Tar Sands Tour: Boomtown, Scarecrows, and Spin; “We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us”

The words in the title above came from Pogo, and they have bounced around in the back of my brain since the 1970s when I first heard them. Many times I’ve been confronted with the truth of that quip by Pogo, the beloved character of former Disney cartoonist Walt Kelly (1913-1973), in a poster he created for the first Earth Day in 1970. No affirmation was more emphatic than an experience Mary and I shared in Canada recently.

This Earth Day, just two days after the third anniversary of BP’s fatal Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, we did something not very mindful of our Earth. We boarded a jumbo jet with a few hundred other people, who may or may not have realized it was Earth Day, and flew toward the tar sands of Alberta.

This trip was put together by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation‘s Joint Public Advisory Committee, or JPAC, the nongovernmental panel, composed of five members each from Mexico, the United States and Canada, on which I serve at the request of President Obama. We focus on matters of development and environmental effect but our members walk in both worlds. While I direct a tiny nonprofit organization working to cleanup and preserve the Yukon and other rivers, a fellow member served as the chief executive officer of a Canadian oil company, valued in 2010 at $50 billion. We are a mix of scholars, business leaders, and environmentalists with a plethora of titles and backgrounds in between.

Our quarterly meetings focus on issues relevant to environmental happenings in North America, be they development or crisis management, and we assess particular processes and/or events then present our findings on the various issues to the leadership of each of the three countries. Often we visit sites key in the discussion. The goal of this trip was to hear from the public in Calgary on the future of oil and mining in their province of Alberta. We would also visit and assess the tar sands production a few hours north of Calgary as guests of Suncor, a leader in the development of the tar sands.

NOTE: Tar Sands or Oil Sands? The proper name is bitumen sands. I use the phrase tar sands because that is the terminology used when I first heard it, although the Calgary Herald revealed that to oil industry insiders, “The term tar sands is the equivalent of dropping the f-bomb in church.”

Bumps in the Roads

Upon our 4:30 a.m. arrival at the executive airport in Calgary, we were flown by corporate jet to Fort McMurray, about an hour from the tar sands, or what our enthusiastic pair of young Suncor hostesses referred to simply as “Site.” Once in Fort McMurray, located in the Wood Buffalo Region of Alberta, we were treated to breakfast by Suncor in a corporate hotel restaurant. Over bacon and eggs, our hosts indulged us with stories of the good life in Fort McMurray before herding us back onto a deluxe tour bus and delivering us to a recently completed Starbucks. Then, with coffee in hand, we rode along in amazement touring the shiny new frontier town where the majority of trees you see have been recently planted. Few signs of buildings older than a couple of years were evident.

In their presentation, our guides highlighted the migration of workers to this oil utopia and I was floored to hear that one recent month saw the delivery of 147 babies in Fort McMurray, a community of approximately 75,000. This is a boomtown on steroids, but unlike the well-documented and obvious ills which suddenly befell towns like Gillette, Wyoming after its discovery of energy resources, the dark side of processing the Alberta Tar Sands is neatly hidden beneath new sidewalks and pavement. Countless new subdivisions filled with cookie-cutter houses stand in sore need of trees, shrubs or anything green to surround them. Construction equipment covers vast areas of land where within weeks yet another new batch of shockingly expensive yet surprisingly small, nondescript houses or condo projects will appear. Away from the high traffic zones, there are the more intimate and elaborate groupings of executive homes where families from Houston and Tulsa and other oil-prosperous U.S. cities reside for now.

The bus slowed often to roll over deep heaves in the new pavement. One hostess explained the shoddy road conditions away by informing us the bumpy roads are a problem which there just is no time to address since Fort McMurray is a 24-hour town. “Most all community members here are shift workers at the production facilities and since they occupy these roads 24 hours a day we cannot close the roads to repair them,” she said. This explanation was bothersome on several levels. Most obvious is the fact that these new roadbeds were not sufficiently prepped before dropping the asphalt. It seems to me that things are being quickly thrown together. I live in Alaska where we regularly deal with permafrost, soggy muskeg, and other challenging terrains in building and development, but we beef up construction efforts in our attempt to make sure what we create will last. This is not to say we do not experience frost heaves and bumpy roads in Alaska, but I’ve never seen a new road fail in a timeframe as short as this. Fort McMurray seems to be host to a flurry of quick fixes.

Living in Boomtown Near “Site”

 This community supporting the tar sands development looks to be owned outright by the oil industry. Most glaring to us were the schools and churches with the name SUNCOR emblazoned across their facades. As we progressed toward “Site” with our upbeat guides breathlessly reciting their impressive, well-rehearsed dialogue, this new town was feeling increasingly like the fictional creation of Hollywood called Stepford. We learned that new hires, thus new community members, are arriving in Fort McMurray nonstop. Wal-Mart and other chain retailers have descended. Strip malls with several floors of condos stacked on top of them abound and our guides informed us that housing prices range from $400,000 to $600,000. One guide stated,“’The singles usually opt for the less expensive, more carefree lifestyles afforded by the condos, which start at $300,000. However,” she added, “Suncor helps with a large down payment.”

That said, we later discovered a recent census study in the Calgary Herald reporting that single family home prices in Fort McMurray start closer to $800,000 and the price of a duplex starts at around $500,000. Unfortunately for residents, the salaries of many non-execs do not seem to be in step with the cost of living here. One government report proclaims the average household income is around $130,000 but most in the service industry earn far less than that. We heard that a Starbucks employee might earn $18 per hour in Fort McMurray but that wage will not sustain a mortgage and the average rent for an apartment is $2,000.

On top of the apparent housing issues, there are also the usual suspects of Boomtown Syndrome lurking beneath the surface which no new community wants visible; drugs, alcohol, prostitution, and the types of crimes easily perpetrated wherever new money flows freely … but that’s a different sort of environmental issue and a topic for another discussion.

As a captive audience we spent the next 60 minutes on a luxury bus watching Suncor videos and being regaled by these two individuals astoundingly well versed on the topic of all things fabulous and wonderful about Suncor and oil sands production. The bus turned off the main highway onto a less substantial route which stretched into treeless rolling hills blanketed in a web of mucky roads. On the ride between this area and Fort McMurray we had entered several forested areas. In this zone, however, there were no longer any forests within sight. Snow and rain fell so the ground was covered in large puddles and patches of white. Dirt-caked tankers and semis moving heavy equipment were a constant sight on the roads as were stagnant ponds on either side of them. (Related “Pictures: Satellite Views of Canada’s Oil Sands Over Time“)

Baffling Birds and Spinning Words

One of our guides relayed that they refer to these scarecrows beside the ponds as “bitchy-men (a play on the word “bitumen”) Air cannons fired regularly sound off like loud explosions, and alarms screech when birds approach these tainted waters. (Syncrude, a competitor in the development of the Alberta Tar Sands was fined $3 million a couple of years ago when over 1,600 water fowl died when they mistook a tailings pond, of which there are many, for a welcoming rest area. Syncrude made a point of reporting that three mallards survived.)

The scarecrows on the edges of these many ponds prompted several in our group to snap photos, and we were informed by our guides that, “The colorful flat men beside the ponds are there to encourage the birds to not land there.” This skilled phraseology was not lost on us and we would continue to catch word usage such as this, designed to create positive feelings, throughout the day. While I might expect to hear, “The colorful flat men beside the ponds are there to discourage the birds from landing there.” This bright and sunny Suncor spin avoided any negative word associations. (Not to mention that if the flat men had ever been ‘colorful’ they were only grimy and gray now. I love the psychology of consumer marketing. Make your audience feel good even as you deliver bad news.) This clever technique was employed in all discussions from our guides and the continual use of upbeat verbiage worked hard to promote a positive message even when the gist of said message was negative.

Our hostesses had an über pro-Suncor response to all of our questions about the tar sands, and the pair seemed to be intentionally attached at the hip. So when I approached one who was momentarily alone, it was a lot like seeing the proverbial deer in the headlights. Her reactions only got worse as our short discussion evolved. The day before this trip I had read a report documenting a spill which occurred just two weeks prior from a Suncor cooling pond into the Athabasca River. When the company finally issued a statement, they claimed that no bitumen was in the spill but there was delay in telling the public what WAS in the spill (toxic wastewater). This is not how I view transparency. So when I asked the guide about the incident she immediately corrected me, revealing that Suncor never uses the term spill … they call it a “release.” Well, of course they do.

Plausible deniability. Mary suggested to her that a “release” is typically something that is controlled but as far as this particular incident was reported, it was an accident – a broken pipe – something over which Suncor had no control. Now I don’t know about you, but I always associate the word “release” as letting go of something intentionally; a planned event. You release your child’s hand in the park as you arrive at the swings. Armies release bombs and missiles. However, there would be no cluttering this conversation with facts. This young woman was resolute in her insistence that this was not a “spill” and seeing her gulping water from her bottle and keeping it near her face during our short exchange indicated to me that this one must have been a very scary impromptu chat for her. After all, she was tasked with keeping aloft the sparkly Suncor flag, no matter what. When Mary asked her about Suncor employees’ health and cancer stats and her knees practically buckled, we backed off. Unfair question? No. Just not part of her script.

“The Tar Sands are Mordor. The air is foul, the water is being drained and poisoned, and giant tailings ponds line the river.”–

Maude Barlow, Council of Canadians Chairperson and Senior Advisor on Water to the President of the U.N. General Assembly

The above quote from Ms. Barlow reminds me that during the part of our tour through the bowels of the tar sands production zone, the place our guides referred to as “Downtown Suncor,” the air was rank. As we crept through this smelly gray environment filled with smoking, flaming stacks and huge bands of wires hanging overhead, large sooty trucks passed us as workers hustled about on foot in gear which covered them from head to toe. I honestly imagined this huge operation happening on another planet. Nothing of what we saw looked like Earth. Our ever cheerful guides exhibited the quintessential puzzled looks as they declared their surprise and confusion at the strong smells in the air on this day. They looked quizzically at one another as they lamented over the fact that normally such an odd and baffling smell was not present. It was about then that a cell phone rang and one guide replied to it with these words: “Hi there! Oh, are the roads too mushy to get out to Site today? Yeah, we were worried that might happen with the snow today. Oh well. Thank you!”

So. No visit to see the actual tar sands today. Hmmm. Surprise, surprise. So we’ve included photos with this post taken at the tar sands for National Geographic by photographers Peter Essick and Sarah Leen. And here’s a gallery of photos from the magazine: Scraping Bottom: The Canadian Oil Boom.

To finally shut up on this tar sands issue, I’ll finish with this: I’m thankful these tar sands do not exist in a third world environment. Its a messy and unhealthy process to get this stuff cleaned up for use, but at least in Canada there are SOME regulations. That does not mean I’m happy the tar sands are not being left alone. I feel the tar sands development is a mistake we could and should avoid. With concentrated effort, we could shift to greener energy solutions. The magnitude of this effort will stretch our limits on every level.

In addition, the Keystone XL pipeline, if developed, will stretch across the United States like a sleeping grizzly on our living room floor. Fine, perhaps, until it stirs. Then, who knows what hell might break loose? (Related Interactive: “Keystone XL: Mapping The Flow of Tar Sands Oil” and “Oil Spill Spotlights Keystone XL Issue: Is Canadian Crude Worse?“)

I’m not against development and I realize that for now, we are addicted to oil, but I think Pogo nailed it. Remember, this issue is our fault. The tar sands development would not exist without our addiction problem. As long as the people currently in power continue to live in this fantasy of denial, making excuses for our dependency on fossil fuel and rejecting the proof of climate change, we will continue to be plagued by challenges such as the Alberta Tar Sands and the repercussions which accompany them. The U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament are hellbent on jumping headlong into the future with NO energy policy in place, but Pogo’s message is clear … we are the enemy. That must change, so let’s commit to making it happen. We know that to end this addiction, we’ve got to stop ignoring the problem. Let’s commit to having those uncomfortable conversations with those who don’t get it, and let’s be bolder in our approach and more selective when choosing our political candidates.

Finally, since I’m no expert on bitumen, I leave it to you to become your own. Apply your critical thinking skills and do your research. I’ve added a few sites to peruse below. Beware that the “facts” vary, so watch for spins. Then follow your heart to the conclusion that you, your kids, your pets, and your own Pogo can live with. Development with environmental consciousness is the right course and we all know it. Let’s come together, get off our apathetic asses and do something to finally make this change happen. We have the power. So what are we waiting for?

The late Wally Hickel, secretary of the Department of Interior and twice Alaska governor once asked, “Why war? Why not big projects?”I’d like to modify that and ask you today: “Why oil? Why not big, clean energy projects?”

Visit the following sites for more info about the bitumen sands:









As always, I thank you for reading!

Jon and Mary took photos while on their tour in April, but agreed to give Suncor a chance to review them and approve before publication. They are still waiting for approval. Meanwhile, they have moved onto the Amazon, where they are working with tribes on similar environmental issues. Stay tuned to Jon’s National Geographic Newswatch blog for more on that effort.

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