February 23rd, 2009
04:54 PM ET

A time of hope for an ugly scar?

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/02/23/canadian_oil_003.copy.jpg caption="Dust hangs in the sunset sky above the Suncor Millennium mine, an open-pit north of Fort McMurray, Alberta."]

Rob Kunzig
National Geographic Magazine

There were two moments last summer in northern Alberta, where National Geographic had sent me on assignment to write about the oil sands boom, when I felt I was beginning to get it–when I glimpsed the full dimensions of the story in time and space.

In the Athabasca Valley north of Fort McMurray, the oil companies are going to amazing lengths to scrape oil from the frozen ground. First, they raze the boreal forest, then they strip-mine tarry sand with gargantuan trucks and steam shovels, and finally they cook the tar out of the sand and then cook it some more to upgrade it to oil. It takes a huge amount of energy. That puts a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, above and beyond what comes out our tailpipes when we burn the resulting gasoline.

Environmentalists had told me how insane that was, and what a threat to wildlife and people’s health the mines were in the area. Oil company executives and Alberta officials had told me those concerns were exaggerated, that Americans and other people have to run their cars on something, and the oil companies are just getting the oil where they can find it. Better from Alberta than from Venezuela or Nigeria or Iran, they said. It was all true, and all predictable.

But I couldn’t have predicted Jim Boucher’s story. He’s the chief of Fort McKay First Nation, the Indian band that lives in a small community that is now surrounded by mines. As a boy in the 1960s Boucher helped his grandfather set traps for mink and muskrat in a patch of forest that is now a mine pit, next to a lake that is now flanked by a refinery and a toxic tailings pond. The oil companies erased his boyhood world and boyhood dreams, transforming wilderness into industrial landscape–and Boucher is now working with them.

In fact he’s built a $100 million business for his community out of working with them. And partly as a result, his community now has a lot of things he didn’t have growing up—things like electricity, indoor plumbing, and telephones. Boucher has become an avid golfer—but he can’t eat fish anymore from the river that flows past his front door. Finding the right balance isn’t easy, he said.

The other moment of clarity came for me in a helicopter. There’s no place like a helicopter for appreciating what an ugly scar on the landscape the oil sands mines really are–and also what a small scar they are compared with the immense untouched boreal forest. That means there is still time for us to make the right choices. And strangely, hovering over a tailings pond one evening, looking at the setting sun glinting off a forest of smokestacks, I felt a surge of optimism. It takes amazing human energy and ingenuity to do what the oil companies are doing in the Athabasca valley–and with the right incentives, that ingenuity could be redirected along better paths.

That evening, my last in Alberta, oil closed at $147 a barrel. As I write, it’s at $39 a barrel. The oil sands boom has ground to a halt; we’re in a horrible recession. It’s not easy to take the long view these days—but if you do, it’s a time of great hope.

Editor's Note: For more on the oil sands boom in Alberta, read the March issue of National Geographic Magazine. To see more photos, click  here.

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Lee

    This is such a narrow minded veiw of what is going on in Northern Alta. and is unfortunate that the media focus on the negative once again, and opts to "forget" the positive. If the reporter who wrote this story would have gone just south of Fort Macmurray, he would have seen a new generation of oil production. One that has far less environmental impact. Maybe you should do a story about the new SAGD plants in the area, and the carbon capture programs that are being studied and will be implimented due to new legislation being brought in by the our government. Oh one other positive, how about all the JOBS that this area creates.

    February 24, 2009 at 9:47 am |
  2. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    Corporate greed not only strips Americans of their self-worth and dignity-–it also insults the planet--greed has no boundaries-–and in this day and age "one can never be too greedy."

    February 24, 2009 at 8:55 am |
  3. julie ,p.i.

    if we could only find a better alternative source of energy than oil.... we wouldn't be forced to go to such extreem means of extracting oil from mother earth... we could probably be able to save the environment.

    February 24, 2009 at 3:23 am |
  4. KIm

    "We do have a choice,we just fail to make it." T.Boone Pickins !

    February 24, 2009 at 12:01 am |
  5. KIm

    100% Re-Power America ! We're headed for solutions and ship Alberta some trees !

    February 23, 2009 at 11:57 pm |
  6. Annie Kate

    Big oil and Big coal are destroying our landscapes, our forests, and many of the wildlife we have grown to expect in our forests and mountains. To get energy we use methods that destroy the environment and release more CO2 than what using the coal and oil would release at the end. We have alternative sources of energy; we just need to put our much renowned American ingenuity to work behind these alternatives and hopefully as we begin to use newer forms of energy we can reclaim our forests and other habitats that our rush to put gas in our tank have destroyed.

    February 23, 2009 at 9:33 pm |
  7. J. Rogers from Regina, SK

    Take a look at the scar on the forest landscape called New York City or the water diversions and destruction of the desert that is called southern California (or LA). Environmental destruction is in the eye of the beholder, but if you live in that area, you don't think it's a problem. But the oil sands is not in anybodies back yard and you don't get shot at if you complain and protest, therefore it is an easy target for a few.

    Google Earth West Virginia before making too many negative comments, or the Nigeria delta,

    February 23, 2009 at 8:35 pm |
  8. Isabel

    Worrying about the environment, or think!
    Worrying about what quality of life our children will have, not think!

    Cruel and sad!

    February 23, 2009 at 8:28 pm |
  9. sharon from Indy

    The photograph tells the story. We are slaves to oil. We are willing to destroy ourselves and our land to pump a fuel to make us go.....

    February 23, 2009 at 6:24 pm |