Canada's Highway to Hell
Every day approximately 50 new fortune seekers travel north on Canada's Highway 63 to the tar sands of Alberta, to join what may be the world's last great oil rush. The two-lane all-weather highway starts about 100 miles north of the provincial capital, Edmonton, and ends at Fort McMurray, a sprawling city hastily carved out of swampy groves of spruce. The road was originally built in the 1970s to connect a marginal and experimental source of heavy oil with the rest of the country. It has since become a continental artery to a modern-day Klondike that has made Canada the number-one supplier of oil to the United States. That's right -- Canada.
I don't think I've ever driven a more hectic piece of blacktop. Most locals call it Hell's Highway or the Highway of Death. On any given day thousands of logging trucks, SUVs, semitrailers, buses, and tanker trucks form a frantic parade to and from North America's largest engineering project. Convoys of extrawide loads often block an entire lane of the highway with turbines, tires, or house-size coker ovens used in oil processing. In fact, Highway 63 ferries one of the highest tonnages per mile of any road in Canada.
This congestion encourages a certain do-or-die recklessness. Impatient drivers not only pass on solid lines on hills but do so at speeds of 140 miles an hour. As a consequence, road accidents tend to be fatal or bloodily spectacular: Every month as many as four tar-sands workers get decapitated, skewered, or incinerated. It's not unusual to pass an overturned semitrailer smoldering like a burned-out Humvee on a Baghdad street.
On Thursday and Sunday nights, the open-pit mines change shifts, and thousands of itinerant tar-sands workers head south looking for R&R in Edmonton. Young men, of course, don't worry about mortality, and many of them take to the road in Dodge Ram 3500s or GMC 4x4s, blind drunk or high on crystal meth. Sensible drivers avoid the road on those nights; they don't want to add to the rows of little white crosses decorated with blue hard hats, bottles of Russian Prince Vodka, and stuffed teddy bears.
Hell's Highway leads directly to the hydrocarbon center of North America: the old fur-trading rendezvous of Fort McMurray. Thanks to a recent explosion in investments by the major multinational oil companies (more than $125 billion in U.S. dollars is committed over the next decade), Fort McMurray and environs may soon become the planet's largest source of new oil. By some estimates the surrounding waterlogged forest holds almost 60 percent of the black gold available to global investors. With nearly 175 billion barrels in proven reserves, the tar sands represent the biggest pile of hydrocarbons outside Saudi Arabia. Many experts suspect they hold eight times that much. Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada, rightly calls the project "an enterprise of epic proportions, akin to the building of the pyramids or China's Great Wall. Only bigger." Al Gore calls the whole enterprise "truly nuts."
Most Americans don't know it, but approximately 16 percent of their oil imports already come from northern Alberta. Plans drafted last year by the North American Energy Working Group, which is made up of high-ranking Canadian and U.S. officials, recommend boosting production from one million barrels a day to five million barrels in a "relatively short time span." So the tar sands could soon be topping up a quarter of the U.S. gas tank. "Anyone watching what is happening up north will recognize that, before long, Canada will inevitably overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's oil giant," Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, declared in 2005. "It means that the United States can enjoy a new gigantic source of oil from a friendly neighbor."
But for friendly Canada the tar sands are rapidly becoming an environmental liability as well as an economic hurricane. Described by the United Nations Environment Program as one of the world's top "environmental hot spots," the project will eventually transform a boreal forest the size of Florida into an industrial sacrifice zone complete with lakes full of toxic waste and man-made volcanoes spewing out clouds of greenhouse gases. Are Canadians willing to create an environmental disaster in Alberta in order to provide the U.S. market with some of the most expensive oil in the world? The answer seems to be an emphatic yes.
The tar sands do not in fact contain oil but bitumen, probably the product of a freak geologic event. Formed more than 100 million years ago by marine organisms trapped in an ancient seabed, the tar sands are composed of a heavy chain of carbon-rich atoms high in sulfur. Bitumen, a thick, sloppy mess of oil, water, clay, and sand, feels and smells like cheap asphalt. The Cree used to heat up the stuff to repair leaky canoes. But most petroleum engineers acknowledge that it is one of the world's dirtiest fuels.
It's not hard to understand why. To capture just one barrel of oil from this geologic pudding requires brute force. Great machines mow down trees (and all their supporting creatures such as boreal songbirds and woodland caribou), roll up acres of muskeg, drain entire wetlands, and reroute rivers. Next, for each barrel, workers must scoop up two tons of sand and wash the stuff in hot water. Even then the bitumen requires substantial upgrading to remove engine-clogging impurities. It costs more than 10 times as much to produce a flowing barrel of oil in this way than it does to produce a barrel of Saudi light oil. The entire process is fueled by natural gas, and the energy consumed is awesome: Every 24 hours the industry burns enough natural gas to heat four million American homes in order to produce one million barrels of oil.
The shallowest of the tar sands -- about 20 percent of the total -- can be mined using giant, 400-ton 797B Caterpillar trucks made in Illinois, which stand one and a half stories tall. Women make the best drivers, an earnest Shell engineer explained to me as we stood at the bottom of a three-mile-wide open-pit mine as black as a starless night: "They are just easier on the machine." Fifteen-million-dollar 495HF Bucyrus electric shovels, made in Wisconsin, can top up one of these Caterpillar trucks in four passes. Just about everything in the tar sands, added the Quebec-born engineer, "is an order of magnitude larger than the imagination."