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.
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).
A Dirty Business
This procedure enables more than 90 percent of the bitumen to be extracted from the oil sands. The only problem is what to do with the remaining few percent. Mixed with water, sand and clay, it ends up in huge storage basins that already span an area of about 170 square kilometers (65 square miles) in Alberta. The sand quickly sinks to the bottom, leaving a gel-like suspension of minute particulate matter that takes up to 30 years to settle.
The sludge also contains heavy metals and chemicals. Environmentalists accuse the operators of allowing some of the water to seep into the ground. Indeed, elevated concentrations of lead, cadmium and mercury have been measured in the nearby Athabasca River and Canadian Indians speak of deformed fish and complain that their people are contracting rare forms of cancer. A definitive connection with the oil sands extraction, however, has not yet been made.
From a hill at the edge of the Syncrude site you can look straight down into the ponds. Oily streaks cover the surface. Last October, 350 ducks landed here during a hailstorm. Their feathers covered in bitumen, they all had to be euthanized. Hollow shots from propane canons now echo across the seemingly endless plains to frighten other birds away. Scarecrows tied to oil barrels bob gently on the ponds.
Biologists hired by the oil companies are trying to reclaim the land. The hill on the edge of the Syncrude site, for example, is directly above a former mine. A sign informs visitors that if they return in 20 years time, they will find "a landscape reclaimed with lakes, forests, wetlands," an open invitation for "hiking and fishing." For now, bison graze on a nearby meadow.
Gripped by Desperation
Environmentalists say this is all just greenwashing. "This land is definitely being destroyed forever," says Melina Laboucan-Massimo, gazing scornfully across the artificial oasis surrounded by gouged out earth. The 30-year-old works as an energy expert for Greenpeace and fights for the rights of the first nations, as Canada's native inhabitants are known. Laboucan-Massimo is herself a member of the Cree nation, and was born in the area.
When she sees what is happening to her tribe's traditional homelands, she seems to be gripped by desperation. Only last April, a pipeline burst just a few miles from her father's house, spilling 4.5 million liters (1 million gallons) of oil.
Although there are agreements between the native inhabitants and the Canadian state giving the first nations land and usage rights, it's not clear what the contracts mean for the exploitation of the oil sands. The Canadian Supreme Court is currently considering an appeal by several first nations for a greater say in oil exploitation. Some 23,000 Canadian Indians still live in the oil sands area.
"My father's family lived off the land," says Laboucan-Massimo. "My grandparents hunted, they fished, they trapped; they lived in a more symbiotic relationship with the earth." Many native Canadians now work for the oil industry: "They are essentially getting paid to destroy their children's future," she says.
For years now, Laboucan-Massimo has been fighting an exhausting battle against the industry. "So far they have only developed like 3 percent of the tar sands in Alberta," she says. "I don't have a lot of hope if they develop as much land as they want."
Numerous new opencast mines have already been approved; many others are still in planning. The prospect of a direct pipeline to heavy-oil refineries in Texas has prompted investors to reach for their checkbooks.
Oil Tanks in the Forest
The International Energy Agency predicts production of conventional oil will soon reach its peak. Oil production in Alberta, by contrast, could more than double to 3.5 million barrels a day by 2025. At today's prices, that means that the oil sands in Canada, exploitable with today's technology, are worth about $16 trillion.
And production costs are falling constantly. Whereas a barrel of oil used to cost almost $75 to produce, new production methods promise to cut that to about $50.
The eight-seater Beechcraft Super King Air 350, leased by Cenovus Energy, takes off into the skies over Fort McMurray. While the plane is gaining altitude, the shimmering Athabasca River comes into view. Then the mines. From the air they look like oozing wounds in the midst of the green forest. Soon square clearings can also be seen, each with its own oil derrick. Straight roads slice through the forest; the trails left by the geologists searching for the oil sands below.
As the plane descends, oil tanks and chimneys appear near a lake. Christina Lake is the name of this Cenovus production plant, one of the world's most modern. But there's no sign of a mine; the oil sands at the site are being drilled here rather than dug up.
About 80 percent of the oil sands in Canada are too deep to be retrieved using opencast mining. More than 50 years ago, US geologist Manley Natland came up with idea to separate oil and sand below ground rather than digging them up first. Natland suggested superheating the oil sands so that the bitumen liquefies and can be pumped to the surface. Only now are the required machines available. Engineers can now pump 250 degree Celsius (480 degree Fahrenheit) steam through a borehole and deep down into the ground.
Cenovus perfected the procedure at Christina Lake. The plant is currently undergoing a dramatic expansion. By the end of the decade, the planners hope it will be producing 258,000 barrels a day, enough to supply some 4 million US citizens with energy for 24 hours.
"We expect to produce oil at this facility for more than 30 years," says Drew Zieglgansberger of Cenovus. The youthful-looking manager in blue overalls leads the way to one of five towering steam generators that form the heart of the oil factory. Zieglgansberger climbs a ladder on the front of the gigantic structure and looks through a small window into the white-hot fire burning at 1,500 degrees Celsius (2,700 degrees Fahrenheit), turning water into super-heated steam. The plant generates as much heat as "10,000 barbecues," the manager proudly declares.
Operating the mammoth oven is a dirty business. Natural gas is burned to bring the machines up to their operating temperature. In fact the energy equivalent of a barrel of oil is needed to recover 10 barrels of oil. The European Commission has calculated that recovering oil from oil sands is about 22 percent more harmful to the environment than conventional crude oil. The US Environmental Protection Agency has even suggested it creates 82 percent more greenhouse gas emissions.
But that's not all: Heating bitumen also releases sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides and heavy metals into the air, all of which later return to earth as acid rain. The Canadian Ministry for Natural Resources has confirmed that drilling generates twice the emissions as conventional oil production. Worse still, it's not clear how drilling affects the water table. The independent Council of Canadian Academies regrets that such information is "absent."
Zieglgansberger accepts that there are problems. "Yes, we have the dirtiest oil in the world", he openly admits. But it'll be another 50 years before renewable energy can replace oil. "It is needed as a bridge to the next energy source."
Destined to Be Lost Forever
Industry lobbyists are increasing their pressure on Washington. Pipeline operator TransCanada has close ties with the office of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The company's current chief lobbyist was a top advisor to Clinton during the 2008 presidential primaries.
Most analysts already assume that Obama will eventually authorize the Keystone XL pipeline. Too many jobs are believed to be on the line, and oil has too great a strategic significance to the US.
Nevertheless, the pipeline's opponents continue to rally their supporters. A human chain around the White House is planned for early November. However McKibben doubts it will have much of an impact. "The oil companies have more money than God," he says.
Time clearly appears to have run out for the native inhabitants of Alberta's northeast. Their traditional way of life seems destined to be lost forever. Cenovus Manager Zieglgansberger takes a sober view of the situation: "We are now neighbors, whether they want us here or not." The oil man is at pains to stress that he respects first-nation traditions. "We bring our stakeholders out with us before we do any disturbance," Zieglgansberger assures us.
Such respect seems to be rather limited. When tribal elders discovered a traditional burial ground on the site of one of the Cenovus plants, the oil company agreed to preserve the holy shrine.
The cemetery now lies in the middle of the industrial complex on a tiny square of land spared from the lumberjacks.
Now the native Indians must pass directly by the oil tanks to honor their dead.