At the end of March, I visited the oil sands operations. What sticks in my mind weeks later is the vastness…the vastness of the Alberta forest beneath which lies most of Canada's oil reserves—the third largest in the world—and vastness of the oil mining operations surrounding Fort McMurray whether it's Syncrude, Suncor or Shell. They are big industrial operations in an even bigger forest.
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Oil here is not the liquid black gold you think of in Texas or Oklahoma or the Gulf of Mexico. It is a tar like substance called bitumen. It is excavated by mining or steam assisted drilling, where it is literally melted a quarter mile beneath the earth.
This oil is so heavy it must be upgraded or diluted before it can transported. The whole operation is a carbon intensive process sending more global warming gases into the atmosphere. How much depends on your point of view. The oil industry downplays the impact, opponents claim it is up to 37 percent more carbon intensive over the lifecycle of a barrel of crude from oil sands.
The State Department, in its review of Keystone, said the oil from this area produces 17 percent more greenhouse gasses than conventional crude. Those emissions are the heart of the environmental debate in Alberta, and a big reason why opponents call this "dirty oil."
The oil sands industry here plans to more than double its production by 2030. Shell vice president Tom Purves explained, "We have a massive resource here that's oil from a country that's very stable, it's a democratic country. We're able to transport this oil on pipelines safely to the U.S. and other parts of the world, other parts of North America. And I think we'll be using fossil fuels for a long time—this will be an important part of it."
Opponents said this is not about stopping development. They realize this is a natural resource crucial to Alberta and Canada's future. It's about the pace, the scale and how it adds to Canada's carbon footprint. They worry approval of the Keystone pipeline will turbo-charge growth.
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Eriel Deranger of the Athabasca Chipeywan First Nation understands the booming industry brings modern conveniences. It also brings, Deranger said, modern problems threatening the forest and wildlife that are still part of the First Nations culture and have been for centuries.
"But there has to be a balance, and respect for humans—fundamental human rights and the rights to human subsistence and survivals. What we're seeing is that balance is out of whack here in Alberta. I think we're seeing development take precedence over the preservation of peoples and people's basic right to human survival," she explained.