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.
For all of Suncor's enthusiasm, NRDC attorney Susan Casey-Lefkowitz still finds herself a skeptic. "A lot of what the oil companies are looking at is totally destroying an ecosystem and thinking that they can start to rebuild it, in a manmade fashion, 40 or 50 years down the line," she says. "We just don't know enough about the complexity of these ecosystems to be able to rebuild them in a laboratory."
Alberta's indigenous communities are particularly concerned about the science experiment happening in their backyard. Their health, they say, is at stake. In 2006 a physician named John O'Connor discovered outsized cancer levels among the 1,200 mostly aboriginal residents of downstream Fort Chipewyan, including multiple cases of bile-duct cancer. Alberta's government downplayed the concerns, so Fort Chipewyan's health board hired ecologist Kevin Timoney to study water and sediment quality.
Timoney discovered dangerous and likely rising levels of arsenic, which is linked to bile-duct and other cancers, along with mercury and PAHs. (All three contaminants are present in tailings ponds.) The delta's geology worsened the threat. "Fort Chipewyan lies within a depositional basin in which metals and other contaminants tend to accumulate in fine-textured sediments," the ecologist wrote. They also become concentrated in fish, a key part of the local diet. During his research, Timoney talked with aboriginal elders who reported watery-tasting fish, moose with discolored livers, and fish with various deformities, like curved spines, bulging eyes, and malformed fins.
Still, applications for tar-sands expansion are pouring into the offices of Alberta's First Nations, which lack the staff to challenge them effectively. "We're inundated," says Doreen Somers, who directs the industrial relations council for the Fort McMurray #468 First Nation. "It's a wonderful system that works for them. We get tied up in that conveyor-belt paper process," leaving no time to focus on big-picture policy making.
After a day in the tar sands--where the trees are called "overburden" and bulldozed en masse--it's a relief to arrive at the Peace-Athabasca Delta. Joe Marcel and his siblings live in Fort Chipewyan but escape whenever possible into the delta's roadless reaches, traveling by boat or snowmobile. Today our base camp is Moose Crossing, a waterside tract directly across from First Nations reserve land. Marcel's sister owns the property, which has a modest solar-powered trailer and a garden bursting with beets, lettuce, and green arrow peas.
At the camp we eat moose-and-bison stew, along with a sconelike bread called bannock made from flour, oil, baking powder, and raisins. We watch song sparrows and rose-breasted grosbeaks flit amid the aspen branches. As dusk approaches, we huddle around a fire pit, peering through binoculars as beavers and buffleheads glide down Fletcher Channel. A quick storm chases us inside. When it passes, we return to find a rainbow hovering, miragelike, across the water.
Mostly we explore the boreal forest. Our hosts dock their boats at a soggy bank, then arrange some castoff planks to help us cross onto dry land. Covered in full-body mosquito netting, we hike along a trail lined with yarrow and bluebells, crunching caribou moss underfoot and grazing on Saskatoon berries. The brothers point out evidence of recent moose activity: tracks in the moss, piles of droppings, and pin cherry shrubs, which provide nutrition. Equally evident is the importance of these woods to the Athabasca Chipewyan: On a hilltop overlooking Jackfish Creek, we come to a cemetery where knee-high picket fences surround hand-lettered graves. Generations of Marcels are buried here.
This forest, say scientists, is among the world's most important, yet it is being squandered. First we logged it for toilet paper and catalogs (see "Paper Chase," January-February 2009), and now we are strip-mining it for the world's dirtiest oil. This deforestation robs the ecosystem of its extraordinary ability to hold carbon--at a time when global leaders are struggling to figure out how to keep excess carbon out of the atmosphere. What's more, tar-sands development decimates birds. In 2008 the Boreal Songbird Initiative, along with the NRDC and the Pembina Institute, looked at the ways bitumen extraction reduces bird populations, including habitat loss, water withdrawals, and pollution. At minimum, the study concluded, six million birds will be lost over 30 to 50 years. Worst case, that number could reach 166 million. Their estimate includes both living birds and an additional generation that, according to the study, "will have lost their chance to exist."
"The more you lower the population, the more you have lost its resiliency to rebound," says biologist Jeff Wells, the Boreal Songbird Initiative's senior scientist. He has "grave concern" about several species of neotropical migrants that depend heavily on the boreal. The short-billed dowitcher, for example, has only three breeding areas, one of which overlaps the tar sands. Already its numbers are down at least half from a century ago. "There are historical records of single flocks of tens of thousands," Wells says. "Now if you see 50 of them at a time, that would be big news." Likewise, he says, the olive-sided flycatcher is drawn to clearcut areas like those found around bitumen facilities. There the birds are vulnerable to both predation and less or different food. "They're ecological traps," he explains.