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, 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 filled with them, 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 explanationÉother than industry activity.”
The new Persian Gulf
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 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.
“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.”
Industry 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.
Environmentalists, 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.
“You 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.
You 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 indigenous community.
“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.”
You 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.
“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.
“Canada is like our supply closet,” said Steve Kallick, project director of the International Boreal Conservation Campaign in Seattle. “We keep going up there for certain things, but we never think about what happens when we take them out.”
That may be starting to change. Earlier this year, one high-profile politician – Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – raised public awareness of dirty fuel around the globe, including Alberta’s tar sands.
Schwarzenegger’s pioneering low-carbon fuel initiative, signed in January, directs oil companies to trim the carbon intensity of their fuel by 10 percent by 2020 – including the CO 2 emitted in refining. The strategy, incorporated last week into federal global warming legislation working its way through Congress, dashed the tar sands industry’s hopes of tapping into California’s car culture.
“We’re not going to try to push ourselves in where we’re not wanted,” Stringham said.
Pollution you can smell
The closer you get to the tar sands, the more talk shifts from odorless CO 2 to emissions people can smell, including the sharp wallop of ammonia.
“It smells like cat piss, like skunk and something similar to rotten eggs, but stronger,” said Harpe, the retired nurse, who has lived in Fort MacKay all her life. “I have to close the bedroom door and stay in the dark because my headaches are so bad.”
In May 2006, a plume of ammonia that settled over Fort MacKay and sent some elementary school children to the emergency room was traced to Syncrude Canada’s mine, 12 miles to the south.
“Syncrude did have an incident,” said company spokeswoman Kara Flynn. “We were bringing a new unit on line and some ammonia was slipped to the atmosphere and created some adverse reactions.”
The problem, she added, has been resolved.
One Saturday afternoon not long ago, another odor wafted through town. Call it eau de asphalt – the scent of tar sands mining.
“That one is difficult to manage,” said Steven Gaudet, Syncrude’s manager of environment. “It’s hard to put an umbrella over the entire mine face and send it somewhere else.”
Good jobs stripping the land
Perched on the banks of the milky-gray Athabasca River, Fort MacKay is a backwoods town without a deli, a stoplight or a gas station. Some 500 people call the place home, most of them aboriginal Chipewyan and Cree who have lived off the land for generations.
For many, the tar sands mining boom is bittersweet. “It creates a lot of jobs, you know,” said Ed Cooper, Harpe’s husband. “But all this pollution, we’re not too happy about that.”
Wiry and strong at 73, Cooper worked more than three decades in the tar sands, driving a D-9 Caterpillar and a gigantic bucket-wheel excavator. As he toiled, the boreal forest where he had hunted, fished and trapped as a young man began to disappear.
“We used to kill 40 or 50 foxes, from November up to December,” Cooper said as he sat on his front porch. “Now you’re lucky if you get one or two.”
“There used to be lots of berries,” he said. “If you were hungry, you wouldn’t starve. There are no berries now.”
In two freezers, Cooper keeps wild meat – thought not as much as years ago. He lifted the lid and pulled out a pinkish-red moose kidney, then a lake trout, tinseled in frost.
Cooper’s son, Murray, grabbed a snowshoe hare, stiff as a plank, and some smoked beaver meat. One backcountry staple, however, is notably absent these days: porcupine.
“They’re gone,” he said. “We called it a hungry man’s meal. It’s the only thing you could kill with a stick or a piece of driftwood.”
Harpe listened and nodded. “There’s nothing now – no lynx, no foxes. It’s all sun now. There’s no more vegetation for the animals.”
Tribal payments, deformed fish
By law, oil companies must meet with tribal members before starting a new project. In Fort Chipewyan, a remote village accessible only by air or boat, the industry’s practice of paying tribal elders to attend such meetings, and awarding prizes that residents say range from airplane tickets to leather jackets to T-shirts, is drawing fire.
“We used to trade beaver pelts for two beads and a trinket. Now we are trading away our environment for $300,” said Robert Grandjambe, a sled dog outfitter in Fort Chipewyan.
Fisherman Joseph Wandering Spirit, 74, has taken such payments.
“I realize it may be wrong, but I need the money,” said Wandering Spirit, who lives outside of town in a one-room cabin. “I think they are taking advantage of us.”
Syncrude’s Flynn defended the practice.
“Syncrude, as well as many other oil sands companies, do pay honorariums to aboriginal eldersÉparticularly to share traditional knowledge,” she said. “You could equate it to hiring a consultant for technical advice.”
She defended the gift giving, too, calling it routine at community events.
“Often we are asked to provide gifts or goods for door prizes,” she said.
Encircled by wilderness, Fort Chipewyan is one of Canada’s most scenic villages. From a bluff where a Hudson Bay Company fur-trading outpost once stood, you look out across giant Lake Athabasca, a palette of blue, silver and bronze. To your right is the green-and-yellow brush stroke of the Peace-Athabasca River delta, one of the world’s largest boreal marshes. Overhead, gulls float like confetti in a New York parade.
But there’s nothing pretty about what anglers have been catching lately. Just ask Raymond Ladouceur, manager of the Delta Native Fisherman’s Association in Fort Chipewyan.
Most afternoons, Ladouceur stands at the dock and watches members of his association unload their catch at a fish plant. What he sees there startles him: fish speckled with thumb-sized blisters, deformed backbones and crooked tails, and, not long ago, a walleye with eyeballs the size of silver dollars.
“The eyes were just bulged right outÉlike a toad,” Ladouceur said. “I’ve lived here 30-plus years and I haven’t seen this before.”
When Eugene Courterielle pulls in a sick fish, he tosses it overboard. It does no good to complain, he said.
“No matter how many people come out here and study the water, there’s nothing that comes out of it,” said Courterielle, who lives in a cabin with his dog.
Some question data gaps
What’s causing such problems is unknown. But some scientists suspect a family of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons associated with oil refining and linked to deformities, reproductive problems and cancer.
Such compounds have been measured at levels harmful to aquatic life in sediment from the Athabasca River and the delta, said Jeff Short, research chemist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Anything that tried to lay eggs in it and reproduce would have a very difficult time.” said Short, known for his work on the environmental impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Ferreting out the source is difficult because the area is rich in natural bitumen that can be released through natural erosion. As Syncrude’s Gaudet put it: “I fish the banks of the Athabasca with my son and we’ve walked through natural tar seeps all along there.”
But Short pointed to peer-reviewed research showing “quite large biochemical responses” to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in fish downstream from the oil field. “It’s a red flag indicating exposures are almost certainly mobilized from tar sands mining activity,” he said.
In his survey of industrial contaminants, Timoney – the Alberta ecological consultant – found data gaps.
“There has been a terrible trend over the last 15 years in Alberta to privatize most of the monitoring,” he said. “At a time when we need more publicly available data, we now have less than ever.”
The solution, he said, is more rigorous research not linked to industry or Alberta’s provincial government.
Canada’s federal government leaves most of the responsibility for regulating environmental impacts to its provinces. Alberta’s government, which has been widely criticized for being pro-oil, this year has expressed concern about the tar sands region and begun assembling a team of specialists to address them.
“The world’s growing demand for energy that is driving this unprecedented growth has led to major complications forÉwater, land and air management,” the provincial government states on a Web site advertising the positions. “A number of advances have been madeÉbut more can be done.”
Doctor fears cancer cluster
Fish aren’t the only living things turning up sick in Fort Chipewyan. People are, too. That worries John O’Connor, a physician who began treating residents in late 2000.
Starting in 2001, O’Connor watched with alarm as patients in the village of 1,200 people fell ill with leukemia, lupus, colon cancer, brain tumors, autoimmune disorders and other diseases. “I got a gut feeling that things were not quite right,” he said.
Nothing jolted him more than a patient who came to him four years ago with fatigue, weight loss and jaundiced eyes. The Fort Chipewyan resident, who later died, had bile duct cancer, an exceedingly rare disease. “It’s one in 100,000 that we’re told to expect to see this,” O’Connor said. Since then, two more residents have died of it.
Law, the Alberta environmental ministry spokesman, cautioned against jumping to conclusions, saying that the government’s broader health data doesn’t “support any increaseÉof cancer rates.”
But O’Connor puzzles over the prevalence of cancer in such a small community. “I’m questioning the numbers,” he said. “It appears that I’ve seen clusters.”
What could be causing them?
“I would love to know,” O’Connor said.
©2008 Tom Knudson
Tom Knudson is a reporter for the Sacramento Bee, where this story originally appeared, supported by APF research. During his Patterson year, he explored the global impacts of America’s consumption of natural resources.