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Canada's Highway to Hell

razed virgin forest
Before and After: The first step in preparing the ground for open-pit mining is to raze the virgin forest.

Every day approximately 50 new fortune seekers travel north on Canada's Highway 63 to the tar sands of Alberta, to join what may be the world's last great oil rush. The two-lane all-weather highway starts about 100 miles north of the provincial capital, Edmonton, and ends at Fort McMurray, a sprawling city hastily carved out of swampy groves of spruce. The road was originally built in the 1970s to connect a marginal and experimental source of heavy oil with the rest of the country. It has since become a continental artery to a modern-day Klondike that has made Canada the number-one supplier of oil to the United States. That's right -- Canada.

I don't think I've ever driven a more hectic piece of blacktop. Most locals call it Hell's Highway or the Highway of Death. On any given day thousands of logging trucks, SUVs, semitrailers, buses, and tanker trucks form a frantic parade to and from North America's largest engineering project. Convoys of extrawide loads often block an entire lane of the highway with turbines, tires, or house-size coker ovens used in oil processing. In fact, Highway 63 ferries one of the highest tonnages per mile of any road in Canada.

This congestion encourages a certain do-or-die recklessness. Impatient drivers not only pass on solid lines on hills but do so at speeds of 140 miles an hour. As a consequence, road accidents tend to be fatal or bloodily spectacular: Every month as many as four tar-sands workers get decapitated, skewered, or incinerated. It's not unusual to pass an overturned semitrailer smoldering like a burned-out Humvee on a Baghdad street.

On Thursday and Sunday nights, the open-pit mines change shifts, and thousands of itinerant tar-sands workers head south looking for R&R in Edmonton. Young men, of course, don't worry about mortality, and many of them take to the road in Dodge Ram 3500s or GMC 4x4s, blind drunk or high on crystal meth. Sensible drivers avoid the road on those nights; they don't want to add to the rows of little white crosses decorated with blue hard hats, bottles of Russian Prince Vodka, and stuffed teddy bears.

Hell's Highway leads directly to the hydrocarbon center of North America: the old fur-trading rendezvous of Fort McMurray. Thanks to a recent explosion in investments by the major multinational oil companies (more than $125 billion in U.S. dollars is committed over the next decade), Fort McMurray and environs may soon become the planet's largest source of new oil. By some estimates the surrounding waterlogged forest holds almost 60 percent of the black gold available to global investors. With nearly 175 billion barrels in proven reserves, the tar sands represent the biggest pile of hydrocarbons outside Saudi Arabia. Many experts suspect they hold eight times that much. Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada, rightly calls the project "an enterprise of epic proportions, akin to the building of the pyramids or China's Great Wall. Only bigger." Al Gore calls the whole enterprise "truly nuts."

Most Americans don't know it, but approximately 16 percent of their oil imports already come from northern Alberta. Plans drafted last year by the North American Energy Working Group, which is made up of high-ranking Canadian and U.S. officials, recommend boosting production from one million barrels a day to five million barrels in a "relatively short time span." So the tar sands could soon be topping up a quarter of the U.S. gas tank. "Anyone watching what is happening up north will recognize that, before long, Canada will inevitably overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's oil giant," Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, declared in 2005. "It means that the United States can enjoy a new gigantic source of oil from a friendly neighbor."

But for friendly Canada the tar sands are rapidly becoming an environmental liability as well as an economic hurricane. Described by the United Nations Environment Program as one of the world's top "environmental hot spots," the project will eventually transform a boreal forest the size of Florida into an industrial sacrifice zone complete with lakes full of toxic waste and man-made volcanoes spewing out clouds of greenhouse gases. Are Canadians willing to create an environmental disaster in Alberta in order to provide the U.S. market with some of the most expensive oil in the world? The answer seems to be an emphatic yes.

The tar sands do not in fact contain oil but bitumen, probably the product of a freak geologic event. Formed more than 100 million years ago by marine organisms trapped in an ancient seabed, the tar sands are composed of a heavy chain of carbon-rich atoms high in sulfur. Bitumen, a thick, sloppy mess of oil, water, clay, and sand, feels and smells like cheap asphalt. The Cree used to heat up the stuff to repair leaky canoes. But most petroleum engineers acknowledge that it is one of the world's dirtiest fuels.

It's not hard to understand why. To capture just one barrel of oil from this geologic pudding requires brute force. Great machines mow down trees (and all their supporting creatures such as boreal songbirds and woodland caribou), roll up acres of muskeg, drain entire wetlands, and reroute rivers. Next, for each barrel, workers must scoop up two tons of sand and wash the stuff in hot water. Even then the bitumen requires substantial upgrading to remove engine-clogging impurities. It costs more than 10 times as much to produce a flowing barrel of oil in this way than it does to produce a barrel of Saudi light oil. The entire process is fueled by natural gas, and the energy consumed is awesome: Every 24 hours the industry burns enough natural gas to heat four million American homes in order to produce one million barrels of oil.

The shallowest of the tar sands -- about 20 percent of the total -- can be mined using giant, 400-ton 797B Caterpillar trucks made in Illinois, which stand one and a half stories tall. Women make the best drivers, an earnest Shell engineer explained to me as we stood at the bottom of a three-mile-wide open-pit mine as black as a starless night: "They are just easier on the machine." Fifteen-million-dollar 495HF Bucyrus electric shovels, made in Wisconsin, can top up one of these Caterpillar trucks in four passes. Just about everything in the tar sands, added the Quebec-born engineer, "is an order of magnitude larger than the imagination."

image of Andrew Nikiforuk
One of Canada's leading journalists, Andrew Nikiforuk won the 2009 Rachel Carson Environmental Book Award for his expose on Alberta's growing tar sands industry (which grew out of his OnEarth article "Canada's Highway to Hell"). His latest book, Empi... READ MORE >

Rather explicit

Lies LOTS of lies.

The 1st of which is the speeds people drive Highway 63. 140 KMH possibly for some suicidal idots but MILES AN HOUR? Not a chance you lying sack of [expletive deleted]!

As for the rest of your so called reporting....90% BULL[expletive deleted]!

[Ed. note: To maintain decorum and civility, we do not publish expletives in comments. Thank you, however, for your participation.]

This story is seriously ridiculous! Personally, as a resident of Fort McMurray, I take offence to being referred to as being "blind drunk or high on crystal meth." I have a family and do not work at the oil sands. I feel this article only focuses on the negatives, which are in EVERY city. And seriously....140 miles an hour! My CAR (not SUV or hummer or truck) doesn't even go that fast!

I wish that when an article about Fort McMurray is written that, just once, a writer could get the facts correct. Then, perhaps, an interesting discussion about this region and its pros/cons could ensue.

Unfortunately, Andrew Nikiforuk has missed the mark on many, many points in this story. Too bad.

On the other hand, I believe that much of what he has written was relevant; but so much was "out to left field" that you can't take him or his article seriously.

I wish that a writer could come to town and spend some time with the geniune residents of Fort McMurray (not camp workers etc) and get our points of view.

I would look forward to reading that article.

I guess the only good thing about this article is that, yet again, the dangers (though completely misdescribed) of highway 63 are being highlighted.

Perhaps this very negative article can put the pressure on to the provincial government (Ed Stelmach) to step up and twin the highway for all of our safety.

And while we are at it; perhaps the provincial government could release some more land so that the housing market can catch up and prices will be more affordable.

Almost every problem in this region has been caused by inaction by the provincial government (the sewage treatment plant, the highway, the housing crunch etc.)

Overall the scientific stuff is pretty accurate but the author has exaggerated the conditions of the city of Fort McMurray and the people. There are indeed alot of commuters and camp workers that live in this area but the majority of reisdents are here with families. This city is the source of great opportunities for many people. Families from all over the world have relocated here for the multitude of jobs, but also for the nice community. Shock to most who have never been here but there is actually a strong community of young families and lots of resources and thing for children and families to do. The surrounding forests are beautiful and there are hundreds of forested walking trails that link neighborhoods throughout the city. We do not wake up to the smell of the mines or see the open pits from our homes. You need to drive about 45 minutes to get there. And highway 63 is a crappy highway with people driving recklessly but 140 mph? Seriously? Not likley as that is 225 kmh - my car can't go that fast. Oh asnd the references to the Casino & bars... all towns have those its not like that is unique to here. I know many people who have never set foot in either type of establishment here. Fort McMurray is definitley all about the Oil Sands, but it is not all about drugs, young men or gambling. The town is 52% men & 48% women - not that big of a difference. Families are moving here all the time (not just men) and that is proved by the schools that are over capacity in every neighbourhood in town - and the plans to build several more int he next few years. There are 2 huge new sports facilities being built as we speak. I know this site is an environmental site so a reporter won't be highlighting any of the great things here so I'm glad a few of us could balance out that part of the lopsided article.

This is a terrific story. I was doing research on tar sands for my blog, EarthlingAngst, and found your account so compelling I'm linking to it. Tars sands are an ecological disaster. We should instead be ending our addiction to oil and ramping up development of clean energies, like wind and solar, ending waste and driving electric cars.

Most comments have 'conveniently' avoided the 'environmental issues'.

Ever heard the old saying... reserve judgement until you hear all sides to an issue? I don't say there is no damage to the environment, just do a little more research before forming a final opinion.

I originate from NW BC (environmentalists & land claims). For many years I agreed with both of these issues, however, when the majority of the 'squawkers' are comfortable with their good industrial job, professional incomes and/or government handouts, then I begin to question the validity of their arguements. All my life I have seen a small group of mutually patronizing workers horde the best jobs and the best wages in the industrial sector. If you don't kiss the right ass or adopt the right set of values, regardless if they are true or not, then you don't 'fit in'. Society has always accepted a degree of polution, etc so that these few 'advantaged' worker could have a good life. I say horrah for Alberta and the oilsands for creating an environment where virtually any physically capable person (not Indian/Native, not female, not married w/children, not boss-ass-kisser, not... etc) can have a job and a future in this modern (money driven) society. If you don't like it, and you want my support, then create a 'perfect world' where none of these unjust advantages exist. Until then... SHUT UP!

Regarding Hwy63: Yes... 140MPH (not KMH).

The author is high-lighting a single headline for an individual who was charged by police in 2005? 2006? The driver in question was not only charged with speeding but also a range of other more serious charges (public endangerment?... dangerous driving!...) and lost his license for several years (10?15? I believe it was 10). The author's 140MPH statement is just as true as it is to say that a lottery ticket is a good retirement investment!

Additionally, the authorities have dealt so seriously with all 'extreme drivers' that this 'exceptional minority' risk not only life & limb when they offend, but also some very extreme charges ranging well beyond a speeding ticket. Regardless, if you have a choice, don't travel Hwy63 on Thursday & Sunday nights.

In my experience of 7 years with Hwy63 I believe it is safe to say that Hwy63 is mainly a shame to the credit of the Alberta government. However, in their defense, I have also heard the stories of the original oilfields development plans which resulted in significant preparational expense for the Wood Buffalo Region in anticipation... and then much of the development was scaled back/shelved. I do not know the details so I can only guess whether the Alberta government now was worried that the US might get back into bed with the Middle East and then 'shelve' FtMac for another 25-30 years. They would look pretty stupid spending the money for the road, etc. if the development had exploded for a few years and then stopped.

My personal opinion... the government waited too long and killed several people in the process.

Well he understated the cost of a 3 bedroom house. You pay that much for a friggen single wide trailer. The place is a black hole!

Note that the complainers about the article NEVER mention the environmental destruction, global warming, pollution or waste.

As the Nikiforuk states, they're destroying boreal forest to use up a clean source of energy to produce an extremely dirty one.

But that can't get into the consciousness of the wage slaves who suck at the nipple of money from energy from wasteful lifestyles.

We're doomed by denial of reality.

Enjoy your lifestyle in the frozen North.

I am absolutely sick after reading this. It has hastened my resolve to get rid of my car and use my bike and public transporation so I will no longer contribute to this shameful and evil waste of life and land. Every time I turn around I am made aware of the pillaging of the earth in pursuit of coal or oil. We are going to bury ourselves if we do not free ourselves from the clutches of fossil fuels. Biofuels are not the answer either. It's solar or nothing in my opinion. The only clean source out there right now.

What a nightmare. How can they not see the distruction and enviornmenatl mess this is causing. All the money in the world wont help you when the enviornment is shot and there are floods and fires and everything that goes along with it. This is pusing us real fast to a Mad Max and Waterworld existance.

What a bunch of whiney crybaby people.

Instead of reading articles like this why not actually get off your duffs and go look at the area.

Sure the trees and overburder is removed, so what. Give me a break more damage happens every day in downtown TO with all the cars and coal fired generators needed to keep the sespool going.

Please look at your own crap before whining about something that is the equivalent of a pimple on Albertas backside.

What I find saddest about this is that it doesn't have to be this way.

If we take the time to do this right, we can develop this resource in a manner that is responsible, that won't leave millions of km's of land a toxic waste dump, and millions of liters of water a swamp of cancer causing chemicals. Problem is no one cares. All they care about is money money money. If it decreases your ROI by 10% to do it in a manner that respects the environment, then they won't do it. Sad.

Overstimulated humanity run amuck here. These corporate types and blinded by money politicos who oversee these operations should be made to swim in these tailing ponds each morning before going off to do whatever it is they do . That said, I'll think twice before starting my gas burner or pressing on the accelerator. Good God people!

As for global warming-Fort McMurray could use a temperature rise. And for all you "environmentalists" give it a rest, not even you are willing to give up your cars, boats, planes and trains and walk or ride a horse everywhere so I say produce more oil so I can drive my Jaguar, and fly the small plane I am going to buy. We should also remove the border between Canada and the United States so we can all enjoy places like California more often and not have to worry about heating our homes with natural gas & oil. How's that sound? The rising temperature in the earth has to do with where the solar system is in revolution within our Milky Way Galaxy, man is simply too small and too insignificant to warm the temperature of the earth one millionth of pne half of a degree. So give it up and stop lying to us!

And YES, I was only in Fort McMurray for a couple of hours waiting at the Greyhound and I saw three "crackheads" blasted out of their minds stumble past the bus station making bizarre body movements and talking weird, if I had had my camera I was going to take a small video clip and post it on u-tube with the heading "this is Fort McMurray"! I will have my camera ready next time I go up that way to work.

I support enterely this article - Tars sands exploitation is a mess, a truely threat that we impose to our Earth!

Oil companies are just disgusting and don't care at all about what's happen now in the Earth with global warming and the fall of natural resources! They use water, water and water and they pollute everything! We can't permit that, just in consideration of our future! How can we use natural resources just for oil or make money? How can we insure a future without water?? I'm really angry! People just care about money from destruction.

I studied during more than 10 years in environment and ecology and for me it's the first time in my life I see too much destruction just for oil. What is the meaning of that? Where are human and environmental values? People are just crazy and lost in this times of earth, particularity in Fort McMurray. What will happen after that in this destructed area?

We must close this area to protect the last parts of our environment for our next generations! I hope we will do that! People will find cleaner work in other places and will stop to shit on the Earth! Go back to school and protect the planet! You don't care about forests...? We don't care about your oil and your money!

Having knowledge about the consequences of the irresponsible use of the land and corrupting forever the very resources of our very existence has illuded the persons commenting only on the part of the article that deals with speeding drivers and bars. The real issues are what are we to do when the water that you drink causes cancer to all surrounding the area. Or when everything in the area is decimated and uninhabitable and conditions IRREVERSIBLE. Not to mention when all living natural habitat is effectively decimated. How about when global warming causes climate to change because of gasses in the earth's atmosphere causing havoc. How about looking past five minutes from now and looking at the BIG PICTURE. The Canadian goverment is only concerned with making the bucks and does not know how to control the behemoth monster that it has allowed to grow and destroy. They don't care who it takes down with them. They figure they will be out of office as things get progressively worse and conditions become more and more dire. THE PROBLEMS AND CRITICALLY FRIGHTENING CONDITIONS WILL COME TO HEAD AND ALL INVOLVED WON'T HAVE ANY SOLVABLE RECOURSE.

This was certainly an interesting article. It paints a much different picture than what was presented on

I am guessing there is some exaggeration by the other... surely the highways are not death races and junkies don't roam the streets like zombies, but he does present a lot of interesting information about the toxic tailings ponds and the potential impact to water for all of Alberta. I'm not opposed to these oil projects, but there shouldn't be this massive rush to ramp up production.

Lets take it slow; the oil isn't going anywhere!

Typical article of people who dont know the city. It reminds me of the 500 birds killed in the recycle pond - every newspaper reported this environmental disaster - none said that the usual kill was about 20 year, and this was a first (and probably never reoccur). What about the 6000 killed each year by Toronto Skyscrapers, the 150,000 by our pet cats, the millions by cars. Windturbines kill over 100,000 a year.
I lived there for 25 years, and with the exception of the short booms, thought it was a clean fantastic place to be..
140km was the fast traffic, most at about 120km - how does this compare to the madness on the 401. Also the air is cleaner than our biggest cities.

You're absolutely correct. The Toronto and other cities' skyscraper situtation leaving lights on and allowing migrating birds to hit them, allowing pet cats or feral cats to roam outdoors should also be addressed and corrected and the wind turbine design needs to be changed or turbines relocated if they are killing birds. As an avid birdwatcher, I would hope all of these disastrous situations be corrected, including dirty tar sands extraction and clearcut logging.

I just read this article after reading the Wikipedia article, almost day and night. One focused on the technical aspects of generating the sand oil and the other on the environmental impact.
The Canadian government seems to have a black eye here allowing almost unrestricted development for the sake of becoming the number one source of oil for the USA. Part of the problem may have to do with the Free Trade Agreement, partly to the greed of the Canadian government which seems to be gaining large tax benefits and partly to the producers themselves who are not doing the responsible thing and taking into account the long term effects of the environmental devastation. I am sure the American demand for oil is just as much a culprit as the American demand for drugs is a culprit with regards to the Mexican drug wars. We need to look to our out of control consumption habits and hopefully the Cap and Trade policy of Obama's will become law and we will start to participate in the world effort to combat global warming.

your wondering how our politicians allow this to continue out of control..... watch the movie "zeitgeist", it's online @ youtube , it will be the most enlightening 2 hours of your life

The Athabasca River cuts through the oil sand deposit and in many places in the river's banks you can see oil seeping out. So yes, there is some oil going into the river and it's a natural occurring phenomenon. Bear this in mind when people moan and groan about oil in the water.

I would like to know where the author of this article is from. He talks about the destruction of land. Which is true. However, how much land has been destroyed to make way for cities like New York, LA, Chicago,Toronto, and the list goes on. That land will NEVER be recovered. How much waste do these major cities produce? The greenhouse emissions from the oilsands pale in comparison to the coal burning power plants in the US and industry in china and other countries. I have traveled throughout north America and Europe. Fort mcmurray is much cleaner than most areas. I have lived in Fort mac for years now. I have never woken up to the smell of the tar sands. Like ANY city we have our challenges. For some reason ours are looked upon as evil. I like it here, so please get facts straight and talk to the residents of this city before printing your bias story. We are not all crack heads. Is everyone in Chicago a gangster? Is everyone in New York a murderer?

As an US> citizen I am 'dam' glad that this unholy mess is in Canada and not in the USA> If you Canidans did not want all of that $$ from the oil, you would not be 'Mother' to that mess. Your 'Greed' is what is driving this. Enjoy it, and what comes with it, forever!! We are just doing you a favor by using your product and paying for it with the cash that you so desperatly think that you need. You own it, so you live with it. "The Mafia Man"

I got news for you pal. Don't look down your nose at Canada feeling all superior. They're itching to do this in the western U.S., too, Utah and elsewhere. Just google tar sands extraction images and you'll see. Plus, who do you think is buying this oil? You'll see in the images maps of where this tar sands pipelines lead. They all lead south of the border (and I don't mean Mexico). So don't get all high and mighty. Just saying. From a fellow American.

This is an eye opening article for both Canadians and Americans.

As a proud Canadian I am ashamed at what the oil sands are doing to our reputation in the US and abroad.

As a determined capitalist and devoted environmentalist, I am deeply disappointed that we have not taken the means necessary to extract the oil in a way that will not damage the earth so dramatically. This would take a lot money and determination, but so was putting a man on the moon or building a railroad across Canada.

Can it be done? I don't know. But considering the amount of dollars at stake, and the ongoing environmental damage, this is a debate that needs to take place, in both Canada and the US.

This article is blatantly bias. The author obviously had a strong viewpoint before writing the article.

The oil sands are a cornerstone of the Canadian economy and if they are developed properly can provide a bridge to our next source of energy. Technology for the oil sands is improving every day with many of the brightest Canadians working on new ways of extracting and processing the resource. It seems like more and more people are jumping on the bandwagon boycotting the oil sands without knowing all the facts.

In response to anonymous who stated "they do not have all the facts" I would have to say the same to you. There is a comprehensive document available to everyone called "Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent" and you will see for yourself what truly drives the oil sands and the governments behind it. I worked in this sewer and know first hand what devastation and pollution this mega "Tar Sand" Project creates. Fossil fuel is no longer the answer to our future - The Earth has started to wretch as a result of our blatant disregard of our home. Wake-up and get informed our future depends on it.

Some aspects of this article are irrelevant. Their are crackheads,speeders,expensive housing and overwhelmed civic infrastrcutute in many areas of Canada , not to mention the USofA or the third world..
The real point is will the tarsands development permanently change the ecosytem in Alberta?
While many of the recent ecological changes probably have a direct link to global warming, you cannot deny the tarsand have no effect at all.
So how much of an effect does the tarsands have and who is going to measure it? Worse yet who will then report and who will force action?
Action that will be seen by many as crashing the party,and nobody like a party pooper.
Big oil and doesnt like them. Neither does the average joe trying to raise families while making a living.
Canadians are pushovers. We think we care we dont (well IMHO at least most of us dont) If the oil taps are flowing, so is the money and the voters are happy. The effects of a dirty ecosystem laden with toxic chemicals and the long term effects are just that. long term pushed under the carpet for another administration to worry about . Another generation to get cancer.
Dont count on the goverment to get anything right. One only has to google mining and tailing pond disasters in Canada to see big business usually trumps the "worrywarts" and "ecowhiners" and people get sick and pay for the cleanup.
Its our offsrping that will really suffer, disease and no energy.
What a (*%$ disaster not waiting to happen..

Ladies and gents, Do we not see what this is doing. There is a picture of a scarecrow preventing birds from landing in a toxic lake. Come on people we are destroying ourselves. This is complete madness. We must realise that you cannot eat dollars and drink oil. Humans are smart, lets stop this damage and madness and support alternative energy options. Not just for our sake but for the sake of man kind. Think how we look on Victorian Britain now - the slaughter of wildlife for ornaments, the massacre of elephants for ivory, massive industrial upheaval, death of children and complete destruction of the environment. Did we not learn something or are we all really going to wait until the last tree has fallen, the last wild animal has rolled over and died from arsenic poisoned water before we decide to stop..! My point is that within the next fifty years we, yes you and I are going to really suffer as the damage is irreversible and it will only end with the human race suffering a massive decline in population. Not just the cases we see in third world countries but in the G8 countries also. We must stop and think about this.