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

Scarecrows known as "bitchy-men" are set out to dissuade birds from landing on toxic tailings ponds. Photo by NWFblogs/Flickr.

Scarecrows known as “bitchy-men” are set out to dissuade birds from landing on toxic tailings ponds. Photo by NWFblogs/Flickr.

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.

 

A worker stands in a giant scoop at a tar sands processing facility. Photograph by Sarah Leen, National Geographic

A worker stands in a giant scoop at a tar sands processing facility. Photograph by Sarah Leen, National Geographic

“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:

http://www.canadians.org/energy/issues/tarsands/

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=greenhouse-gas-emissions-epa-cries

http://www.oilsands.alberta.ca/

http://www.ec.gc.ca/pollution/default.asp?lang=En&n=EACB8951-1

http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/ddroitsch/just_the_facts_climate_impacts_1.html

http://www.businessinsider.com/15-frightening-facts-about-canadas-booming-tar-pits-fromhell-2010-7?op=1

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/01/opinion/the-tar-sands-disaster.html

http://www.ienearth.org/what-we-do/tar-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.

 

Comments

  1. Kevin Philip Thornton
    Canada
    June 13, 2013, 10:42 am

    You weren’t really prepared to come with an open mind, to give the town a chance a chance, were you?

  2. jessica
    fort mcmurray alberta
    June 13, 2013, 8:40 am

    I’ve lived in Fort McMurray since 2007, your article is misleading and full of propaganda.
    This city is an amazing place full of possibilities for those that chose to take them. i’m very grateful for what the Oil Sands have allowed me to do and the growth Syncrude has allowed me. Our city is expanding, we are getting new highways and overpasses, they are developing new malls, go check out the amazing community centre Macdonald Island.

    As a women working in a male dominated field, i couldnt be happier with how i’ve been treated in Fort McMurray.

    You sir, should be ashamed of yourself for only looking at the service and not seeing the real people. Every city has poverty, not every city has Possibilities and that’s what Fort McMurray offers. Endless Possibilities.

  3. Roddy
    Fort McMurray
    June 13, 2013, 4:30 am

    Hi there, you don’t know me and I probably don’t matter to you but this is the Internet and I’m gonna post anyways. Your ignorance is legendary sir. To assume that Fort McMurray is just a boom town because you went to a hotel breakfast and a coffee shop? Where is your journalistic integrity? You have shown nothing except ignorance, your are nothing but a pathetic environmentalist fool. You assume it’s bad and we’re an oil town, when there are people who live here, good people who pitch in to help each other, donate outstanding amounts to charity and are fairly friendly. Your stats about crime are off, there is no more crime here than any city of the same size and our police are outstanding. So before you make snap judgements like a child, you should do research in the place rather than about the place. Now that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.

  4. Loraine Humphrey
    Fort McMurray
    June 13, 2013, 12:52 am

    I would like to correct an error in your article. “Most glaring to us were the schools and churches with the name SUNCOR emblazoned across their facades.”

    I think the building you are referring to is the Suncor Energy Centre for the Performing Arts at Holy Trinity Catholic High School. This professional Performing Arts Centre was made possible by a 3-way partnership between the Fort McMurray Catholic School District, Suncor Energy Foundation, and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

    The building has a Silver LEEDS certification and a reduced carbon footprint as it is a shared space, used by over 1000 students during the day and turning into a community centre for youth and non-profit groups during evenings and weekends.

    Although both are under one roof, the large cross outside of the building is on the Catholic School portion of the building (not a church) and the Suncor Energy Centre for the Performing Arts logo is on the Performing Arts Centre side (not a school).

  5. TR
    Fort McMurray
    June 13, 2013, 12:43 am

    Perhaps it would have been wiser to have been introduced to the community aspect of Fort McMurray. Maybe go into one of the schools or rec centres that have the oil sands emblem across them. The oil sands fuel the economy around the world so please respect where they come from. As for the roads, perhaps if Fort McMurray could receive more compensation for their contribution to the oil sands maybe they would be in better condition. Fort McMurray is not a “quick fix” town. Perhaps you could pass along to your buddies who come here to work that they should respect the community who allows them to make the money they do. What an ignorant article.

  6. Diana Noble
    Fort McMurray
    June 13, 2013, 12:08 am

    I am completely disgusted by this article, so disgusted, in fact, that I could not bare to read the whole thing. To do so would have been a waste of my time and energy as the lack of tact you have displayed in this article is completely unbelievable.

    This article is an absolute demonstration of the ignorance that people have regarding this city. Sure, any person can point out the flaws in something, it doesn’t take a genius or even a good writer to do that, however, it takes a truly educated person to look at all aspects of a situation and report about it – something which you have clearly failed to do.

    For the first portion of your article that I did waste my time reading, here are irresponsible points you have made that are false:

    1. Fort McMurray is surrounded by Boreal Forest. Anywhere you travel in the world you will see that deforestation to make way for new development; this practice is not unheard of. I guess when Fort McMurray is guilty of a 21st century practice then, of course, we have to mention it as if it is the only place in the world partaking. I note that you also failed to mention, with respect to the “oilsands” deforestation that there is a reclamation process being implemented to give the land back to its rightful owner – nature! Did you care to take a tour of Crane Lake or view where the Wood Bison run free? I see no mention of this in your article!

    2. The reason you see the construction vehicles is because the municipality is working hard to update to our road infrastructure. There are constant improvements taking place in this region, but of course, you wouldn’t know that since you only stopped by for a few days. You wouldn’t necessarily know that there is a City Centre Redevelopment plan being implemented for our downtown core, or that new overpasses and bridges are being constructed would you?

    3. Of course you weren’t allowed on site without proper authority. Where in North America would you be allowed at an operating construction site without proper authorization and safety training and safety equipment? We are very concerned with safety here and, therefore, do not let people through who merely want to criticize and not add to the benefit of the operation.

    4. Did you even care to venture to the all of the regions of Fort McMurray, or did you simply land at our airport, take a tour through the downtown area and then head North on Highway 63 to site? You categorized our whole entire city’s architecture into your definition of “Countless new subdivisions filled with cookie-cutter houses stand in sore need of trees, shrubs or anything green to surround them,” and “expensive yet surprisingly small, nondescript houses or condo projects.” Did you care to take a tour through the Birchwood Trails in Thickwood and Timberlea which are some of the best trail systems in all of Canada? Did you note some of the older houses in thoe region that are just across the way from the homes of deer, bears and other wildlife? By the statements made in your article, the answer is that you obviously did not.

    5. The reason why we continue to have bad publicity in this region is because of people like you who only look at one side of the issue. Did you take the time to speak to people who are involved in the “community” of Fort McMurray? It does not appear that you did. Today, in fact, I spoke one on one with a group of people from our Federal Government in Ottawa who took the time to meet with the people in this community to see what it is really all about, keeping all options open and receding away from any preconceived notions they may have had as a result of poor journalism. They were able to see firsthand the dedicated people in this community who demonstrate leadership in a variety of ways to make this community a great place to live for its residents. I can tell you firsthand that they were absolutely impressed by “the real Fort McMurray” and chose to see past the numerous publications that say otherwise about this region by journalists who choose to just stop by for a few days.

    6. You mention an issue with drugs, alcohol, prostitution, etc… Are you saying that some of our nation’s largest cities such as Toronto, or our capital of Canada, Ottawa, do not face such issues? That no other city within this country, or world for that matter, has social issues that are the exact same? Yet you have chosen to point out that Fort McMurray has these issues, as if it is something completely unheard of…? It seems that you have run out of ammo to load your gun with and have pointed out the obvious but instead made it seem as though our region has a bad reputation for the very issues that North America as a whole faces.
    It is unfortunate that you are “addicted” to negativity and that you feel a need to view Fort McMurray in a biased and less than favourable light. And yet, you have forgotten to point out that Fort McMurrray offers people across the country jobs to support their families which they may not have been able to do otherwise; that Fort McMurray has, by far, the most generous residents in the country who give back to their community and those in need at the first sign of distress; that the school system here is second to none offering youth options for their future that you don’t find in most other places; and that we are leaders in community and will continue to thrive despite the ignorance of you and others.

    I would not be surprised if you are sued with libel as a result of this article because some of your accusations are completely inaccurate and this is one of the worst examples of irresponsible journalism that I have ever seen – this coming from a journalist herself. And the obvious outcome to my comment that you will fail to publish on your site in favour for those who have similar opinions to yourself, which just further demonstrate your biased views and lack of knowledge of the real Fort McMurray.

    Shame on you!

  7. Rya
    Fort McMurray
    June 12, 2013, 11:59 pm

    I am saddened that your story portrays this amazing community so negatively. This community and the people who choose to live here are amazing. Tell people about the amazing parks, the programs for our children, and the history of the area. Or talk about how the people who live here are the most generous people you will ever meet. How you describe your short trip through town to “site” doesn’t accurately depict our community.

  8. 20 year resident
    Fort McMurray
    June 12, 2013, 11:58 pm

    Are you sure you visited my city? We are surrounded by the boreal forest. I ride my bike, hike, and ski through the trails in the woods several times a week. I golf all summer, where the fairways are so surrounded by trees and vegetation, I lose multiple balls every round. We see bears, deer, foxes, and beavers EVERY time we golf a round. My house is in a well established neighbourhood, with yes, TREES, and a park behind me and my kids walked to school. Yes, this is a mining town and people do get their hands dirty. But we also recycle just about everything we can. We walk and bike instead of driving. Please go and look in your own backyard next time. And any industry will put on their shiny smiling faces for the paparazzi. Did you think you were someone important?

  9. Katherine Giroux
    Fort McMurray
    June 12, 2013, 11:23 pm

    Wow. The only good thing I can say about this is that I have found something new to showcase bias for my gr 7 la class. I found the comment about trees particularly ridiculous. But then again, this is why trying to convince ignorant people with a per-set agenda of the good things happening here. We should just refuse to sell you are oil. See what happens then

  10. Theresa
    Fort McMurray, AB
    June 12, 2013, 11:04 pm

    How disappointing that once again my community – and it is a community, and not a new one, either, but one with a long and rich history, is dismissed by those who seem to have spent little time in it. My community is no more “owned” by oil than others are owned by the industries near to them. Do we have a close relationship to industry given it is our major employer? Of course. Does it own our heart and soul, or dictate who we are? No, it does not. I sincerely wish the author of this post had gone to some of our schools, recreation centres, colleges, or other facilities, as an article based on concerns regarding the industry does not reflect the nature of the community – which exists as a separate entity from industry. As for our social issues of drugs, alcohol, prostitution and crime – yes, they exist, just as they do in every other community of any significant size. And yes, we as a community are working on addressing those issues. My community is NOT Stepford, Mr. Waterhouse, and should you choose to return some day please allow me to introduce you to the real community of Fort McMurray, a community I have resided in for over a decade and proudly call home. I would love to have the opportunity to show you that this place is not a boomtown but rather a hometown to thousands who have chosen to come here – and make it home.