A collaboration with writer Nika Knight

The tar sands, or oil sands, as most people up here call them, are in fact a massive deposit of bitumen (a molasses-like, low-grade form of oil) mixed in with sand and clay. Due to the labor-intensity of first separating the sticky bitumen from the soil, and then the cost of diluting the thick hydrocarbon — producing a product called “dilbit” that can then be shipped to the U.S. through pipelines to be refined into crude — the oil sands are not just costly and complex to mine, but they produce several times more carbon emissions into the atmosphere than traditional oil wells. Along with fracking and deep-sea drilling, the tar sands are one of the unconventional options made newly viable by dried-up oil wells and sky-high prices per barrel. Immersed at varying depths underneath the swampy muskeg that forms the topsoil in this part of the world, the mineable portion in Northern Alberta is the size of New York State.

It is difficult and costly to transform this particular form of petroleum, called bitumen, into a usable form of oil. In the first decades of the 20th century, the government of Alberta promoted the thick, sticky substance for paving roads. The first oil company to profitably mine it and turn it into fuel, Suncor (originally, optimistically named “Great Canadian Oil Sands”), arrived in 1967 but faltered for decades. It was an industry joke by the early 1990s, until rapidly rising oil prices and improved technology for separating and liquefying the tarry bitumen combined, over the past two decades, to make the sands profitable. Today, the 170.2 billion barrels of proven reserves contained in Alberta’s bituminous sands has been valued as worth potential trillions. And in the past twenty years, the mining and refining plants have spread to encompass a stretch of land as large as Florida.

The tar sands are a popular target for environmentalists worldwide. Former-NASA-scientist-turned-climate-activist James Hansen has claimed that continued mining of the sands will mean “game over for the climate.” The outcry has not slowed pace of growth: the provincial regulatory board has thus far approved every application for an oil sands lease, and the province predicts that crude bitumen production will double by 2021.

Three communities tell a story of lives lived at the heart of our reliance on a dwindling global petroleum reserve. It’s a story of sky-high salaries, lonely 12-hour shifts, the last vestiges of a traditional way of life, and rumored health dangers. A wild west founded not in the age of discovery, but the emerging age of lack. The former fur trading outposts of Fort McMurray, Fort McKay, and Fort Chipewyan each tell a portion of a story still being written, atop one of the largest and most vilified industrial project in the world.

- Nika Knight © 2013

Drilling, Dollars, and Disease Down North published on Narratively, April 2015