Right here in North America could lie the answer to our energy needs. But at what cost? Mining the tar sands of Alberta threatens to strip the world’s largest intact forest of its ability to hold carbon and to wipe out the breeding grounds for millions of birds.
On a breezy July morning, Joe Marcel steers his 18-foot aluminum motorboat through the back channels of the Peace-Athabasca Delta, 800 miles north of the U.S. border, in Alberta. Marcel, an elder in the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, cuts a confident figure: He’s a beefy 56-year-old sport-fishing guide with a salt-and-pepper mustache and a wild ponytail. Homemade tattoos cover his sausage arms—reminders, he says, of an impulsive youth. Marcel has spent his entire life in and around the delta. He knows its waterways—Canoe Portage, Fletcher Channel, Jackfish Creek—the way others know suburban streets.
The boat glides between banks lined with cattails and bulrushes that bow as we pass. The only houses along some stretches were built by beavers. A dozen kingfishers keep pace with us, and we spot pelicans and pileated woodpeckers. Marcel points to a distant flash of movement: a bald eagle. This avian display, he says, is nothing. “Some days in the springtime, when the birds are migrating north—oh, man! For days on end there are flocks in the thousands.” The delta, part of North America’s 1.5-billion-acre boreal forest, serves as the convergence point for all four major North American flyways. Some 215 species—including the endangered whooping crane and neotropical migrants like the olive-sided flycatcher and the American wigeon—use its freshwater wetlands for breeding, nesting, or stopping over.
Ahead of us, Marcel’s brother George slows down the hand-built wooden skiff that carries the rest of our group. Standing in Goose Island Channel, almost black in the backlighting, is a startled cow moose. She’s been feeding on willow roots but darts into the woods at our approach.
Marcel loves this remote waterscape. The nearest town, Fort Chipewyan, is disconnected by land from the rest of Canada except in the winter, when the thick ice is graded and opened to vehicular traffic. “This place—it’s everything to me,” Marcel says. “This is home.” But he also knows its isolation is deceptive: Not far upriver, oil companies are digging up immense tracts of boreal forest for the world’s largest energy project.
Below much of Alberta’s northlands lies a vast supply of bitumen, a gooey hydrocarbon product that can be industrially “upgraded” into synthetic crude oil. The bitumen comes mixed with sand or clay, and depending on its depth can be extracted by open-pit mining or by injecting steam underground and pumping up the softened product.
To many industry and political officials, these “oil sands” are the answers to the United States’ prayers: a North American source of oil that offers independence from the Middle East and other unstable nations like Venezuela. But its extraction comes at a terrible cost: the destruction of Canada’s boreal forest, which provides breeding grounds for up to three billion birds. The world’s largest intact forest also offers habitat to black bears, lynx, and great herds of caribou. And it soaks up carbon with twice the efficiency of tropical rainforests—a hedge against global warming. Downstream residents and environmentalists, who prefer the term “tar sands,” say the threat to the boreal far outweighs the benefit of this new energy source.
Flying into Fort Chipewyan this morning on a chartered Jetstream, we inspected the tar sands from above. At first we saw undisturbed forest: a pillow of aspens and poplars, broken up by snaking wetlands. Suddenly the trees gave way to a manmade, industrialized desert, streaked with black and dotted with pools of viscous bitumen. Stacked slabs of bright-yellow sulfur rose like parodies of the terraces at Machu Picchu. Lakes of toxic waste shimmered with surface oil. Even where the forest remained, it was fractured by clear-cut ribbons joined at circular nodes, like outlines of giant Tinker toys.
I’m traveling with a group of environmental leaders on a fact-finding trip organized by the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The visit comes as tar-sands development has started going gangbusters. Today Canadian oil accounts for 19 percent of U.S. oil imports. Roughly half comes from the tar sands, which cover an area the size of Wisconsin. By 2035 Alberta’s bitumen could provide up to 37 percent of our foreign oil needs, according to the consulting firm IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates. The Obama administration, which has been quietly talking with environmental leaders, has not taken a firm position on the issue. In his most explicit remarks, President Obama told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation last February that he believed technology would eventually lessen the tar sands’ “big carbon footprint.” Many environmentalists view that hope with skepticism.
Our group is touring the tar sands and meeting with industry officials and other local residents. From the oil company representatives, we hear about responsible extraction and replenishment. Those on the other side tell us about depleted and contaminated water, rare cancer, and the loss of bird and mammal habitat. They wonder aloud what will remain of their province if oil companies continue extracting northern Alberta’s resources at the projected expansion rate.
“From where we’re sitting right here, it’s 60 miles due south to the closest oil sands,” Marcel says. “In 30 years it’ll be right in my back area. And there’s not a thing I can do about it.”
A delegation from Suncor Energy meets us at the airport in Fort McMurray, the boomtown nearest Alberta’s bitumen mines. In 1967 Suncor became the first company to set up shop in the tar sands. In 2009 it merged with Petro-Canada to become the nation’s largest energy firm.