are producing 17% of the U.S. supply.” And as Rick George pointed out, a lot of the American economy is invested in the sands, “maybe even your pension fund.” (I don’t have one, I forebore from telling him.)
“At the moment,” Coutu continued, “the industry is at break-even level. The freezing-up of credit markets has come down on us. Most of the industry has parked it growth component but continues to operate at full capacity. And we can ride this tide, because the price of oil will go back up.”
How soon ? “I’d say in three years it will be back up to triple digits, and we’ll be back in business.”
Coutu denied that any toxins are getting into the water–
the industry’s stance, which is like the tobacco saying there is no connection between smoking and cancer for as long as it could, until the connection was impossible to deny. As for the air pollution, he told me that Syncrude has spent
$500 million, and will spend another $600 million over the next three-four years, building a plant that will scrub sixty percent of the sulphur and solid particulates out of its emissions. “Carbon dioxide at least you can breathe,” he said, “and we’re making a huge contribution to the global warming issue with the fines we are paying for being unable to comply with the stiff new federal regulations requiring us to reduce our emissions by ten percent a year.
That money is being used to finance research into alternative, renewable clean-energy development.”
Hundreds of millions more had been spent on reclamation, Coutu said. 30% of Syncrude’s spent mines had been covered back with their overburden and returned to their “original state.” “Not only are mature trees growing, but there are meadows. You couldn’t tell the difference from an undisturbed site. But nobody works that into the environmental mix,” he complained. “Nobody takes pictures of our showcase herd of genetically improved wood bison that we’ve reestablished and is costing us an arm and a leg to maintain. So you can appreciate our frustration.”
If this is the attitude– continued denial of the horrific “externalities” and let us keep emitting because it’s actually helping the fight to stop global warming– I don’t see how the sands are going to be competitive when the economic situation improves enough for the companies to be able to step up production. By then other alternative sources of energy that are clean and renewable will be on the grid. So the industry is going to have to take advantage of this lull in the action to really clean up its act. Otherwise– not only I, but several experts on the energy picture for the next fifty years project– the sands could be toast.