The "tar sands" of northern Canada are home to the world's largest oil reserve. Extracting and exporting the oil—so far almost exclusively to the US—is bringing massive wealth to the region. But what about the social and environmental costs?by Derek Brower / February 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Fort McMurray, Alberta: the centre of Canada’s oil boom
The first things you notice when you reach Canada’s notorious tar sands are the mountains of fluorescent yellow: sulphur, sitting uncovered beneath the blazing sun. “The market for it collapsed,” says my guide, “so it just sits here.”
Then, next to belching plants, you spot black lakes of bitumen, sand, silt and water. Gunshots sound periodically, warning innocent birds away from their last bath. Prepared for the worst, you crest a hill and the panorama of the tar sands opens in front of you. It is a picture of ecological devastation on a colossal scale, the result of the world’s addiction to oil combined with the gargantuan force of some of the globe’s biggest energy companies brought to bear on a pristine landscape.
These are the “oil sands” of northern Alberta—rebranded from “tar sands,” which makes them sound too dirty—the world’s most strategically important energy development of the last decade. A mixture of bitumen, clay, sand and water, they lie beneath the surface of 140,000 km2 of “muskeg,” a Canadian term for the wooded boreal bogland that stretches across much of the country’s north. The bitumen is concentrated around two of Canada’s biggest rivers, the Athabasca and Peace, and Cold Lake. Most of this is in the western Canadian province of Alberta (pictured, below right), although some of the bitumen stretches into Saskatchewan, to the east.
The oil reserve is the largest in the world: some estimate that beneath the muskeg lie up to 3 trillion barrels of oil. That figure is largely irrelevant, because the only oil that matters is the kind that can be extracted. But even so, proved recoverable reserves—the amount of oil that can be extracted using existing techniques—are thought to be around 175bn barrels, making them second only to Saudi Arabia’s estimated 264bn barrels.
So it’s no wonder that one frequent visitor to what George W Bush calls the “tar pits” has been Samuel Bodman III, the US’s energy secretary. The US has spent decades scouring the planet for reserves to reduce its dependency on middle eastern hydrocarbons. As luck would have it, they are to be found just north of the 49th parallel, in a country many Americans consider a frozen, slightly quirky 51st state. “Why is our oil under their sand?” asks a popular American bumper sticker. Now the sand is Albertan, not Arabian.