A giant mechanical digger gouges out a chunk of topsoil, grass and
tree stumps, extending a neat furrow that stretches into the distance.
Dozens of similar furrows run parallel with the regularity of a
Yet no crop could grow in the pitch-black surface exposed by the
machine working 1,000ft below our helicopter. This is the edge of a
fast-expanding open-cast mine in the Canadian tar sands, one of the
world's most polluting sources of oil.
It takes only a few minutes to fly across the 200 sq miles (520 sq
km) of mines, processing plants and man-made lakes of toxic water. But
Canada has so far extracted only 2 per cent of a resource that it hopes
will turn it into a global energy superpower.
BP and Shell are among dozens of oil companies preparing to raise
production from 1.3 million barrels a day at present to 2.5 million by
2015 and 6 million by 2030.
Canada faces a dilemma as it prepares for next month's UN climate
summit in Copenhagen. It wants to present itself as environmentally
responsible but also wants the profits from the tar sands, which cover
an area of Alberta's natural coniferous forest larger than England.
The sands contain 174 billion barrels of proven reserves, the
world's second-largest reserves after Saudi Arabia. With improved
techniques, Canada hopes to extract between 315 billion and 1.7
A Co-operative Bank study calculated that, even if all other carbon
dioxide emissions stopped, fully exploiting the tar sands would still
tip the world into catastrophic climate change by raising global
temperatures more than 2C above pre-industrial levels. Extracting each
barrel of crude from the sticky mass of sand, clay and bitumen produces
two to three times as much CO2 as drilling for a barrel of conventional
oil. The tar sands boom faltered a year ago as the oil price fell below
the $60 a barrel at which the extraction process is profitable. Now,
with oil at about $80 a barrel, hundreds of fortune seekers arrive each
day in Fort McMurray, the oil equivalent of a gold rush town.
Two lanes are being added to the bridges from the town to the tar
sands projects across the Athabasca River. The airport is planning a
new terminal and oil companies have built four private runways to ferry
workers to their sites directly. But the best indication of Fort
McMurray's growth is the constant traffic jam. It can take an hour just
to reach the highway from the suburbs that have sprung up in the hills
around the town.
The average house costs C$600,000 (£340,000) , but that is well
within the budget of truck drivers at the mines, who, with overtime,
earn C$180,000 a year. Many workers fly in from depressed fishing towns
in Newfoundland and save money by living in mobile cabins stacked four
storeys high in clearings in the forest.
Jean Fournier, 64, a scaffolder working on a new processing plant,
says that he has earned C$64,000 in the past four months - working 24
days on and four off. "That's three times what I could earn back home
in New Brunswick. I've made enough money to build my own house and I'm
retiring after six more weeks here."
He scowls when asked about Greenpeace's recent occupation of tar
sands plants: "Greenpeace will make people starve by killing the
economy. We all care about the environment but we need our jobs."
With winter temperatures of minus 40C, the 112,000 tar sands workers
are more concerned with protecting themselves from the cold than the
world from global warming. A comment article last week in the local
paper, Fort McMurray Today, begins: "Where the hell is the global warming some people are so worried about?"
Syncrude, which operates one of the biggest mines, is working hard
to improve its image and recently handed back its first piece of
"reclaimed land" to the Canadian Government. Publicity photographs show
imported bison and young trees, but when you visit you realise that
this is less than half a square mile on the edge of a wasteland of
mines and toxic lakes.
Syncrude no longer refers to tar sands, the name used since the 19th
century, because it thinks "oil sands" sounds more positive. It
describes the topsoil stripped away as "overburden" and the toxic lakes
as "tailings ponds".
In April last year 1,600 ducks died after landing on an oil slick on
one of Syncrude's lakes. It took a full year for the company and
Alberta's environment agency to admit the scale of wildlife loss. To
ward off another PR disaster, Syncrude has filled the lakes with orange
scarecrows, known locally as bit-u-men.
Canada knows, however, that the biggest long-term threat to its tar
sands industry is not dead ducks but international regulations on
greenhouse gas emissions. Most of the crude is exported to the United
States, where several states are considering banning it because it is
so carbon-intensive. America's dependence on tar sands is a sensitive
issue in Washington, and Barack Obama's ambassador to Canada toured the
mines last month and questioned the companies about their carbon
Alberta's latest proposal to rid tar sands of their dirty image is a
C$2 billion subsidy for carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities.
Shell plans to install CCS by 2015 at an upgrading plant but admits
that it would reduce carbon emissions from its tar sands production by
only 15-20 per cent.
Mel Knight, the energy minister for Alberta, which receives C$12
billion a year in revenue from its oil and gas industries, told The Times:
"There has to be at least a hundred years of production in the oil
sands and CCS will make this more palatable. My feeling is we will
reach a steady state of five million barrels a day. The oil sands are
critical [to] the global supply of energy. The world needs the energy
and there's no alternative that we can see."
Shell plans to increase production from 155,000 barrels a day to
255,000 next year. BP is designing a plant with an initial output of
60,000 barrels a day, rising to 200,000 within a decade.
Canada has offered belatedly to cut its current CO2 emissions by 20
per cent by 2020 but wants to be forgiven for ignoring the target set
at Kyoto a decade ago. Its emissions were 26 per cent above its 1990
levels by 2006: the Kyoto target was a 6 per cent cut.
Peter Lee, director of the environmental group Global Forest Watch
Canada, said: "There is no place for oil sands in a low-carbon future.
Canada is ignoring its global responsibility and betraying its promises.
"If we can't get it right in Canada, one of the world's richest
countries, how can we expect developing countries to reduce their
Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at Victoria University, British
Columbia, and contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change, said: "If we burn the tar sands, we are effectively saying we
don't owe anything to future generations."