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Darkening Prospects

Whether tar sands or gushing wells, the chaos of oil extraction is wreaking havoc on the environment with no sign of relief.

July 1, 2010

By Elizabeth Kolbert

A couple of decades ago, the town of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta barely existed. Now it has 64,000 residents, and a housing crisis so severe that people who come looking for work often find themselves living in their cars. Usually, they stay anyway. The pay is so good—the town’s been nicknamed “Fort McMoney”—that they say it’s worth it.

Darkening Prospects
Illustration by Ana Juan
+ Click on image to enlarge
Oil refinery in Alberta, Canada
Photo © Jon Lowenstein/NOOR

Oil refinery in Alberta, Canada

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Fort McMurray is an oil boom town, though not in the conventional sense of the term. Oil in northern Alberta comes in a sticky, almost solid form known as tar sands. Instead of gushing from a well, it has to be strip mined or, alternatively, melted out of the ground using what amounts to an enormous hotplate. Either way, the process is terrifically destructive. Huge stretches of Canada’s boreal forest have been chopped down to get at the tar sands, leaving behind a devastated landscape and lakes full of toxic waste. Most of the resulting product has been exported to the United States; it is expected that this year the tar sands will become the U.S.’s single largest source of oil. (If you live in a state where tar sands oil is refined—Ohio, say, or Indiana—chances are you are driving around with a piece of northern Alberta in your tank.)

I went to visit the tar sands a couple of years ago because I was interested in seeing the damage up close. I thought back on my trip when oil started gushing out of the BP well into the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf spill is a fast-moving crisis; while it’s allegedly capped as of this writing, it gushed something like 60,000 barrels of oil into the water for 91 straight days. The tar sands are a slow-moving crisis; every month or two another section of the forest is ripped up to make room for more pipelines and front-end loaders. Both are symptoms of the same fundamental problem.

Since the first oil well was drilled in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1859, the world has consumed roughly a trillion barrels of oil. Most of the planet’s easily accessible reserves are, if not already depleted, then certainly well on their way there. While we may or may not have reached the point of “peak oil,” clearly we have entered what Hampshire College professor Michael Klare has dubbed the “Age of Tough Oil.” In the Age of Tough Oil, we will increasingly get our petroleum from wells like BP’s, or from under the Arctic Ocean, or from formations like the tar sands.

The spill in the Gulf certainly reflects BP’s recklessness—the company and its contractors committed a series of quite possibly criminal mistakes. But those mistakes were amplified by the conditions they were working under. The Deepwater Horizon rig, which was drilling the well, was operating in water more than 5,000 feet deep. The well extended 13,000 feet beneath the sea floor. At such depths, the margin for error declines at the same time that the cost of errors skyrockets. As more and more drilling takes place in deeper and deeper waters—BP was drilling in what’s known as a “deepwater well,” other companies are already drilling in “ultra deepwater”—the odds of massive spills can only increase. Meanwhile, as the tar sands show, these days you don’t even have to have an oil spill to create an environmental disaster.

“I don’t know what we have to do to try to prevent them from destroying any more,” a fisherman named Ray Ladouceur told me when I went to visit Fort Chipewyan, a remote settlement in the northern Alberta region where several residents have recently died from very rare forms of cancer. “They try to say they can clean it. There’s no way. It’ll take a thousand years before it flushes itself out.”

As everyone knows, oil is a finite resource. By definition, finite resources run out. Someday we’re going to have to figure out how to move, as BP so aptly put it, “beyond petroleum.” We can do that before we’ve destroyed what’s left of Canada’s boreal forest and the Gulf of Mexico, or we can do it after. The choice, unfortunately, is that simple.

The New Yorker Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change.

This article appeared in the July 2010 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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