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Alberta's heavy oil burden
Canadian province's vast reserves bring prosperity and environmental concerns.
Last Modified: 17 Mar 2008 12:02 GMT

Alberta's oil reserves are seen as a long-term supply option for the United States

Al Jazeera's People & Power programme recently visited the Candian province of Alberta where the region's vast oil reserves are provoking both prosperity and opposition.

Much of the terrain is blanketed in trees but underneath the forests of the remote north of the Canadian province of Alberta are an estimated 174 billion barrels of heavy crude oil.

While much of the world's attention has been focused on Iraq and what is going to happen to the country's vast reserves of oil, the oil industry has been investing massively in the sparsely-populated region around the small city of Fort McMurray.

Indeed it is believed there could be as much as two trillion barrel's worth of oil in the tar sands here with 1.5 million barrels currently produced a day, a figure that is expected to double in just a few years.

Like many parts of the world, Alberta is running short of light crude oil and the world is turning its attention to so-called heavy oil that is trapped in thick gooey tar sands.

The reserves around Fort McMurray represent the largest pool of heavy oil in the world.

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"It moved from being just an interesting experiment in northern Canada to really this is the future source of oil supply," Greg Stringham, from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says.

"China, Korea, Taiwan have come over and are interested but also European countries, the French through Total, the Italians, looking over here, the Germans, the Brits have been here with their companies as well."

However although the economic benefits are evident for all concerned, the development of the reserves has prompted environmental concerns from local groups.

Power drain

Extracting fuel from the oil sands requires massive clear-cutting of forests, strip-mining the land, digging up two tonnes of soil for every barrel of oil produced and then steaming the gooey tar to separate the oil - a process that requires huge amounts of water and power.

The process results in lakes and rivers being polluted and thousands of acres of trees being cut down to make way for pits more than 60 metres deep.

George Poitras comes from the Native Indian community of Fort Chipewyan, a town of 1,200 people downriver from the oil sands projects and he is growing alarmed at the decimation of traditional hunting grounds used by his Mikisew Cree band.

"You see a lot of the land dug up, a lot of the boreal forest struck down and it's upsetting, it fills me with rage," he says.

Poitras says the sands development is
threatening Native Indian livelihoods
"We feel that the animal's health is already affected, not to mention the fish in the water, the moose and all the other animals. As indigenous people, all we are trying to protect is land and the water that is very sacred to us."

The Mikisew Cree see oil sands exploitation as a direct threat to their way of life but many in Alberta prefer to ignore the negative impacts of extracting oil from sand - particularly in Fort McMurray, a booming town of 70,000 people.

Alberta is currently the biggest foreign supplier of oil to the United States and soaring oil prices and growing energy needs have precipitated an economic boom in the region.

Oil jobs are plentiful and almost everyone in the town owns a big house and drives a big pickup truck.

Big salaries

Salaries are the magnet drawing people to Fort McMurray and one woman tells Al Jazeera that mechanics are known to earn upwards of $70 or $80 an hour and the salary to drive a forklift is as much as $100,000.

Consequently she says people "think more of the money aspect of it, they don't necessarily think of the environmental damage".

However that environmental damage can already be seen from the moon according to Diana Gibson from the Parkland Institute environmental advocacy group.

"What we are going to be having is incredible destruction of very, very valuable ecosystems, and permanent pollution," she says.

Fort McMurray is booming
thanks to oil industry jobs
To separate the oil from the sand, great quantities of water are needed - much of which is polluted and lies in vast tailing ponds the size of lakes that combined cover  55 square kilometres.

"There are metals and contaminants in that water that aren't being removed and there is no requirement to clean that water up," Gibson says

The process also requires about one barrel of natural gas for every two barrels of oil retrieved - a procedure that undermines any chance Canada has fulfilling its agreement to reduce global-warming emissions under the Kyoto Treaty

Pressure is mounting on the Alberta government to ensure the environment is protected.

"Our legislation, if you look at it Canada-wide, US-wide or worldwide, is some of the most progressive. We have public input, we have appeal processes we have environmental impact assessments," Jay Nagendran, a spokesman for the province's environment ministry, says.

However, opponents of the oil sands say they do not have a lot of faith in the provincial government citing the fact that Alberta has been ruled by a conservative party for nearly four decades and the government derives nearly 40 per cent its revenues from the oil sector.

Close ties

"Look at the facts of the ministry of environment and the tar sands over the last 40 years the tailings ponds have not been rehabilitated one drop," says David Eggen from the chief environmental watchdog for the New Democratic Party, one of Alberta's opposition parties.

"In terms of rehabilitating areas that have been strip-mined already, they just simply put it back, back fill it and turn it into a field, nothing like resembling boreal forest that preceded the operations."

Eggen says this is not surprising given the strong ties between the government and the oil companies.

The Native Indian communities say those ties have prevented the Alberta government from responding to fears that exploitation of the oil sands is affecting the health of their members.

"Many of our people are dying prematurely, they are getting cancers that the doctor who working in our community suggests you find in very rare circumstances," George Poitras says.

Protests against oil developments have
been growing in Alberta
The government and oil companies deny any links between the sands development and high cancer rates.

But Poitras says the government has not done the independent scientific investigations needed to determine definitively there are no links between the projects and adverse health and the Mikisew Cree are now considering a lawsuit.

Other protests are also beginning to arise including one last June in the farming community of Rimbey to protest greenhouse gases that will be emitted to power oil sands refineries.

Long-term survival

During the same month the protest group the Yes Men disrupted an oil industry conference in Calgary to raise awareness of the oil sands project.

Opponents of the project face a difficult fight. They are challenging some of the world's wealthiest and most powerful multinational corporations - which control over half the oil sands assets.

Moreover, free trade agreements with the US have all but transformed the oil sands into an American strategic reserve.

"The US has set a goal of reducing reliance on Mideast oil by 75 per cent by 2025. And Alberta's tar sands feature centrally in helping achieve that goal of reducing their reliance on Mideast oil," Diana Gibson says.

Industry leaders and the Conservative government say that protecting the environment is in everyones' self interest given the future importance of Alberta's oil but environmentalists and Native Indians say if that is what the Alberta government and oil companies want, they are taking the wrong path.

"What we are doing today is really trying to protect the survival of our people long term something that you would only think would happen in developing countries being overrun by multinational corporations and corrupt governments," George Poitras.

"But that's exactly what we are dealing with here in one of the G8 and most developed countries of the world."

Source:
Al Jazeera
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