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Welcome to the era of 'extreme energy'

John D. Sutter
  • As easy oil sources run out, we're moving to an era of "extreme energy"
  • The Gulf oil disaster, one year ago, shows this trend
  • So do Canada's "oil sands," where companies dig for crude instead of drilling
  • The process clears forests and creates toxic lakes of industrial waste

Fort McKay, Alberta (CNN) -- Celina Harpe was 7 when her grandfather made a prediction that would forever change her life.

"I won't see it, I'm too old now, but it's going to be really bad," she recalls him saying on a warm summer night after returning from a moose hunt. The two were standing on a hill that overlooks the birch-and-spruce-lined river here in far northwest Canada.

"You see these plants and this water we've got? That's going to be all polluted. You're going to have to buy water -- and water is life.

"Mother Earth is going to be all torn up."

His statement felt almost ludicrous at the time -- after all, the land seemed so infinite. Decades would pass before Harpe began to put any stock in those words. Now 72, she has watched oil companies surround her village with city-sized strip mines that look like something out of Mordor from "Lord of the Rings" -- with gas flares, smokestacks and the constant boom of propane cannons on the horizon. The explosions, which sound like mortar fire, are meant to scare off migratory birds. An oily death awaits them if they land in the area's toxic industrial lakes, byproducts of the mining process.

It seems hellish, but as easy-to-get oil sources dry up or become politically tricky to tap, risky forms of what writer Michael Klare calls "extreme energy" are becoming the norm.

"It's generally accepted that cheap, easy oil is over," said Brad Bellows, a spokesman for Suncor Energy, which pioneered the development of the area that has come to be known as the Canadian "oil sands." "The future of oil is things like oil sands or deep offshore -- some of the frontier areas and some of the far corners of the world."

Before and after: The scars of the oil sands

One year ago this week, the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster shined an uncomfortable spotlight on the risks of this trend. As wells dried up in tens of feet of ocean, offshore rigs moved into water a mile deep, stretching the limits of technology and safety.

But extreme energy is far from isolated in deep waters of the ocean.

Across the United States, natural gas "fracking" -- a process where water, sand and chemicals are injected into rock to dislodge previously inaccessible fuel -- has resulted in groundwater so polluted that, in some instances, tap water has been lit on fire. Another process is being developed to extract oil from shale rock under the Rocky Mountains.

And in Canada's oil sands, about 620 miles north of Montana, huge amounts of energy are expended to clear boreal forests and dig up land that's about 10% bitumen, a thick form of crude that must be processed multiple times before it turns into gasoline or jet fuel.

The impacts of this quest for tough-to-get oil surround Harpe's village, an indigenous community of 400, and serve as daily reminders of her grandfather's predictions, which she had to see to believe.

Still, this oil addiction has proved difficult to kick -- even for her.

Wringing oil out of dirt

When the first oil company arrived in Fort McMurray, Alberta, in 1967, the idea of squeezing oil out of dirt seemed like a risky science experiment. Few thought it would be economical.

And for decades it wasn't.

Sun Oil, now Suncor, razed trees and dragged buckets across the ground to scoop up the oil-dirt mixture for processing. But the price of oil wasn't high enough, and other supplies weren't yet inaccessible enough, to make digging for oil a profitable venture.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, things had changed -- and today, with oil selling for $108 a barrel, the oil sands are booming. An estimated 170 billion barrels of accessible oil sit under the region -- covering an area the size of Florida.

That makes the oil sands the second biggest supply of proven oil reserves in the world, behind only Saudi Arabia. The United States imports more than half of the product, pulling it across the border in pipes and, often, refining it afterward.

A proposed pipeline, if approved by the U.S. State Department, would connect the oil sands to Texas, where the oil could be burned and refined, further expanding its reach.

Even the people of Fort McKay, which is surrounded by the oil sands and has borne the brunt of its impact, have been intoxicated with the cash that this industry has brought to the region. Jobs in the mines today start at more than $100,000 per year.

Melissa Blake, mayor of the Wood Buffalo municipality, which includes Fort McKay and other hamlet communities in the area, said the industry has helped indigenous villages transition into the modern economy.

CNN: Oil sands 'matriarch' takes trouble in stride

"The community of Fort McKay, because of its proximity, had an awful lot of benefit coming to them from the companies that were their neighbors and trying to help them bridge from the traditional way of living and lifestyle into the opportunites of the future," she said.

"Inevitably when you've got communities who have existed in a certain way for all of their generations before, transition can be difficult."

But because of the industry, Blake said, people in Fort McKay will be "well positioned to stand on their own."

Oil companies employed 1,600 people from indigenous groups in the Wood Buffalo region in 2009, according to The Oil Sands Developers Group.

Bellows, from Suncor, said the fuel from the oil sands will help transition the world to cleaner sources of energy over time. For now, the world demands more energy and Canada's oil sands are a safe place to get it, he said.

'I couldn't take that away from him'

Harpe heard the beeping trucks from the banks of the river.

And something clicked.

All of a sudden, after pushing the memory into the recesses of her mind for decades, she was back on the hill with her grandfather, hearing his warning.

You're going to have to buy water.

Mother Earth is going to be all torn up.

Was this what he worried about?

Harpe's husband was helping with the oil sands development, and she tried to brush off these connections at first. He'd always been good with his hands, so he took a job helping build an oil-company bridge to Fort McKay. He later worked as a crane operator in one of the oil sands mines.

"He loved the kind of work he did," Harpe said. "I couldn't take that away from him, you know. Us native women, we look after our men."

Then, one night, on the way back from a shift at the new mine, Harpe's husband fell off the bow of a transport boat and plunged into the Athabasca River.

He was a good swimmer, but his rubber work boots pulled him to the bottom.

Alone with five kids to raise, Harpe started to believe.

Supersized mines

Once upon a time, most of the oil pulled from the earth was stored in vast, bladder-like bubbles beneath the surface. Puncture the pouch with a drill and the oil spurts out, Beverly Hillbillies style.

Canada's bitumen is mixed up in the land like an egg in cake batter, making things more complicated. The process to extract that dirt-oil mix is supersized -- and costly.

Step one: Bulldoze the boreal forests to make room for mines. Next, a shovel the size of a house scoops out massive hunks of land, 100 tons at a time. Each of those bites weighs roughly the same as 20 average elephants.

Then come the world's largest trucks, which are so big they make their drivers look like they've been hit with cartoon shrink rays. Stand the tallest person in Canada up next to one of these truck tires -- each of which costs $70,000 -- and his or her head would barely reach the axle. These mammoth vehicles carry the dirt away in 400-ton loads, creating tracks on the ground as they lumber down roads and on to factories that use heat and pressure to squeeze one barrel of oil out of every two tons of land.

CNN: Can tech make a dirty fuel clean?

Inside the mines, the operation is an oily version of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Pits of cocoa-colored dirt extend as far as the eye can see. The walls look sticky, like molasses. The dirt feels like chewing gum to the touch.

From the window of her three-room home in Fort McKay, Harpe can hear this process -- and taste it in the air.

'We had a good life'

Harpe couldn't recreate her childhood memories if she wanted to.

All of them involve the land. And so much has changed.

She grew up living with nature -- hunting moose, trapping beaver, drinking from the Athabasca River in the summer and harvesting ice from it in the winter.

Now most of the wildlife has moved away from the cacophony of an industry that operates 24 hours a day, shining floodlights on itself through the night. Fort McKay residents don't see birds often, despite the fact that many species migrate through this part of northern Canada on their way to and from the Arctic.

"It's been a big, big, big change from what it was like in those days to what it's like today," she said. "We had a good life. We might not have had everything, you know, but we had the essentials. We had good fish. We ate rabbits, chickens, ducks.

"Nobody was hungry, that's for sure."

These days, Harpe doesn't go near the river. She doesn't trust the fish.

Potentially harmful levels of heavy metals -- including cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver and zinc -- were found in the mining area, according to a 2010 report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Jessica Potter, a spokeswoman for the Alberta Environment Ministry, said river water quality has not been studied sufficiently to say if the oil sands caused contamination, and a recent report on the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program found the provincial government has not done enough to monitor for environmental contamination in the area.

"I've actually been traumatized by the oil industry," Harpe says in a voice that sounds too shaky and deflated to be angry. "It's just unbelievable the way things have changed. We can't even drink our own water. We've given up on this river."

Plants that once held medicinal value are now left in the woods because they're spiritually dead, said Marlene Orr, a local environmentalist and former oil worker.

"The cultural identity of the people has been broken," she said. "Who we are as native people is we are the land. We're keepers of the Earth. So when you start messing with the land, you're messing with the spiritual identity of the people."

Despite a lack of conclusive scientific evidence, Fort McKay residents are also starting to wonder if the oil sands are poisoning their bodies. Orr has photos of puss-filled red sores that showed up on her legs after she waded into the boggy forest near the village. A local physician, Dr. John O'Connor, says he's seen an inordinate number of cancer cases in the area, some of which may be linked to oil production.

The regional health board has not fully studied the issue, so it is impossible to say whether the cancers and autoimmune deficiency cases are statistically alarming, he said.

The Alberta government says the illnesses in communities downstream from the oil sands are not abnormal and cannot be linked to the oil industry. Furthermore, Health Canada charged O'Connor with allegedly causing undue alarm about illnesses in the area. That complaint is yet to be resolved, according to local news reports.

A report from the Royal Society of Canada underscored the scientific uncertainty concerning the oil sands and its impact on local people and wildlife:

"There is currently no credible evidence of environmental contaminant exposures from oil sands reaching (nearby) Fort Chipewyan at levels expected to cause elevated human cancer rates," the December 2010 report said. "More monitoring focused on human contaminant exposures is needed to address First Nation and community concerns."

All of this is almost too much for Harpe to bear. Her sister, Dorothy McDonald, who was one of this community's strongest environmental advocates, and who tried to block a road to prevent mining companies from coming to Fort McKay in the 1980s, died of lupus, an autoimmune disease that has been linked in other locations to oil production.

"People are dying right and left here. It's sad. Even young people."

Asked if she attributes this change to the oil industry, she said, "I'm definitely sure."

'I can't do nothing to stop it'

Still, oil also has brought prosperity to Fort McKay, and that's not something people here are willing to give up.

Take 30-year-old Jerry Cooper, for example. He'd rather hunt than bulldoze trees. But the animals are mostly gone now, he said, and pelts don't fetch the prices they used to.

So he does what he can to feed his three kids.

"If I didn't do it, someone else is still going to do it," he said of his job in the oil sands. "I can't do nothing to stop it. I know it's still going to be done anyway."

Harpe says she is unyielding in her opposition to the oil sands and would never work in the industry. But she remarried after her first husband's death and her spouse, Ed Cooper, worked in the oil sands industry until he retired. The pearls on her neck and the Versace eyeglasses on her face speak to the material benefits his oil-company paychecks have afforded her.

She would trade it all, she said, to go back to the way things were.

"We lived without this kind of stuff before," she said, glancing at her red SUV. "We burned wood forever and ever and ever -- thousands of years we didn't have gas."

But like others in Fort McKay, she thinks it's too late.

From her house facing the Athabasca River, she can hear the muffled propane cannons shooing birds away from the toxic lakes. The air inside her home smells of gasoline and gives her a constant, buzzing headache, for which she takes prescription drugs. She surrounds herself with air fresheners in hopes she can cover up the stench of oil -- but it doesn't work.

Perhaps most upsetting to her: The river out her window is an icy brown.

Just like her grandfather predicted, she drinks only bottled water, which she has to purchase in a store instead of drinking from the Athabasca.

She tries not to think about all of this. Instead, she focuses on her beadwork, sewing moccasins from a loveseat at the back window of her home for five or six hours a day.

But many days, she breaks down and cries.

Her best hope now, she says, is to preserve the past. She's asked one of her daughters, an artist, to paint a portrait of what Fort McKay used to look like -- all birch trees, pines, moose and clear water. Happy hunters and no disease. People and their land.

This is how she wants her town to be remembered.

She hopes the painting, at least, will be passed through the generations.

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