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Fort McMurray - a one-horse town with a carbon problem

Experts argue for investment in the science of removing carbon from atmosphere



The American Association for the Advancement of Science convention wrapped up recently in Vancouver, with experts noting that the world's population is expected to grow from seven to nine billion by 2050. They also concluded that it's clear that our relationship with fossil fuel is far from over. Recently, contributor Allen Best travelled to Alberta's oils sands to see first-hand the operation. Here is his report.

I was surprised to read in the local newspaper that Fort McMurray had put the kibosh on single-use shopping bags in 2010. This wasn't San Francisco! This wasn't Aspen in my native Colorado — which even now hasn't instituted its ban. This was a mining town, and an oil boomtown at that.

"We Have the Energy," says a sign at the town's entrance, and it's a worldly claim. The recoverable bitumen deposits of Alberta are second only to the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. Since strip mining began in 1967, the Canadians and Americans have been joined by the French, Norwegians, plus the Japanese, Koreans and, ever more significantly, the Chinese.

Fort McMurray today has 80,000 people, almost double that of a decade ago. Another doubling is expected during this decade, rising up to a potential 230,000 people within a quarter-century. There's credibility to claims of local boosters that Fort McMurray is driving the economy of Alberta — and even Canada's altogether.

To counter the perception that the oil companies are recklessly trashing the environment of Alberta, the Canadian government has been providing expenses-paid trips to government officials and also journalists who write about energy, as I do from my base in Denver.

We got a quick look-see at Syncrude's North Mine, a bowl a mile-and-a-half wide and 60 to 70 metres deep. Giant Caterpillar trucks, with tires that weigh 11,000 pounds each, hauled 400-ton loads of bitumen-laden ore through this moonscape to a processing plant. The plant, upgrading the bitumen into crude oil, chugged what I presume was water vapour into the leaden sky. My mind flashed to images of industrial zones in Eastern Europe before the Soviet breakup.

Over the hill, we were shown a reclaimed area, trees growing and wood bison grazing along a lake. It was like a kitchen after an extravagant meal of spaghetti and then finding a sparkling sink.

Mucking for oil is a dirty business. Oil companies seem to be making a legitimate effort to improve their performances — and with some success. Calgary-based Suncor, for example, reports using 30 per cent less water than it did in 2002.

But there are larger issues than water impacts in Alberta or the safety of the Keystone XL and North Gateway pipelines. Carbon is the central story, and environmental critics and oil companies and their government supporters can't even agree on what to call the bitumen-soaked sands: Oil to supporters, and "tar" to the opponents. The latter is technically incorrect, in that tar comes from coal. But it does look and feel like tar.

"It's not about the pipeline. We know how to do pipelines," said David Keith, when we visited him at the University of Calgary in October. Keith, now a professor of physics and public policy at Harvard University, has drawn broad attention for his efforts to devise a technique to draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The magnitude of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions warrants such a fantastic effort at geoengineering, he believes, and Bill and Melinda Gates must agree. They awarded his enterprise $4.5 million.

"We can't continue to keep taking carbon out of the ground and putting it into the atmosphere," he said. "It's important to be realistic about this."

He sees nothing more than empty, symbolic gestures so far in both Canada and the United States. Alberta's tax on carbon, $15 a ton for emissions surpassing 100,000 tons annually, is ineffectual, and the $2 billion not wisely invested, he says. He wants more solid development of one or two non-carbon resources: wind, solar or nuclear.

Rick George, chief executive of Suncor, which has invested $750 million in wind and biofuels, sees parallel paths for oil-sands development and renewables. The International Energy Administration sees 75 per cent of energy coming from fossil fuels by 2050, down slightly from today's 85 per cent.

But Keith, the professor, sees Alberta painting itself into a corner. By further premising its economy on an expanded platform of fossil fuels, it will someday face devastation.

"A government should use the wealth it has to invest in things that will allow us to thrive when the oil industry has shut down," he added.

In For McMoney, as Fort McMurray is sometimes called, I posed the question to the mayor, Melissa Blake, the remaining economic base of her municipality should oil development went away. "We would have nothing," she answered. "Nothing."

But that's not her immediate concern. She worries about her city staying balanced as it rides the crest of this growth wave.