One flew over the cuckoo's nest

Tar sands from the air

A few days ago I had the mixed fortune of visiting Canada's Fort McMurray, a small but rapidly expanding boom town at the frontier of the tar sands frenzy. I had been following the tar sands issue for a while as climbing oil prices made their development increasingly profitable, and was well aware of some of the environmental, social and economic terms in the equation. Mining, deforestation, wildlife disturbance, air pollution, water contamination and depletion, greenhouse gases, long shifts and abominable working conditions: all pretty standard terms in the environmentalist’s vocabulary, and the tar sands a textbook case. No amount of reading could have prepared me for the reality of Alberta’s tortured north. Insanity is a word far too general and widely used to capture the lengths to which humans, driven by need, hope, greed and unscrupulousness have gone to do what common wisdom has always considered impossible: squeezing blood out of stone.

We waited for our helicopter at the exposed banks of the Athabasca river as it ran at its lowest level in recent times, partly owing to the vast quantities of water withdrawn virtually for free by the sands operations. A small group of us representing environmental NGOs had flown in that morning to take part in a documentary on the tar sands. We watched a group of fishermen pull out a chunky walleye, wondering only half-jokingly whether HQ had sent a fish crew down to drive the point home that all was well and normal in front of the camera crew and the enviros… A few minutes later, as our pilot soared over one of the open-pit mining sites, our cameraman asked us to describe what we were seeing over the intercom. My confusion at that stage left me searching for intelligent comments.

On one side lay an expanse of Canada’s famed boreal forest, a scene of pristine wilderness. On the other, an industrial moonscape, a scene of devastation way beyond what articles and reports can capture. A vast expanse of dug out soil, a giant gaping wound in this once untouched corner of the world was populated not by caribou, lynx and wolves, but by herds of giant machinery – diggers, cranes and trucks with 14ft tires – that would make every aspiring Star Wars director envious. Contrasts are not new to me, I seek them out regularly in my photographs. That scene however… broke new ground, as I tried simultaneously to process two images so inherently foreign that even the sickest of imaginations would never combine.

The mother ship stood in the middle of the development area, upgrading the mere 10% of bitumen that is squeezed out of the mined tar sands. The remaining 90%, now a mining waste consisting of sand, clay, silt and water, rich in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, naphthenic acids, heavy metals, salts and bitumen was being deposited through pipes in tailings ponds large enough that they can be seen from space. Alas, they came too late to outbid the Dead Sea for its name. A few hours earlier we had stood by the side of one of these ponds, listening to the highly toxic waste gurgling through the pipes before reaching its outlet. A couple of workers on their day shift were raising the banks of the pond in large bulldozers, minutes away from the main site and its smokestacks, where they were probably lucky enough to call one of the hundreds of identical cubicles "home". A battery chicken farm? On the contrary, probably spacious compared to the caravans and trucks in which several thousands of other workers sleep at one of the tens of camps that have sprouted up around Fort McMurray.

An electronic board close to the plant on the other side of Highway 63, Canada’s aptly named Highway of Death, read "Congratulations! Injury-free September, first time in 20 years", in a decidedly celebratory fashion. It took a whole thirty minutes before security guards came to greet us and our video cameras. A polite lady warned us that it was "dangerous to stand on the side of the highway due to heavy machinery traffic", and urged us to go. Syncrude had in fact provided the public with a more suitable observation platform with breathtaking views of its operations in the distance. A flimsy fence separated this well groomed and maintained vantage point where national, provincial and corporate banners flew proudly together in perfect harmony, from a tailings pond. Syncrude, diligent in its obligations towards the public had erected signs warning us off the fenced-off area and the toxic pond lest we be… attacked by bison. It is refreshing at least to see that black gold has not lost its black humor. Our suggested departure from the side of the highway came not a moment too soon though – for many of us the awful stench of the refinery was one of the most intrusive aspects of this surreal experience, making our eyes burn and the back of our throats accumulate gunk in a matter of minutes. This is the air that thousands of workers are forced to breathe 24/7 at these sites. The choice between that and sleeping in a truck further away would certainly not have been a tough one for me, even if it did add two hours of commuting. In any case, I hear that trucks can be outfitted with pretty good heat insulation and satellite TV these days.

What of Fort McMurray itself? Once a fur-trading town at the confluence of the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers, its character has been distinctly transformed. Its population has doubled in the last ten years, property prices have doubled during the last three years. We met Melissa Blake, the mayor, at the local Tim Hortons spending her last few hours before the morning of her hopeful reelection. She has been outspoken on the problems that such a rapid pace of development has brought to the area, unable to sway the regulators who continue to characterize the risks of tar sands development as "acceptable". Water and waste water treatment facilities have reached capacity. Millions of dollars worth of crack cocaine travels up Highway 63 every week. And yes, the roadside is indeed dotted with crosses and flower wreaths for the unfortunate ones that have fallen victim to accidents, mostly related to drug and alcohol abuse, giving the highway its morbid nickname.

Nobody I spoke to seemed happy to be there – they were there for the obvious reason that gave Fort McMoney its nickname. The "Oilcan" tavern did adorn the city center, - it’s no joke – although I did not get to enjoy one of its exotic dance shows. The "Oilsands" hotel was also aptly named. Large trucks dominated the streets, loaded with ATVs in the back for recreation, Fort McMurray style. Newfoundlanders in large numbers described how Alberta’s oil rush had attracted them, and how this move had disrupted the social fabric back home. My Ethiopian taxi driver explained that he had come there for a couple of years at most to save up for his family in Toronto – "I earn here in nine months what it takes me two years to earn over there". In the meantime he had to put up with "crackheads" in his cab, a word that was on the lips of most of the locals I spoke to. I always find conversations with taxi drivers illuminating. They spend their lives on the road, see everything, talk to everybody. Back in Calgary, a Toronto-raised Italian lamented how expensive life was getting for those who did not jump on the tar sands bandwagon, as a direct result of the rush. Renting in Calgary was already more expensive than Vancouver. An eccentric figure by the river in a downtown Calgary park had been singing:

"Calgary sucks, Calgary sucks
there’s nothing here to see
unless you work for the oil industry"

Having come back from the tar sands, I began to consider him a little less odd than I did a few days before, even though I enjoyed the city.

The tar sands workers themselves were the most candid in describing their dislike for the whole affair. The situation has been likened to Mordor, where orcs slave away feverishly underground – although the resemblance of the ones I spoke to with real people like you and me was uncanny. When Faust sold his soul to the devil, he did it in pursuit of knowledge and power. Workers are drawn to the tar sands in search of a better future, often out of need instead. In the process they forego their clean air and water, their health, their families and their happiness. Their soul too? That is not for me to answer.

Who is benefitting from this rush, then?

I don't think anyone will need any help in answering that. I saw the answer very clearly sitting in the Sawridge Inn, one of Fort McMurray’s high-end hotels. Cleanly shaven males with managerial jobs whose "Suncor" and "Syncrude" raincoats and a common employer was pretty much all they shared with their site worker counterparts. A look of comfort and confidence was on their faces, rather than the exhaustion of continuous twelve-hour shifts. For them the sands and Fort McMurray are not so much real places as numbers. Abstract projects and ventures whose human and natural dimensions have been conveniently stripped to leave a bunch of paperwork.

How unfamiliar a scenario, you might say, the environmentalist blaming Big Oil. As a matter of fact, I happen not to belong to the group of people who blame industry for everything and equate corporations with the devil. Not all corporations are the same. A large corporation itself has many different faces, and employs a host of people, ranging from the most decent and moral to the most unscrupulous. Corporations operate under rules and constraints that lead them to behavior that we are all too quick to criticize. Yet we, society collectively, devised the rules. Maximizing shareholder value, capitalism. Before we renounce those too, let’s stop for a moment and think of the many ways that all of us benefit from this system. I am not the greatest fan ideologically either, but I do feel that it is more important to strive and improve than it is to dismiss.

Who is driving the tar sands rush?

For that one, the finger should be pointed south of the friendly Canadian-American border, to you and me. Canada’s oil consumption has remained more or less stable, while the U.S. is "addicted to oil" in President Bush's words. 16% of American gas can be traced to Canada's north, and will soon amount to 25% if current trends continue. Canada is becoming America's gas tank, with dire local consequences.

Using tar sands oil amounts to a desperate search for hidden veins to feed our oil addiction. With ever rising oil prices, the slope can be slippery, with liquid coal and oil-shale in hot pursuit. Yet we seem to be overlooking the obvious fact that we can break the habit by driving more fuel-efficient vehicles and gradually substituting oil for sustainably grown biofuels. These are not solutions of the future, they are available to us today. We simply need to choose the right path.

Tar sands oil production, a process that produces three times as much CO2 as conventional oil, is a risky investment in a carbon constrained world. We are already seeing the majors with their deeper pockets and diversified portfolios displace smaller outfits. As we saw with the coal industry’s failed attempt to secure loan guarantees, direct subsidies and production mandates for turning coal into liquid transportation fuels in Congress this year, appetite for high-carbon fuels is decreasing. In the meantime, several states and provinces have either legislated or are discussing decreasing the carbon intensity of their fuels through Low Carbon Fuels Standards. Two Canadian provinces have already adopted measures similar to California: Ontario and British Columbia. In this kind of environment, tar sands developers should keep in mind that demand for their dirty fuels might be limited. One thing is certain: the expansions in pipeline and refining capacity needed to bring those fuels into the U.S. market will be bitterly contested.

We do not always connect the things we should connect, often through nobody's fault. I wish every American motorist had witnessed the images of destruction from Alberta that will now be on my mind when filling up at a gas station. The sight of a wasteland in the middle of the boreal wilderness, the sound of propane guns to scare birds away from the toxic tailings ponds, and the nauseating smell of the processing site.

There is nothing good to say about the tar sands. Their "development" is a runaway train that is already moving at breakneck speed before anyone has had the time to address the plethora of issues with which they are wrought: wildlife disturbance, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, water use and contamination, public health, local welfare and basic human rights, to name but a few. Albertans themselves have said it loudly and clearly numerous times in polls and consultations: they expect the environment to be protected, and development to be balanced with environmental sustainability. First Nations communities' livelihoods and health are being impacted heavily. The majority of the people of Alberta see very little, if anything, in return for the exploitation of a resource that rightfully belongs to them, a resource that is leased virtually for free by inadequate "regulators" who act as the executioners of a policy that is shamelessly paraded as progress, development and energy security in Edmonton, Ottawa and Washington alike, with disappointingly little political backlash.

A moratorium on new tar sands developments until outstanding issues are adequately addressed is the very least one could ask for. In the meantime however, for those of us south of the Canadian border, let us not look as far  Alberta’s north. Both the cause and the solution lie in our hands. Let us not allow them to slip away from us – on four wheels. Tar sands oil is an unnecessary fuel: we can massively increase the efficiency of our vehicles at a fraction of the cost before we turn a wilderness area the size of Florida into a wasteland to feed our addiction.

As I was leaving the turmoil of Fort McMurray to return to San Francisco, the serenity of sunrise concealed the human endeavors and revealed the natural beauty of that part of the world. An illuminated sign inside the airport declared the pride of "one of the world’s largest oil companies", Total, to be part of the former. Yet the sign depicted the latter. The tailings ponds I had seen looked rather different.