Postcard from Fort McMurray

As Canada mines the world's second biggest oil reserves, one indigenous group looks to James Cameron for help. Digging deep into the oil-sands debate

  • Share
  • Read Later
Orjan F. Ellingvag / Dagens Naringsliv / Corbis

A pickup truck drives past a pond of oil-sand by-products in Fort McMurray.

For a man whose first claim to fame was directing a movie about a robot Armageddon, James Cameron can still appreciate a good machine. Since the success of his film Avatar, Cameron has become an outspoken environmentalist, but he's also an engineer at heart, and as we sit in a helicopter hovering above northern Alberta's limitless boreal forest — taking an airborne tour of the mines and pipes and rigs that are rewriting the rules of the great oil game — he can't help but marvel at the sight below. This is Canada's oil-sands country, home to the world's second biggest petroleum reserves after Saudi Arabia, and Cameron has come here at the invitation of the local First Nations indigenous community, which fears what the mining and waste are doing to its land. "I hadn't realized just how extensive it is," he says. "But my question is whether it should be done faster or slower?"

That question isn't just Cameron's. Alberta's oil sands (or tar sands if you're against them) represent an enormously valuable resource for Canada and the U.S. Canada is already the biggest exporter of oil to the U.S., and the nearly 200 billion bbl. of oil available in the Albertan sands could make Canada richer and help shift the U.S. away from its politically problematic dependence on Middle Eastern oil. But nothing comes easy, and oil-sands development can be devastating to the environment, leading to water and air pollution and scarring the land for decades. "Tar sands are a global issue," says Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network, who escorted Cameron on some of his tour. "But it's the communities here who are really affected."

Cameron, a native of Ontario, had an opportunity to get both sides of the story. Accompanied by a few nervous energy executives, he toured a handful of the major oil-sands sites near the Albertan boomtown of Fort McMurray. Even with friendly experts touting all that the energy companies had done to clean up the oil-sands developments, there's no avoiding just how extensively industry has altered the land. The first generation of Albertan oil-sands development involved open-pit mining, and there are still vast chunks carved out of what was once forest, though some exhausted sites are being reclaimed. The story was a little different at newer developments that employed a process called in situ mining. Instead of digging the sands from the surface, in situ involves injecting steam deep into the ground, which heats the sands into a viscous liquid and allows them to be pumped to the surface like conventional oil. The result is cleaner on the surface — less deforestation, less pollution — and as he toured the facility, Cameron "geeked out," peppering his guides with technical questions. But in situ has its own drawbacks. Lots of natural gas is needed to generate all that steam, and the carbon footprint from a barrelful of oil sands can be significantly higher than with conventional oil. That worries Cameron. "We're not talking about a millennial scale for climate change now," he says. "We're talking decades" — and oil sands might speed up that catastrophe.

For the indigenous people of Alberta, the catastrophe is hitting now. In the tiny, isolated village of Fort Chipewyan, downstream from the massive oil-sands mines, community members packed a town hall to see Cameron. They told stories of water pollution from the mines' tailings ponds, higher cancer rates and early deaths. It was practically a scene from Avatar, with Cameron as the hero come to save a village from the predation of development. "This will be a fight, but if we all stand united, we can draw a line in the sand here," said Cameron to the group. But the oil sands aren't going away. There are plans to build a huge new pipeline to the U.S., cementing the oil sands' role in American energy. In Alberta, for now at least, the machines will keep rolling, the oil will keep flowing, and not even the creator of the Terminator is likely to stop it.