Whether to build the international pipeline, designed to convey the Tar-sands oil from the massive deposits in Western Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast for refining, has not only become an explosive issue in this year’s presidential election, it has become central to the debate over the future habitability of planet earth. A special report.
By John H. Richardson
When you arrive at night in Fort McMurray, the little Canadian town that might just destroy the world, the tiny airport looks smaller because of the snow and all the Explorers and Rangers and four-wheel drives in the parking lot. An ambitious ramp enters a highway so wide the shoulders must be in different time zones, and trucks the size of dinosaurs roar by belching clouds of steam and snow. The smaller trucks have buggy whips that hoist flags high above them so the giant trucks will notice their insignificant speck existence and avoid running over them. The giants are so large they need little pilot trucks to guide them, one ahead and one behind. Largest of all are the hauler trucks that pull hoppers piled with tons of black sand, the prize of all this furious enterprise. They look like props from Star Wars — you expect a turret to swivel and shoot out death rays. But what they actually do might turn out to be more deadly. Here, they gouge and siphon that black sand from deep in the earth and through an awesome alchemical process turn it into something resembling crude oil. A triumph of science and engineering. And nearby lie the beginnings of a nineteen-hundred-mile international pipeline — the Keystone XL, it’s called — that will carry a million barrels of the stuff every day, down through the breadbasket of America to the Gulf Coast of Texas, where it will be refined and shipped to the emerging economic powers of the world.
Already this little burg is the greatest source of imported oil into the United States, and now it also finds itself central to the fight over global warming and the future habitability of planet Earth, which has been sending scientists all over the world into a state of increasing alarm. Recently, National Snow and Ice Data Center director Mark Serreze said arctic ice is in a death spiral and “is not going to recover.” Lonnie Thompson, the world’s greatest glaciologist, says, “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.” As the battle over the Keystone pipeline heated up last year, the world’s most distinguished climate scientists wrote a letter to Barack Obama raising a specific alarm about Canada’s tar sands: “Adding this on top of conventional fossil fuels will leave our children and grandchildren a climate system with consequences that are out of their control.” The signatories included James Hansen, the NASA climatologist who raised the first alarms about global warming back in the 1980s, as well as leading scientists like James McCarthy of Harvard; Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton; Raymond T. Pierrehumbert of the University of Chicago; Donald Kennedy of Stanford; Richard Somerville, research professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography; Ray J. Weymann, director emeritus at Carnegie Observatories; and George M. Woodwell, senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center. “I’m a scientist who really thinks that climate change is going to be bad news all over the place, so I think it is time to bite the bullet and go off to the renewables in a big way,” says Richard A. Houghton of Woods Hole. “I’m not spending my life on this because it’s an interesting curiosity,” says Princeton’s Oppenheimer. “I think this problem is among a very small handful of problems that need to be solved, and if not solved correctly will head the human endeavor in the wrong direction.”
But the giant trucks keep rolling, more and more every day. So you slip your little sedan into their wake like the humblest of pilot fish, happy to suck their exhaust pipes in exchange for protection. Windshield wipers flap away the snow until you eject at your hotel, which has a parking lot filled with slush and snow but a tropical jungle in the lobby with a stream that curves around the chairs. The stream is stocked with ornamental carp, golden advertisements for the good life, every last one imported from a soft and temperate place very far away.
Are they grace notes in a harsh frontier or a sign of the impending apocalypse? You must choose one. You cannot choose both. This is the challenge of Fort McMurray, the secret engine of the modern world. Can it be fixed? Must it be stopped? Can it be stopped?
Over the next twenty-five years, Fort McMurray is projected to pump $1.7 trillion into Canada’s economy. Its enormous resources will radiate wealth across the world, first to America, then to China and Europe, literally trillions of dollars more — Canada estimates $45 billion a year in the U. S. alone and half a million jobs by the year 2035. The amount of human suffering this will reduce — and human joy enable — is incalculable. Liberals and environmentalists who scoff at the ten thousand or twenty thousand short-term construction jobs required to build the pipeline itself seem to have failed Capitalism 101.
George W. Bush was right — the world is addicted to oil. We consume thirty billion barrels of it every year. And the tar sands of Alberta are now central to any discussions of future supply. Yet threats against the tar sands are gathering everywhere. In Europe, a blunt and forceful Danish politician named Connie Hedegaard has been pushing the European Union to label the stuff “dirty oil,” subject to penalties as a threat to the climate. In the United States, environmentalists began organizing global campaigns that climaxed in the summer of 2011 with ten thousand people surrounding the White House. When President Obama responded with an order to delay the pipeline and requested a new environmental study, the dispute exploded into an epic election-year fight over capitalism itself — Speaker of the House John Boehner accused Obama of lobbying for China, Newt Gingrich promised to get gas down to $2.50 a gallon, Mitt Romney accused Obama of not caring about American jobs and said, “I will build that pipeline if I have to myself.” Even some of Obama’s labor allies rebelled. The United Association of plumbers and pipe fitters broke from the labor movement with a pro-pipeline campaign, on and on in an ugly spiral.
In Canada, the fight is even uglier. In 2008, the death of sixteen hundred ducks in a toxic “tailings pond” led to federal and provincial charges of environmental crimes against a major Canadian tar-sands player, Syncrude, which paid a $3 million fine. Environmental groups and the media milked this relentlessly, and leaders of the First Nations — Canada’s Indians — in the west have vowed to stop the Northern Gateway pipeline at all costs. There was even a spate of bombings along one of the western pipelines. On the far right, there’s a virulent campaign to compare Canada’s “ethical oil” with terrorist oil produced by Arabs while powerful right-wing politicians conduct a formal parliamentary inquiry into foreign-financed “radical environmentalists.” One senator fumed about Canadian environmentalists accepting support from suspect groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club: “Would they take money from Al Qaeda, the Hamas, or the Taliban?”
With so much at stake, the Canadian government sends one official after another to sit among the palm trees and gliding carp and make its case. Randall Barrett of the Alberta government’s Ministry of Environment brings a slide show about water permits and air permits, Canada’s Sustainable Resource Development plan, and the Energy Resources Conservation Board. Kevin Percy, Ph.D., comes to describe a rigorous air-monitoring program with fifteen ground-level air stations and eighty-four state-of-the-art air analyzers. Many of these are a result of Directive 074, a set of stringent new environmental regulations passed in the wake of the dead ducks. The president of Shell Canada calls just to say hi. All have the same basic message, a plea for simple realism.
By 2050, the global population will grow from seven billion to nine billion. Energy demand will double or triple. “Easy oil” is running out, leaving no alternative to the tar sands. Canada is a stable, civilized country that’s doing tremendous things on conservation. And Canada is going to sell this stuff one way or another no matter what — if the U. S. stops the XL pipeline, Canada will just ship it out in tankers. Imagine the greenhouse gases that will cause!
Barrett flips to a chart. “People hate it when I bring this out,” he says. It shows CO2 emissions worldwide. All of Canada produces just 2 percent of the world’s emissions. The oil sands produce just 0.15 percent.
Point one five? Really?
Yes, Barrett says. Point one five! Almost nothing!
No wonder the residents of Fort McMurray feel so frustrated and misunderstood. Over at the Suncor Community Leisure Centre, just to give them a chance to vent, a Canadian radio and TV personality named Rex Murphy sets up his microphones next to an enormous indoor water park. “Do you ever get the idea that all the bad publicity is an attempt to make the town a symbol?” he asks.
Oh, yes, says Mayor Melissa Blake. “We take it personally.”
Like what, for example?
She mentions all the do-gooders with their glossy images of devastation as far as the eye can see.
“Would you rape the earth and despoil traditional lands and say That’s great, I’m getting a paycheck?”
For two solid hours, indignant residents take turns at the microphone. Michael says he recycles and drives a diesel and feels like he can do more good for the environment inside the industry than outside. Howard says that these self-appointed environmentalists are no better than tabloid journalists. Mark says that people here are focusing on solutions, not standing on the sidelines complaining — in the last few years Suncor has planted more than five million trees and reclaimed a tailings pond, which environmentalists said was impossible. They’re Canadian, for God’s sake. Everybody knows this is the most highly regulated place in the world, where a company can’t survive if it doesn’t earn its “social capital.” And unlike certain countries to the south, Alberta actually has a carbon tax. The nerve of some of this finger-pointing!
Despite all that, Brenda was afraid to tell her friends she was moving here — people just hate the place.
“Are you a villain?” Murphy asks.
“I’m not,” Brenda says. “We provide an essential commodity… . Canadians should be proud of what we do here.”
Murphy says to Blake: “You have family, you have children?”
“The air we all breathe, the water we all drink, is important here as anyplace in Canada,” the mayor says in a soothing voice.
To the critics of the oil sands, all of this is naked boosterism and bad science. Bus drivers here make more than $100,000, they point out. Heavy-haul truck drivers make $200,000. One local high school has a $3 million science facility donated by oil companies. Another shares the 350-seat Suncor performing arts theater, which has cutting-edge acoustics and a $60,000 set of curtains. And thanks to capitalism, local health care is a marvel of socialism — just show your provincial card and the copay is zero. The bill that comes to your house is zero, too. Of course all these people are going to praise the oil. Of course the government and the oil companies jump through hoops to make sure their immediate environment is clean. Did they mention that Percy’s air studies are designed not to measure gases that cause global warming? Did they mention the cancer clusters in Fort Chipewyan?
If you really want to see the true face of the tar sands, the critics tell you, that’s where you have to go. In that remote outpost where the toxins flow, you can see the future of the world.
The winter road is melting early this year, so the safest way to get to Fort Chip is by plane. This one is tiny, just four seats.
This tiny plane also happens to be the best way to see the tar sands, which are spread out over a vast area the size of Florida. Up ahead is Albian, Shell’s giant open-pit mine site. Over to the right is another huge mine called Firebag. The ground below is all black and crawling with giant machines, just like Earth in the opening minutes of Terminator 2.
A hundred million years ago, this was an ocean. Fifteen thousand years ago, glaciers covered it. Then the earth warmed, the oceans rose, and now the mine goes down in ridges hundreds of feet deep, the setbacks carved with giant shovels to keep the slopes from collapsing. Black roads branch into capillaries that end in square parking lots. Enormous round tanks dot the landscape.
From above, in the snow, it looks like a giant electronic circuit.
There’s the giant tailings pond, which is actually the largest dam in the world. Built right against the river, it looks like a giant triangular rice paddy.
In the distance, a steaming factory rises up out of the endless forest. That’s the Syncrude upgrader, the pilot says.
“I hate flying over these things,” says a passenger in the back, an environmentalist named Eriel Deranger. “It’s like living in a war zone.”
Deranger’s family is from Fort Chip and she now works with a group called the Indigenous Environmental Network. She says the government did water studies in the fall and winter, not when the spring melt releases the accumulated contaminants, but there’s a devastating new study by David Schindler of the University of Alberta that finds every spring melt is the equivalent of an oil spill. Not that anyone had to tell the people of Fort Chip — all you have to do is look at all the deformed fish, which have tumors the size of eggs.
Forty minutes later, the oil sands fall behind and the plane begins to cross a shimmery trail of streams and bogs that gleam like mercury in the sunlight. The river curls back on itself, coil after silver coil shimmering off into the horizon as far as the eye can see.
This is oil sands, too, slated for destruction.
The Indians do a healing walk at Fort Mac every year, Deranger says. Last year, everybody got sick.
The plane lands in a desolate field. The terminal is smaller than many gas stations. There is no hotel, just a pair of bed-and-breakfasts and a burger joint run by an ancient Chinese woman named Mah, the descendant of two brothers named Mah. You head over to the community center to meet another local environmental activist, a guy named Mike Mercredi, but the suspicious old lady at the door says that you’re not welcome here. You can come in, but you can’t talk to anybody.
When Mercredi shows up, the old lady throws him out, too. “I don’t know what the hell her problem was,” Mercredi says, driving away in his truck.
Turns out the community center was booked for a healing ceremony for natives who were taken from their families and sent to government schools. Frustrated, Mike pulls his truck into the town’s only gas station.
He can’t talk anymore, he says.
A moment later, he pulls away.
Hours pass. Finally, a skinny guy named Lionel Lepine shows up. Ever since their chief filed a lawsuit against Shell Oil, Lepine explains, the town has been torn between people who work in the tar sands and people who hate the tar sands. “Everybody’s scared to talk,” he says.
His house is just a couple of blocks away. Inside, a couple of toddlers watch a big flat-panel TV. Lepine sits down at the dinner table. The oil companies come to town all the time, he says. They’re here today giving a presentation at the high school, telling the kids all they need is their degree and they can make a hundred grand driving a truck. They never say, “Come get a Ph.D. and design a truck.” And if you go against them, he insists, they keep track. You won’t get hired again. Maybe your cousin won’t get hired. That’s how they control people. For years, Lepine drove a heavy hauler for Suncor, living the boomtown life in Fort McMurray. His turning point came when his family doctor, John O’Connor, became alarmed about a surge in cancer and talked about it on the radio. The government threatened to pull O’Connor’s license and brought charges against him for causing “undue alarm.” Lepine quit his job and joined the campaign against Shell and BP. He appears in a new Canadian documentary calledTipping Point: The End of Oil, which focuses on Dr. O’Connor and the fight over his license and the subsequent discovery of rapidly increasing levels of thirteen toxic chemicals in the river — arsenic and lead up fourfold near oil-sands development, mercury up eightfold downstream of tailings ponds, etc. At first, the government said those chemicals must be naturally occurring, since the Athabasca River flows right through the tar sands. Then doctors from the University of Alberta found leukemia and lymphoma at rates four times the average and bile-duct cancer six times higher. A 2009 study done by the Alberta health department concluded that Fort Chipewyan has a cancer rate 30 percent higher than the rest of Alberta. Out of twelve hundred citizens, according to locals, Fort Chip has lost more than a hundred people to cancer and rare autoimmune deficiencies. Canada has given itself a few years to come up with an official response while continuing to green-light more production.
“We’re surrounded by these people that only see one thing here, which is money,” Lepine says. “They don’t see the beauty, they don’t see the tradition we’re trying to protect, they don’t see the fresh snow on the ground. As far as they’re concerned, this is all just the jackpot that they hit. Because every single resource that’s considered precious to the white man is located right here in northern Alberta. You’ve got uranium, you’ve got gold, you’ve got diamonds, iron, oil — you name it, we’ve got it. We’re sitting right on top of everything. And they want it all. They want every ounce of it today, right now.”
Later that afternoon, Lepine gets a visit from the chief of the Chipewyan Dene tribe, Allan Adam. A solid guy of forty-six with a gray ponytail, a scar on his cheek, and a worried expression, Adam also did a stint working for Syncrude. Like Lepine and Mercredi, he came away with zero confidence in the good intentions of the oil industry. “I stated this publicly,” he says. “There’s an act of genocide being done to my people when it comes to poisoning our water system and poisoning our air. It’s corporate genocide, that’s what it really boils down to.” The tribe has sued Shell, but frankly the problem seems overwhelming — the animals forage the land, toxins concentrate in their flesh, people eat the animals. “When you look at the whole scope and everything, what do you do? Initiate court challenges? Put pressure on the government? Put pressure on industry to change their ways?”
The fact is, they’ll never get back to hunting and fishing in the traditional way. All of that is over. “The majority of the people who say it’s good, they’re profiting from it,” he says. “But we live it and see it and breathe it.”
The chief offers a ride to the airport. When he pulls into the parking lot, he lights a cigarette and says nothing for a few minutes, then he sighs. Another member of his tribe comes to the window. “You know what he’s going to write in the magazine? ‘Chief was idling his truck.’ ”
“And smoking a cigarette,” the chief adds with a wry smile, tapping his ashes into the wind.