People who saw the film Winged Migration have a pretty good idea what the surface of the Earth looks like to a duck in flight. And to a large flock of 500 buffleheads flying over the Aurora North Settling Basin in the spring of 2008, this huge toxic waste pool (one of many) from Alberta, Canada’s tar sands oil production appeared to be a hospitable, ice-free lake.

And so they landed — dived down and never came up. Five hundred ducks.

If you live south of the border and you’ve heard of tar sands at all, it’s probably because of this incident. But most of the time this $200 billion enterprise, which is the largest energy project in the world and has turned Canada into our biggest oil provider, is invisible to Americans. It’s a process as horrific as U.S. mountaintop removal mining, but it goes about its work of destroying a boreal forest the size of Florida without much outside scrutiny. “It’s a Canadian thing,” people say, if they say anything at all. But Americans are driving cars fueled by tar sands oil, and it’s a big problem for all of us.

 

Tar Sands is an angry book, and it comes by its rage honestly. Written by well-known Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, an eight-time winner of that country’s National Magazine Award, it is a well-researched and well-written polemic. Nikiforuk has an ear for compelling metaphors: in its natural state, tar sands bitumen is “as hard as a hockey puck,” and just one company, Syncrude, fuels its process with enough water from the Athabasca River “to annually fill the glasses and bathtubs of a third of Denver’s residents.”

It’s a pity if this book (sponsored by the foundation of Canada’s most passionate environmentalist, David Suzuki) does not attract much readership in the U.S. Its arguments are already well-known up north. But they bear some repeating here:

Thanks to tar sands, Canada now produces more oil than Texas or Kuwait. Its sticky tar deposits can’t simply be pumped out of the ground, however. In common with all carbon-rich oil, it’s in the form of compressed and baked 200- to 300-million-year-old plant and animal life. “Good cooking results in light oil,” Nikiforuk writes. “Bad cooking makes bitumen,” or tar sand. To turn it into crude requires first leveling the boreal forest and creating an open-pit mine, then extracting the bitumen with three-story, 400-ton Caterpillar trucks. Four tons of earth yields two tons of bituminous sand: together the open-pit mines move enough dirt every other day to fill Yankee Stadium. The sand has to be given a $100,000 “hot wash,” and the process not only requires a tremendous and unsustainable amount of water, but “destroys the living heart of a forest.”

The tar sands are in northeastern Alberta, near the border with Saskatchewan. In another parallel with mountaintop removal mining, the vast revenue generated by the enterprise hasn’t done much for home base. In a vivid chapter, Nikiforuk describes daily life in the boomtown of Fort McMurray, on the other end of a “Highway to Hell” that in 2007 claimed 17 lives -- mostly exhausted, pill-popping and heavy drinking shift workers on their way home, dodging huge tar sand convoys that block the road. Fort McMurray is ugly and expensive: a mobile home sells for $300,000. Drug offenses are five times the rate of the rest of Alberta, and assaults are 89 percent higher. Homeless people sleep under cars parked next to piles of garbage downtown. And Alberta’s low royalty rate means the province takes in a relative pittance from tar sands development -- it’s far below the share collected in other energy states, from Venezuela to Angola.

Canadian tar sand development is the legacy of the Hudson Institute’s Herman Kahn, who saw few limits to growth and was an eternal technological optimist. He didn’t think anyone would miss a mosquito-infested boreal forest. He was wrong about that, but right that his proposals would eventually get embraced by officials eager to turn Canada into a northern version of Saudi Arabia (with much lower-quality oil).

Cheap oil has many bad side effects -- it keeps people buying SUVs, and it tamps down alternative energy development -- but at least it makes expensive tar sands development uneconomical. The danger is that when we run out of easily exploitable oil resources we’ll turn heavily to the dirty, expensive ones: not just tar sands, but also equally messy oil shale in the Rocky Mountains.

Nikiforuk concludes his book with a 12-step program for a “sustainable retreat,” weaning ourselves from addiction to the dirtiest forms of oil. The depressing reality is very few of his worthwhile prescriptions -- from imposing a direct carbon tax and capping tar sands production at two million barrels a day to renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement -- are likely to be enacted.

More awareness -- and outrage -- is needed, and this book helps. The only thing that will stop the three-story trucks from rumbling down the Highway to Hell is a commitment -- on both sides of the border -- to leave the tar sands in the ground and move on to sustainable forms of fuel.

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Jim Motavalli, a regular contributor to the New York Times, is the transportation blogger for MNN.