and the north Alberta oil sand mines
Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, Canada
, is a modern-day boom town thanks to the area's enormous reserves of tar sand from which oil can be extracted on a scale that could rival Saudi Arabia's crude oil reserves. However, tar sand cannot so simply be converted into oil – it's a complicated and very dirty business to get from the black sand rich in gooey bitumen to the liquid synthetic oil that can be used in a refinery.
The toxic waste from the oil extraction process that is polluting the environment as well as the sheer scale of physical landscape destruction, especially through open-pit strip mining, makes for a true "hell on Earth" wasteland scenario here.
One by-product of the process is huge amounts of sulphur – which are simply stacked high in enormous yellow pyramids. These must be an especially stunning sight to behold.
Since the industry needs vast amounts of water to steam-wash the oil out of the sand, it also leaves behind vast artificial lakes, called “tailings ponds”. These aren't really lakes, though, but gigantic reservoirs of heavily polluted slurry. Because these are venerable death traps for the migrating water fowl that pass through the area regularly, automatic gunshot systems were put up to scare the birds away through the noise of blanks fired into the big Alberta sky.
And it gets worse: oil sand processing also uses vast amounts of energy – so not only does oil sand extraction prolong the provision of fossil fuels to be burned as petrol in cars or kerosene in planes and so on, it also burns so much energy itself that the carbon footprint of the Alberta oil sand industry is twice that of the mega-city of Los Angeles! That's saying something!
Obviously, the whole effort is only economically viable if the market price of oil is high enough. Therefore the economic downturn from 2008 onwards dampened the boom a little, but in the mid to long term it is foreseeable that the world's insatiable thirst for oil will continue and with it oil sand extraction (just like fracking – despite all the criticism and protests). In particular the USA
has a major interest in this – because it is part of the nation's aim to gain independence from oil imported from the Persian Gulf, i.e. the Arab/Muslim world, or from closer-to-home foes like Venezuela
This in turn puts Canada
under strain image-wise. On the one hand the industry is one of the driving forces of the nation's economic success while at the same time severely tarnishing its efforts of portraying itself as an environmentally aware and “green” country. In reality, it has grossly missed its targeted reduction of carbon emissions in line with the Kyoto protocol originally signed by Canada. Instead its emissions have grown massively. So in 2012 Canada officially withdrew from the Kyoto process on climate change
and has thus openly joined the USA as one of the most defiant and worst climate-harmers instead.
Packaging that into a convincing PR campaign is about the tallest order there can be in this world. Yet they do make great efforts at this! That is, they don't just try to sweep everything under the rug, but rather they try to gloss it over and paint a rosier picture.
Thus you can go up there and visit the place as a tourist! The main companies engaged in oil sand mining even offer bus tours of their sites – although according to Andrew Blackwell these tours shy away from allowing tourists a proper view of the actual pits where strip mining is ongoing and instead show off massive machinery (impressive as these certainly are).
Moreover, in town there's a hands-on “Oil Sands Discovery Centre”, run not by the industry itself but quite officially by the government! Needless to say you still won't get to hear the full story here – it's more an exercise in PR and in winning over the public (and especially make the kids enthusiastic!). But it certainly provides insights into how the industry works from an engineering point of view.
The centre is open daily except Mondays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in summer, and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in winter. Admission is 7 C$. The bus tours of the mines take place only in summer and depart from just outside the centre. You have to sign up at least 24 hours in advance and provide a photo ID. The cost of the ca. 4 hour tour is 45 C$ plus tax.
Trying to see the mines independently, i.e. attempting to get close enough for a good view in, is not recommended for tourists. Voyeuristic intruders would certainly not be welcome at the sensitive sites of this dirty-industry dominated place.
For the best view of the apocalyptic moonscapes of the mines and the poisonous “tailings ponds” you can go on a “scenic” flight in a small plane – but even these can't just fly wherever they want (the mines have their own airfields and thus their own control over the airspace above them). However, it's probably the best way of getting an impression of the enormity of the operations and its effects.
In May 2016 Fort McMurray faced a different kind of scare: the town had to be evacuated due to wildfires raging out of control that threatened to destroy residential areas and halted much of the oil-sand operations. Some 2400 homes (ca. 10% of the town) were destroyed and thousands of residents displaced. The smouldering of fires in the area continued well into 2017. What the longer-term effects of this disaster will be remains to be seen.
in the north of the province of Alberta, roughly in the middle of the vast inland expanse of Canada
, about 300 miles (450 km) from the province's capital of Edmonton along Highway 63.