When I think of oil I picture John Wayne capping a well in classic 60s style, or lazy pumps rocking up and down across the landscape. Oil pools beneath the ground; oilmen drill and pump it to the surface, move it to refineries by pipeline, then distribute it via freight systems to its final destination. There are mishaps like the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska or the bungled well in the Gulf of Mexico; the latter received 24 hour news coverage for weeks – an epic ecological disaster. Fouled beaches impacted tourism, shellfish beds destroyed, fragile marshland and glades gasping beneath globs of crude oil. Count down clocks clicked until another attempt was made to contain the devastation. Debates raged over blame and compensation, newsmen interviewed every forlorn shrimp man and business owner along the Gulf Coast. For weeks on end – analysis, impact reports, and human interest stories; and without fail, an ever present split screen showing crude oil spewing from the underground well.
Oil spills come and go, they blaze across media outlets for a few weeks, then forgotten until the next one reminds us to be more careful. Out of sight, out of mind. The oil most people think of is pumped from reserves deep in the earth; vast pools of crude, waiting in underground lakes. Until an accident impacts the environment – no visible damage on the horizon.
Bitumen is another story. This tar like, semi solid substance is found in sandy or clay like earth known as tar sands. The 141,000 square Km Athabasca Tar Sands in northern Alberta gives Canada the second largest oil reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia. Unlike Saudi oil, this is Bitumen – in the earth, not beneath it.
In 1967, Sun Oil Company was the first to commercially extract crude from the sands using water and surfactants to separate the oil, initial production was around 30,00 barrels a day. Now 64 oil companies, most of them foreign, produce upwards of a million barrels a day. Production is expected to increase at the same rate, the government has no intention of conducting business any other way. Alberta has one of the lowest royalties in the world for its oil, in 1994 the federal government gave tax breaks of 100% for capital investment; to be “written off” as “accelerated capital cost allowances”. Canada has rolled out the red carpet to foreign investment with just one stipulation – once the land has been strip mined, it should be restored to “equivalent land capability”, although land use does not have to be identical.
The tar sands area around Fort McMurray is, or was Boreal forest and muskeg. The Athabasca River runs through the sands and provides the massive amount of water needed to process Bitumen. The water is heated using ridiculous amounts of natural gas; so much so that Alberta may have to reduce natural gas shipments to America to keep up with the tar sands. Huge tailing pools contain by-products of the refining process. Mercury, lead, cadmium, and other toxic waste products seep into the ground, and spill back into the Athabasca River with nothing more than an “oops – sorry” from the oil companies. Hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres, as far as the eye can see, wiped off the face of the earth.
Ponder those weeks spent watching images of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, then look long and hard at the pictures. Granted the gulf supports many more people, shrimp are much more popular than Northern Pike, and the livelihood of northern Canada’s mostly indigenous population doesn’t hold a candle to the plight of oyster men in Louisiana.