By Tony HorwitzFebruary 5, 2014
Read an exclusive extract from ‘BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever’, published in collaboration with The Global Mail.
I was midway along the Highway of Death when the source of the road’s nickname became clear. Route 63 connects Alberta’s capital, Edmonton, to the province’s remote Northeast and the oil boomtown of Fort McMurray. For the first two hours, I passed through farmland before entering the vast boreal forest that blankets northern Canada in bog and evergreens. Scenic and serene—except for the heavy truck traffic and forest of warning signs by the road: LOGS MAY SWING INTO YOUR LANE, DISTRACTED DRIVING LAW IN EFFECT, THINK AND DRIVE.
Drivers didn’t seem distracted; they seemed suicidal. Pickups leapfrogged the log trucks and oil tankers, swerving back into the right lane a second before oncoming trucks swooshed past. Or they darted onto the right shoulder to pass bloated tractor-trailers marked OVERSIZE LOAD. Road crews were busy widening the narrow highway, which only added to the dust, jumpiness, and mayhem. Four crosses appeared by the highway, a memorial to travelers who didn’t make it. I turned off at a lonely outpost called Wandering River, which offered the last gas and food for 125 miles.
I must have looked rattled, because a man at the Midway Café smiled and asked, “First time up here?”
First time in Alberta, I told him, my very first day. “Hopefully not your last, eh?” he said.
Randy Falenda was a long-haired trucker who had worked in U.S. and Canadian oilfields for thirty years. But nothing compared to his past five trucking along the Highway of Death. “I’ve almost killed or been killed on this road a dozen times,” he said.
Today he was hauling two tanks loaded with propane and natural gas. “The minute anyone crashes into me, it’s poof.” This didn’t slow drivers fleeing Fort McMurray on their days off, or speeding back in time for their next shift. Nor were they deterred by moose, or ice, or blowing snow. “Half the drivers out there are high as kites, in a hurry to get nowhere,” he said.
I followed Falenda outside to his thirty-two-wheeler, and wished him safe travels. He climbed into the truck’s cab and shouted back, “Have fun in Fort McCrack.”
At sunset I reached Fort McMurray, though it was hard to tell where exactly the town began or ended. Originally a fur-trading post, nestled in a river valley, the town now seemed a shapeless sprawl of trailer parks, half-built housing blocks, and heavy equipment yards strung along the highway. The center, if you could call it that, was a low-rise downtown that appeared to have been bypassed by the recent construction boom. My hotel, the two-star Nomad, stood across the street from a drug-testing clinic and the Salvation Army, where men lined up in the cold in hopes of a bed.
At check-in, I learned that the first snow had fallen the previous night—two weeks before Halloween. Fort McMurray lies at a latitude more northerly than Moscow. Winter temperatures average minus-two degrees Fahrenheit and can dip to minus-sixty. The only way to drive from here to the more northerly settlement of Fort Chipewyan is by an “ice road” across frozen lakes and bogs.
Fort McMurray might have remained a frigid and forgotten outpost if not for the curious phenomenon recorded by early explorers and fur traders, such as Alexander Mackenzie. In the 1780s, he described deep black pools bubbling on the surface—“bitumenous fountains,” he called them—and veins of the same substance running through the sandy banks of the Athabasca River. Natives, he wrote, mixed the bitumen with tree resin to “gum” or seal their canoes.
More than two centuries later, this black pitch is fueling an energy boom so explosive that it has the potential to reshape the global economy and environment. Alberta’s bitumen holds the third-largest oil reserve in the world—more than in Iraq or Iran, and enough to power North America for decades. And it’s all in friendly Canada! A land better known until now for its strategic reserve of maple syrup.
To boosters, this bonanza represents a steady stream of “ethical oil” from Canada rather than “conflict oil” from less friendly and stable suppliers in the Middle East and elsewhere. To detractors, this same oil spells the end of the planet. Bitumen isn’t oil you can suck from a well, as if with a straw. It’s a dense goop, like melted asphalt, that has to be ripped or propelled from the earth and heavily processed, using immense amounts of energy and water. As a result, bitumen oil generates much more greenhouse gas than conventional fuels—up to 23 percent more, depending on the study. As the NASA scientist James Hansen famously warned in 2012, exploiting Alberta’s vast pool of dirty oil would be “game over for the climate.”
Alberta’s bitumen is also landlocked, far from heavy-crude refineries and shipping ports, so Canadians want to build a pipeline to deliver Alberta’s oil directly to the Texas Gulf Coast. Environmentalists have waged a fierce campaign to halt the project. Because TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline must cross the border, it is subject to U.S. State Department review and presidential approval. After five years of lobbying and protest, the bout over the pipeline has entered its final round, with a decision expected early in 2014.
I’d followed this controversy from afar and wanted to see what was at stake on the ground, for the people and places along the Keystone XL route. But before embarking on that journey, I needed to see something else. A pipeline is ultimately an industrial catheter; to grasp its significance, I had to understand the substance that flowed through it. So I began by trekking to the wild new energy frontier that might free North America from oil despots—or hook it on gunk that could fry the planet.
From the Nomad Hotel, I went for a walk and made it a block in the chilly dusk before seeking refuge at the Boomtown Casino, a small, windowless establishment. Inside, the place was packed, mostly with men in work caps and jackets, crowded around slots and gaming tables. I fought my way to the bar and asked the man who handed me a beer if this scene was normal for 6:00 p.m. on a Sunday night.
“There is no normal in Fort Mac,” he replied. The oil industry runs 24/7, every day of the year, “so someone is always coming off work, or going back on.” Customary notions of hours and workdays don’t apply.
One of the men I met at the bar turned out to be fairly typical of the oil-fields workforce. Jordan Doyle was twenty-eight, boyish, with a light mustache and the lilt of his native Newfoundland. He worked twelve-hour shifts, for fifteen days straight, building platforms at an oil-mining site and living in a company barracks.
“Me, a first-year scaffolder, I’m making $100,000 a year, and my room and board paid,” he said. Plus, his employer flew him three thousand miles at the end of each fifteen-day shift to spend a week with his family in Newfoundland, the maritime province that provides much of the labor force in northern Alberta.
Doyle reckoned that back home he’d be making $20,000 a year doing seasonal work and then drawing unemployment. Here, he earned enough to be building a house in Newfoundland for his wife and two daughters. “Me and the missus decided to have the girls grow up the way we did, in a rural place where you don’t worry about anything.”
Doyle recognized the strangeness of his circumstance, commuting by air for eight hours to his job, living apart from his family for most of the year, laboring in a subarctic wilderness, and bunking in an all-male compound.
“If you want to get deep about it, sometimes I feel like I’m in a movie about a mining colony in outer space.”
But Doyle wasn’t complaining. Many of his friends back “on the Rock” were barely getting by. Out here, with only a high school education, he was building scaffolds and a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. Gesturing at the cash-flush workmen crowding the casino, he told me another nickname for the town. “We call it Fort McMoney,” he said.
Well before daylight on Monday morning, Fort McMurray emptied as workers streamed through the predawn gloom to work sites north of town. When the sun appeared, at about 8:00 am, it didn’t so much rise as faintly illuminate the lid of fog, dust, and fumes that hung over the river valley.
Daylight, such as it was, also revealed the environs I’d only glimpsed the night before. A few doors from my hotel I found the office of Syncrude, the region’s second-biggest oil producer, and a block past that the office of Fort McMurray’s mayor, who used to work for Syncrude. The town’s main avenue led to a sparkling new recreational complex named for the biggest player in the oil fields: the Suncor Community Leisure Center. The facilities inside included the Syncrude Aquatic Center and ice rinks and ball courts named for other companies. Huge billboards outside touted an upcoming $137 million arena called Shell Place.
Fort McMurray isn’t simply a company town; it is the hub of an industrial mini-state. At the town’s airport, companies have their own check-in desks, security, chartered 737s, and “site shuttles” to carry employees directly to work camps. Companies also maintain their own airstrips, deep in the boreal forest, to fly workers in and out of remote locations. For those traveling by road, highway signs flag the names and distances to major oil sites as if they’re full-fledged towns, which in a sense they are. Some company-run camps house eight thousand workers.
All this makes it hard to know how many people live in and around Fort McMurray, or even what “living here” means in such an itinerant community. Officially, the town belongs to a regional municipality called Wood Buffalo and has a population of 73,000, roughly double the number a decade ago. But this total doesn’t include the 40,000 or so people living in work camps, or what the municipality calls the “shadow population” dwelling in motels, campgrounds, homeless shelters, and even shipping containers.
Civic boosters hate the image of Fort McMurray as transient and troubled, a place where people only came to make money. The town’s mantra was “Hometown, Not a Boomtown.” But this was difficult to sell, in part because land was scarce and the cost of housing astronomical. Tract homes sold for $850,000; single-bedroom apartments rented for $2,000 a month; and just parking your vehicle at a trailer park cost $1,400 a month.
“It is all about the work here, only the work and making more money,” said Oussama Hussein, a Moroccan who had come to Fort McMurray from Montreal. I met him at a branch of the local college—the Suncor Energy Industrial Campus—where he was applying for a course to become a “heavy hauler,” driving trucks larger than any in the world. “Bigger the truck, bigger the money,” he said. Once trained, he expected to earn $10,000 a month.
This was far better than in Montreal, where “immigrants like me only drive cabs or do low jobs,” he said. Indeed, Fort McMurray seemed strikingly diverse for a remote northerly community, with an Islamic school and many immigrants from Africa and South Asia.
Hussein welcomed the opportunity but had no plans to settle—the refrain I heard from almost everyone I met. “Believe me,” he said, before returning to his study manual, “the minute I am not making the big money, you will not find me here.”
I saw the sort of truck Hussein hoped to operate just down the road, at Fort McMurray’s premier tourist attraction: the Oil Sands Discovery Centre. The name referred to the fact that Alberta’s oil-rich bitumen is locked in sand. A museum guide described bitumen as “tar-like,” and when it was first extracted and sold in the twentieth century, for roofing and road surfacing, the source of this substance was referred to as “tar sands.” But the industry has since popularized the more benign-sounding “oil sands,” and I’d been warned before coming to Fort McMurray that using the T-word would tar me as a hostile environmentalist.
In any event, digging up oil sands puts the “heavy” in heavy industry. The museum had an outdoor “equipment garden,” planted with claws and shovels the size of two-car garages, and an even more impressive specimen parked inside: a mining truck that weighed 687 tons, with tires twelve feet tall.
Visitors could climb into the cab of the truck and watch a driver’s-eye video of what it was like to operate this behemoth at an actual mine site. Perched high above the museum floor and rumbling (via video) to the face of a mine, I watched while an even bigger machine took a huge bite from a mountain of oily sand and scooped it into the bed of my gargantuan dump truck. I felt a boyish glee, as if I were demolishing a giant, dirty sand castle with ludicrously oversize tools.
Seeing this marvel of industry in action, however, wasn’t quite so easy. In warm months, the Discovery Centre offered drive-through tours of mine sites. I’d arrived too late in the season for that, and my many calls and e-mails to oil companies, requesting a media visit, had been answered either by silence or by the suggestion that I return another time—say, next year.
I was miffed at first, but once I got to Fort McMurray, it quickly became clear how defensive people were about the image of their town and industry. Shortly before I arrived, Neil Young visited the area and then declared at a rally in Washington that “Fort McMurray looks like Hiroshima,” a “wasteland” with foul air, poisoned wildlife, and people dying of cancer. In reply, the mayor extolled “the beauty” of Fort McMurray, while a local DJ banned the playing of the Canadian icon’s songs.
In one respect, Neil Young had clearly misspoken. The “wasteland” he referred to wasn’t Fort McMurray itself, but the mining district that began just beyond the town. And he wasn’t the only person to use strong language to describe this area. According to a glossy booklet given me by a marketing official in Fort McMurray, the oil fields near town represented “the world’s largest industrial development.” I’d also been told that the mining region was visible from space, like the Great Wall of China.
All this struck me as hyperbolic—until I crested a low bluff on the highway north of town. On either side of the road stretched a desolation of mined earth, gas flares, and belching plants. And this was just the start of an industrial corridor that extended north some eighty miles.
Tearing minerals from the earth is never pretty, whether it’s strip-mining Appalachian mountains for coal, yanking copper out of craters in Arizona, or sucking oil from the desert of the Persian Gulf—all places I’d visited. Even so, I’d never seen a man-mauled landscape quite so awesome and eerie as the oil sands.
You couldn’t even call it a landscape, because there was almost no trace of land around the mines. The earth had been peeled of its skin. There were no trees in what had once been a forest, and no sign of the wet, peaty “muskeg” that once covered most of the area. The bogs had been drained and the muskeg rolled up like so much carpet. The earth had also been liberated of “overburden,” the industry term for soil, stone, and anything else, to a depth of about 230 feet.
And this was just prep work for the real surgery: gouging out the oil sand beneath. It takes about two tons of sand to produce a single barrel of oil, and current output in Alberta is close to two million barrels a day. The math becomes complicated—a lot of the bitumen is now removed by means other than “surface” mining, and there are two other oil-sands regions in Alberta. But any way you calculate it, a Saharan amount of sand has been dug, toted, and processed since commercial production began near Fort McMurray in 1967.
The result didn’t look to me like Hiroshima—no shredded buildings or piles of rubble or stricken survivors. Instead it evoked science fiction in which an invasion or asteroid attack has made everything on earth appear alien.
For starters, the moonscape was dotted with lakes that weren’t really lakes. They were artificial pools filled with outflow from the processing plants and fringed with beaches of dirty sand. Workmen clad in orange uniforms seemed to be standing in these lakes, but they weren’t real, either. Stuck on poles, arms spread wide, they were industrial scarecrows, intended to deter birds from landing on “water” and having their feathers coated with bitumen. This had occurred most disastrously in 2008, when 1,600 ducks died at one time.
The noise around these dead ponds was weird and artificial, too, a constant pop that sounded like aimless artillery fire. This came from propane “cannons” perched along the shore to blast noise as backup to the ranks of scarecrows. At some ponds there were also mechanical falcons that flapped their wings and screeched to scare off incoming waterfowl. This was as close to an actual bird as I saw or heard while exploring the oil sands.
I didn’t have much contact with humans, either, even though the area was a hive of human industry. Almost everyone I saw was inside one of the thousands of trucks pouring in and out of plants and mines. Before embarking on my self-guided tour, I’d picked up a hard hat and coveralls in hopes of blending with the work traffic. Initially, this didn’t get me far, since the main roads into mines and plants all led to security gates where guards checked identification. But after two hours trolling the tangle of gravel roads that ran through the oil sands, I found a few access points that were unattended and pulled in behind the truck traffic.
At first I felt giddy, like an industrial spy, sneaking a peek at gouged, grubby cliffs from my mud-caked vehicle. But I couldn’t see much, because there was so much dust. Also, it quickly dawned on me that I could be crushed at any moment, like so much gravel, by vehicles many times the size of mine.
Stupidly, I’d failed to grasp the purpose of a feature on every pickup I’d passed: a tall rod in the bed, affixed with a flag and reflector. This was called a “buggy whip” and was hoisted by drivers so that the Goliathan mining trucks and other road monsters would even notice the puny little pickups down below on the road. I thought of the 687-ton dump truck I’d climbed into at the Discovery Centre. If one of those ran into my rented SUV, I’d be flattened like Wile E. Coyote.
After escaping back the way I’d come, I parked near gravel intersections in hopes of actually speaking to someone. But drivers rarely paused, and when they did, I couldn’t just go up and rap on the window. Even reaching the cab of a giant mine truck meant scaling the staircase mounted on the front of the vehicle. Instead, I jumped and waved my arms and shouted until a hard-hatted head popped out the window of a parked truck. I shouted up at him, idiotically asking what it was like to operate a vehicle that large.
“Ever drive a house?” he said. “A two-story house loaded with four hundred tons of dirt? Sort of like that.” Then he rumbled off, back into the cloud of dust.
After a half-day of driving and standing by the road, I felt like I’d inhaled a sandbox. My grit-packed nostrils at least dulled the chemical smell, which was strongest around the Syncrude plant, a towering facility with spewing stacks that “upgraded” bitumen into synthetic crude.
Near the Syncrude plant, two green hillocks offered momentary refuge from the industry all around. Both hills were efforts at “reclaiming” the mined landscape, as required by law. One was a grassy knoll with a distant view of grazing bison. The viewpoint also offered a panorama of the Syncrude plant and one of the weird tailings ponds with the popping cannon and scarecrows. The company had recently rechristened this an “end-pit lake,” because it was experimenting with a new technique that capped the mine tailings with water. “Over time, it is expected this water body will evolve into a healthy environment,” said a sign atop the viewpoint.
Across the road, Gateway Hill represented a larger and more mature project with a sign reading RETURNED TO NATURE. In fact, this half-mile-square patch was the only site in the oil sands that had been certified as reclaimed by the Alberta government—far less than 1 percent of the total area “disturbed” since 1967. Also, the “hill” was itself an industrial creation: an overburden dump that had been planted over with a new forest of spruce, aspen, and pine.
I would discover these economic realities influence everything and everybody in the oil sands, including environmentalists—or the few I could find. Before heading to northern Alberta, a Web search had led me to the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association, headed by a senior scientist who had worked for the Canadian government. He met me at the group’s office in Fort McMurray and talked for ninety minutes, in technical detail, about monitoring air quality, industrial odors, and the health of lichen.
But our interview became awkward when I asked about the group’s funding. All of it comes from the oil industry—almost $12.6 million annually. The association monitors forty-three trace elements, but not carbon dioxide, the main driver of global warming. It doesn’t monitor water quality, the most worrisome environmental impact of oil sands within Alberta. Nor does the association make recommendations based on its data.
Next I contacted the president of a grassroots group with a similar name, the Fort McMurray Environmental Association. Ann Dort-MacLean’s group received no funding from industry, she said the local air often “stinks,” and she felt the oil sands were being developed much too rapidly, without a full understanding of their impact on the environment. “But we’re not out to change the world,” she said. “It’s all about balance and compromise and working together.”
I heard this sort of nonconfrontational statement repeatedly in Canada and found it a refreshing contrast to the United States, where debate was so polarized that the federal government had just shut down. But in Fort McMurray there was an added reason for this mild approach. “It’s a single-industry town,” Dort-MacLean said, “and there’s a healthy paranoia about being critical.”
Unless, of course, it was being critical of outsiders who painted the town and its industry as Hiroshima, or Greenpeace protesters who had chained themselves to mining equipment. “I hate that kind of grandstanding, and celebrities who come up here to crap all over us,” she said. “I don’t think they walked here, or paddled a canoe from Hollywood.”
She recommended I contact another environmentalist, Kyle Harrietha. Like Dort-McLean, he calmly addressed the industry’s deleterious impact on air and water before expressing outrage at those who warned that the oil sands could be a tipping point for global warming. “It’s ridiculous to claim that this one source of energy will blow out the climate. What about all the coal you burn in the U.S.? What about all your cars? People should clean up their own backyard before going after ours.”
I couldn’t disagree with this sentiment. But it seemed odd coming from a self-described environmentalist. So did the comments of a helicopter pilot who had been recommended to me by an environmental think tank in Edmonton. The pilot vividly described what he saw and heard in the air while transporting executives and others to work sites or taking visitors on overflights of the oil sands. He spoke of tent camps erected by the homeless; black streaks of bitumen oil on the surface of tailings ponds; companies that “have tried to quash Google Earth and close the airspace around their plants.”
But what got him “really pissed off,” he said, was some of the environmentalists who hired him to view the oil sands. “I’ve had people flying a private jet to get to Fort McMurray, or groups with a panda logo showing up in three rented Escalades,” he said. “Then all they want to see and hear about is the destruction caused by digging for oil they burned to get here.”
During five days in Fort McMurray, the only unalloyed criticism I heard of the industry came from Dr. John O’Connor, a general practitioner who had treated First Nation patients since 1993. I met him at the end of a long day at his clinic in Fort McKay, where he saw chronic respiratory and skin ailments that he suspected were linked to the industry encircling the community. Previously, he’d flown bush planes to treat natives in Fort Chipewyan, downriver from the oil sands, and in 2006 he spoke publicly of finding a cancer cluster and a high incidence of other diseases that he speculated were due to industrial contaminants.
This had led to charges by health agencies that Dr. O’Connor was raising “undue alarm” and sowing doubt about government oversight. A subsequent study by the Alberta Cancer Board hadn’t supported all the doctor’s data, but it found that the rate of cancer and leukemia in Fort Chipewyan was “higher than expected” and warranted “closer monitoring.” Other studies found high levels of mercury, lead, and other pollutants in the water near oil-sands production and in the eggs of migratory birds.
Even so, seven years after O’Connor raised the alarm, there had yet to be a comprehensive study of the links between the industry and health. “We’re burying our head in the sand—the oil sand,” the doctor said. This denial, in his view, extended well beyond Fort McMurray, to Alberta’s strongly pro-industry government, and across Canada, a country increasingly hooked on the jobs and income from Alberta’s booming oilfields.
“The power of those velvet handcuffs is amazing,” O’Connor said.
Tony Horwitz is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who spent a decade as a foreign correspondent, mainly covering wars and conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe for the Wall Street Journal. His books include the bestsellers Confederates in the Attic, Blue Latitudes, Baghdad Without a Map, A Voyage Long and Strange and Midnight Rising. Horwitz has also written for The New Yorker and Smithsonian and has been a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute.