The Stench of Money: Canada's Environment Succumbs to Oil Sands

By Philip Bethge

Canada is home to the world's third largest oil reserves. But extracting the black gold is difficult, and threatens to destroy both the surrounding environment and the homeland of native tribes. With protests growing against a planned US pipeline, the oil sands controversy threatens to spread south.

Photo Gallery: Digging Up a Wilderness for Black Gold Photos
AFP

Celina Harpe holds up the map like an indictment. "The oil companies are into Moose Lake now," she says, angrily tapping the paper. Workers have apparently already begun surveying the land.

"I cried when I heard that," says Harpe, the elder of the Cree First Nation community based in Fort MacKay in the Canadian province of Alberta. "That's where I was born."

Her feet are shod in moose-leather moccasins decorated with brightly-colored beads. Over her neatly-pressed trousers she wears a checked lumberjack shirt.

Harpe gets up off her worn sofa and steps out onto the terrace of her blue-painted log cabin. The mighty Athabasca River is just a stone's throw away. "We can't drink the water anymore," says Harpe, 72. Berries and medicinal herbs no longer grow in the woods. Even the moose have become scarce. Harpe wrings her wrinkled hands. "We can't live off the land anymore," she laments. "Our livelihood has been taken away from us, and they haven't even asked if they can use the land."

An unequal battle is being waged in Alberta. Multinational oil companies are talking about the biggest oil boom in decades. Standing in their way are people like Celina Harpe, whose culture and health are threatened because the ground under their feet contains the planet's third-largest reserves of crude oil.

Geopolitical Significance

Experts estimate that up to 170 billion barrels of crude oil could be extracted from Canada's oil sands. Only Saudi Arabia and Venezuela have more black gold. In addition, the Alberta deposits are of huge geopolitical significance. Indeed, the US already buys more oil from neighboring Canada than from all the nations in the Persian Gulf region put together.

Very soon, still more of the so-called bitumen could be helping to fire up the US economy. President Barack Obama wants to decide by the end of the year whether it is in his country's interests to build a 2,700-kilometer (1,700-mile) pipeline from Alberta to Houston in Texas.

This pipeline, named Keystone XL, could pump up to 1.3 million barrels of crude oil a day to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. But whereas the industry is dreaming of an oil rush, protests against the plans are growing. Environmentalists spent two weeks in August and September demonstrating in front of the White House against the exploitation of Canada's oil sands. Among others, they have the support of 10 Nobel Peace Prize winners, including the Dalai Lama and former Vice President Al Gore.

The protesters' rage is directed at a form of oil considered the world's dirtiest. Ecologists are also worried about the fate of wetlands and water reservoirs along the route of the planned pipeline, including the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies no fewer than eight US states with water.

Above all, the exploitation of the Canadian oil sands could also lead the US to put off seriously thinking about renewable energy sources for many decades to come. "The point is not to get ourselves hooked on the next dirty stuff," says US environmentalist Bill McKibben, one of the spokesmen of the anti-oil sands movement. He thinks the exploitation of the sands would make it impossible for America to meet its CO2-reduction targets.

'A Dirty Needle'

"It's [like] a drug addict reaching for a dirty needle from a fellow addict," NASA climate researcher James Hansen says. "It's crazy, and the president should understand that and exercise leadership and reject the pipeline."

Criticism of the plans is also coming from Europe. Only last week the European Commission decided to define oil extracted from oil sands as particularly harmful to the environment. If the European Parliament and EU member states agree, it will make it particularly expensive to import it into the European Union. Importers could, for example, be forced to invest in organic fuels to compensate for the increase in CO2 emissions. The Canadian government is opposed to such moves.

The area around the town of Fort McMurray, a ramshackle assortment of ugly purpose-built houses in northeastern Alberta, is the epicenter of the oil sands industry. Beefy four-wheel-drive vehicles race along the town's roads. In winter the temperatures fall to as low as minus 25 degrees Celsius (minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit). That's when the locals retreat to the Boomtown Casino or the Oil Can Tavern, a neon yellow-illuminated bar of dubious repute.

The first oil prospectors came to the region more than a century ago. The commercial exploitation of the oil sands began with the construction of the first extraction plants in the mid-1960s. Suncor and Syncrude were the first two companies involved, but rising oil prices have since attracted the industry's giants, including Shell, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil.

Stinks of Diesel

Heavy equipment is used to dredge out a mixture of sand, clay, water and heavy oil created from the plankton of a primeval ocean. The upward thrust of the Rocky Mountains pushed the reserves into their present position about 70 million years ago. The area of Alberta underneath which the oil sands lie today is about the size of Iowa (see graphic on left).

The Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Fort McMurray contains a sample of oil sand under a glass dome. Visitors can open a small hatch and smell the contents. Crumbled oil sand looks like coffee grounds, and stinks of diesel. It is the stench of big money.

Some 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Fort McMurray, the smell hangs in the air day and night. The drive north along Highway 63 leads into the seemingly endless pine forests of the boreal climatic zone. But the woods soon open up, affording a clear view of the smokestacks of an immense industrial complex in the center of an apocalyptic-looking lunar landscape.

Yellow sulfur tailings flash in the distance. Walls of earth surround a gigantic pit in which Caterpillar 797F industrial tippers are shunting to and fro. Each of these tippers can carry up to 360 metric tons of oil sand in a single load. Their wheels alone are four meters (13 feet) high. The plant is the Mildred Lake Mine belonging to the Syncrude company. Approximately 300,000 barrels of oil are produced on the site every day.

Oil sands contain about 10 percent bitumen on average. To separate the oil from the mixture, the sand is put into a caustic soda solution at about 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit). The bitumen floats to the top of the slurry, from where it can be skimmed off. It is then upgraded to produce what is known as synthetic crude oil (see graphic).

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