Onearth - 1 Sep 07

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 26 Apr 09)

Canada's Highway to Hell

Andrew Nikiforuk
Onearth, September 1, 2007

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

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 Wild North: Much of the boreal is a mosaic of wetlands. Jiri Rezac/Eyevine
Tar-sands workers await buses to take them to the Millenium Camp, where they live. Alex Webb/Magnum Photos

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."

The majority of the tar sands, however, can't be dug up like Appalachian mountaintops. About 80 percent of the reserves lie so deep under the forest that they must be steamed or melted out of the ground with the help of a bewildering array of pumps, pipes, and wells. Engineers call the process in situ (in place) thermal, and it burns up nearly twice as much natural gas as the open-pit mines. The Canadian government recently estimated that it might take 20 nuclear reactors to replace natural gas as a fuel source in tar-sands operations by 2015, and companies are already putting forth proposals to build them.

This fantastic appetite for natural gas (a relatively clean fuel), combined with energy-intensive upgrading, explains why bitumen is such a climate changer. In fact, it emits three times more carbon than conventional oil. "You know you are in the bottom of the ninth inning when you have to schlep two tons of sand to get a barrel of oil," says Jeffrey Rubin, the chief economist of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Matthew Simmons, a Houston energy analyst and author of the best-selling Twilight in the Desert, an exposé of Saudi Arabia's dwindling oil supplies, calls the tar sands "an atrocious resource." And Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of Canada projects at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), agrees. "The boreal forest is our last defense against global warming," she says, "yet here we are, digging up this wilderness for tar-sands development."

The boom has transformed Fort McMurray from a sleepy northern frontier town into Canada's wildest city -- McMoney, as people call it now. The tar-sands metropolis sits at the confluence of two majestic rivers, the Athabasca and the Clearwater, and used to be the kind of place where people could bump into trappers at the grocery store or spot a wolf in their backyard. But in 1996 record oil prices and the 1 percent royalties the companies pay the provincial government started the boom that rapidly erased McMurray's remote northern character. The town's new, sprawling suburbs bear names like Thickwood and Timberlea; most wouldn't seem out of place in Denver or Las Vegas. In the past 10 years the city's population has jumped from 36,000 to 64,000. The cost of living here is the highest in Canada.

Brute Force: Enormous dump trucks (each tire is 14 feet tall and weighs 40,000 pounds) carry off the earth that once sustained a primeval forest. Jiri Rezac/Eyevine
Mike Reagan

Hydrocarbons define and shape the tenor of everyday life in Fort McMurray. People wake up to the smell of money (sulfur dioxide or ammonia), drive everywhere in oversize trucks (hardly anyone walks) past welcome signs that read We Have the Energy, eat at restaurants with names like Fuel, attend spirited hockey games played by the Oil Barons, get drunk at the Oil Can, and gamble away their wages of $89,000 (U.S.) a year at the BoomTown Casino. As thousands of camp workers (mostly single males) from China, Mexico, Hungary, and Canada's Atlantic provinces have poured in to construct one mine after another (30,000 itinerant camp workers now moil and toil in the bush), the number of pages in the phone book devoted to escort services, promising "exotic delights" and "mature and classy" companions, has grown from one to 10.

Housing is the central problem. The price of a three-bedroom home has skyrocketed from $191,000 to $483,900 (U.S.) in the past three years, prompting workers to pitch tents by the Athabasca River, rent out garages, or purchase trailers. As many as nine people might share an apartment. Some guys even sleep in their trucks. The city is so short of affordable housing that hundreds of homeless men and women, many of them crackheads, walk the streets like zombies.

Crime, too, has exploded. Fort McMurray boasts an assault rate 89 percent higher than the rest of Alberta, a 215 percent higher rate of drug-related offenses, and a 117 percent higher rate of arrests for driving while impaired. Detox centers are generally full, and if you need suicide counseling, well, you might have to wait four months. Camp workers say that approximately $6.5 million (U.S.) worth of crack cocaine travels up Hell's Highway every week. The Hell's Angels are the corporate distributor of choice.

Last year Fort McMurray's mayor, Melissa Blake (one of the few people in the region who own a hybrid Toyota truck), bluntly described the problems of her city to a parliamentary committee: "Our wastewater treatment needs exceed capacity. Our water treatment plant will be at capacity next year. Our recreational facilities are overtaxed. Our landfill site is full. Fort McMurray is 2,800 housing units short of current demand. Our health care system needs a 100 percent increase in on-site doctors."

Blake recited similar statistics to Alberta's provincially appointed Energy and Utility Board (EUB), the agency responsible for approving tar-sands projects -- 69 or so since 1996. During hearings last year for three developments worth more than $20 billion, proposed by Suncor Energy, Imperial Oil, and Shell Oil, Mayor Blake politely called for a slowdown to give the urban infrastructure time to catch up.

That's not what she got. The board admitted that "the capacity of existing infrastructure...has been depleted." It also found an "apparent lack of a coordinated response among government departments and various levels of government." Yet in the end it ruled that risks to air, water, and human health were "acceptable" and that everyone should "adaptively respond" to the region's corporate anarchy. When a prominent Fort McMurray businessman told Brad McManus, acting chairman of the EUB, that development was "out of control," McManus replied, "We're the regulator. We can't say that."

Keep Off: In an effort to deter migratory birds from landing on the huge, toxic tailings ponds, mine owners use scarecrows (known as bitu-men). Alex Webb/Magnum Photos

Just about everyone in Fort McMurray has a different take on the hydrocarbon revolution. Sue Pearce, a representative for the McMoney from Newfoundland more than three years ago with her husband and four children to escape a depressed economy. She comes from a long line of Newfoundlanders who, as she put it, "persevere and do whatever it takes to make a living."

Three things about Fort McMurray startled Pearce when she arrived. The first was the 12-hour shifts. "That was a surprise, to have people away from their home such long periods of time," she said. "It's actually 14 hours if you include the commute time to the mines." The second was the abundance of Filipino nannies looking after the kids while their parents worked those long shifts. And the third was the scale of the industry -- the size of the equipment, the bleakness of the landscape, and the smell. "But it's the smell of money and what we do."

Unlike the camp workers who openly call Fort McMurray a hellhole, Pearce likes the place, warts and all; she particularly loves the alarmingly blue Alberta sky and the annual Blueberry Festival. She'd like to see a slowdown in development but doesn't expect one. I asked her if ordinary folks really had time to consider the environmental impacts of the world's largest energy project, and she said no. "The average worker is here to work. They want to spend time relaxing and some time with family and friends. There is no time to think of all that."

One place to think about "all that" is on a boat in the middle of the Athabasca River. The 950-mile waterway rises in the Canadian Rockies and courses through the tar sands before emptying into the world's most extensive boreal delta, on Lake Athabasca. Every fall and spring the delta serves as perhaps the largest nesting and rest area for migratory birds in North America. After paddling the river in 1906 all the way to the delta and beyond, the American naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton dubbed the majestic waterway the "Missouri of the North."

During a recent visit I ventured out on the river with John Semple, a trim, fit man in his 50s. Semple arrived in Fort McMurray as a firefighter from a small town in the Northwest Territories in 1976 and has since made his living as an outfitter. He survived an earlier, smaller tar-sands boom in the 1970s but described the current frenzy as unprecedented: "This growth is unbelievable," he said. "Anyone who wants to build a plant can do so." Most young folks avoid the river these days, he told me, because "they're too busy with their heads down and butts up in the sands."

Like most environmental indicators in the tar sands, the river is ailing. Since the 1970s the total summer flow downstream of Fort McMurray has declined by nearly a third. Yet every year the tar-sands operations withdraw 250,000 Olympic-size pools of water from the Athabasca. That's enough water to service a city of two million people. (On average, it takes three barrels of fresh, potable water to make one barrel of oil from the sands.) One company alone, Syncrude, uses enough water each year -- 2.5 trillion gallons -- to supply the needs of a third of the residents of Denver.

David Schindler, a University of Alberta biologist and water ecologist, says he was "rather horrified" to learn that the oil industry withdraws nearly 8 percent of the water in the Athabasca during low- to medium-flow periods. This puts industry on a collision course with climate change, he says. Since 1945 temperatures in the region have climbed by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and that increase will soon double. Schindler calculates that global heating has reduced the volume of water running into the basin by 50 percent in the last three decades.

He predicts that projected tar-sands development won't leave enough water in the Athabasca to protect its fish or the waterfowl dependent on the Athabasca Delta. Navigation on the river could come to a standstill too. He charges that neither the Canadian federal government nor Alberta's provincial authorities have collected adequate data on the river. Yet an industry stakeholder group, the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program, recently reported that "changes in the condition of the Athabasca River up to and including 2005 have been minor."

Semple motored his Whiskey Jack up to the Suncor Mine, the facility closest to Fort McMurray. As he approached the mine site, a dusty, Mordor-like landscape replaced tamarack and spruce. Semple killed the motor and pointed to a high, odd-looking piece of land on the west bank. "This was an island once in the middle of the river," he explained. In the late 1960s, Suncor, a Calgary-based firm originally established by the visionary Pennsylvania capitalist J. Howard Pew, actually rechanneled the river and turned Tar Island into a toxic waste site.

Fred MacDonald, a 72-year-old descendant of Scottish and Cree fur traders, used to hunt duck and moose on Tar Island as a kid. He now lives in a bungalow overlooking the Athabasca River in Fort McKay, an Indian community pretty much surrounded by open-pit mines. Sitting in his kitchen drinking a glass of rat-root juice, an old aboriginal remedy made from a plant favored by muskrats ("It's good for everything"), MacDonald told me how he loved that island. He recalled the days when Syrian fur traders on the Athabasca exchanged pots and pans for muskrat and beaver pelts. Back in the 1920s and 1930s aboriginal families lived all along the river and frequently enjoyed feasts of rabbit and moose meat. They netted jack fish and pickerel all winter long. "Everyone walked or paddled and the people were healthy." Now, he said, very few people bother to travel the river much. "There is nothing in the river. It is polluted. You could dip your cup and have a nice cold drink from that river, and now you can't."

MacDonald, like many aboriginal elders, fears the tar sands are draining the surrounding forest of its life-sustaining fens and bogs. "It's our future source of water and it's drying." And he, like Schindler, can see the impact of climate change every season. Rising winter temperatures, he said, have transformed the once clear ice of the Athabasca into slush.

MacDonald doesn't have much faith that industry or government will reclaim the toxic ponds that surround his home. About 90 percent of the water withdrawn from the Athabasca River for mining ends up behind massive tailings dams or dykes. Covering an area of 30 square miles, nearly a dozen man-made impoundments line both sides of the Athabasca; the largest of them covers more than 7,400 acres.

All these ponds contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), naphthenic acids, heavy metals, salts, and bitumen. Scientists have identified more than 500 PAHs, by-products of crude-oil processing, but not much is known about them. Of 25 PAHs studied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 14 are "probable" human carcinogens as well as potent fish-killers. Whenever migratory fowl land on one of these ponds, they promptly drown in oil. (Mining companies routinely use propane-powered cannons to scare the birds off.)

Incredibly, making one barrel of oil in the sands generates two barrels of toxic waste. Every day Syncrude dumps 250,000 tons of toxic guck into the pond behind the Syncrude Tailings Dam, which is now the world's largest dam in volume. (Only when China completes the Three Gorges Dam next year will Syncrude lose its record.) The pond is 13 miles long and holds 706 million cubic yards of water, pollutants, and sand. Jim Byrne, a water expert at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, figures that if all the toxic ponds at Syncrude and other mines were drained into Lake Erie, they would create a stinking pool nearly 10 inches deep. By 2030, the waste would sit three feet deep.

As for Suncor, John Semple can't figure out why the Canadian government ever allowed the company to create a pool of toxic waste so close to a river that feeds Canada's largest watershed (the Mackenzie River), sustains 300,000 aboriginal people, and eventually drains into the Arctic Ocean. "There's gotta be stuff leaking into the river," he said.

He's right. Suncor's Tar Island Dyke, the first tar-sands dam built in Fort McMurray, has been a leaky faucet for 40 years. At first engineers thought the dyke would have a life span of three years and be no more than 40 feet high. But they miscalculated: Today the dam towers 300 feet above the river and stretches nearly two and a half miles. It has experienced lots of problems, including "deformation creep" -- movement in the dam's foundations. To stop the slippage, Suncor recently installed a small berm at the toe of the dyke, which appears to have helped.

According to Norbert Morgenstern, an engineer and expert on tailings dams at the University of Alberta, the Tar Island Dyke drained toxic waste into the river for years. Now, as Semple surmised, the waste just seeps into the river. In a 2001 paper on tailings ponds, Morgenstern concluded that many failed, that their reliability is "among the lowest of earth structures," and that "well-intentioned corporations employing apparently well-qualified consultants is not adequate insurance against serious accidents."

At a 2006 symposium in Banff, Alberta, four Canadian engineers revealed that another tar-sands dyke was leaking naphthenic acids, trace metals, and ammonium into local groundwater. In the same year Alberta officials admitted at a public meeting that they hadn't yet coordinated efforts to "understand potential regional impacts on groundwater." Seepage from these man-made toxic lakes along the Athabasca River is creating a unique kind of wetlands. Although cattails and hummock grass thrive in the effluent, a 1999 study in the journal Ecological Applications found that indigenous fish were "unable to survive in wetlands containing tar-sands effluent." Tadpoles died or grew slowly. Useful plants, such as tomatoes, clover, and loblolly pine, which have been planted experimentally, just won't germinate in the toxic marshes.

Although industry promises to turn many abandoned mines into so-called lakes or some sort of poor man's forest supporting salt-tolerant trees and the odd bison, Canada's record on the reclamation of its mines is not encouraging. In 2002 the federal auditor general reported that negligent and understaffed regulators had let companies walk away from tailings full of arsenic and cyanide at abandoned mine sites throughout the north. "The financial burden of dealing with the legacy of northern abandoned mines is huge," the auditor general added, "and the federal government has not yet come to grips with it."

The Alberta government, which holds less than half a billion dollars in security bonds for $100 billion worth of mines, admits that its plan for reclamation is a work in progress: "Reclamation guidelines and a land capability evaluation system for reclaimed [tar] sands landscapes are currently under development and review."

The federal government, which stands to collect nearly $51 billion (Canadian) in taxes from the tar sands by 2020, hasn't bothered to do a comprehensive impact assessment on the project. Neither has Alberta, which will take in $44 billion in tar revenues over the same time period. In 2000 both governments offloaded that responsibility to a 44-member group, drawn largely from multinational corporations, called the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA).

CEMA's latest director, John McEachern, an amiable fellow who arrived from a job in Egypt as a national park administrator in the summer of 2006, explained that the association is composed of several working groups that are looking at surface water, reclamation, air pollution, and ecosystems. The groups all work on a consensus basis, so if industry doesn't want something studied, it doesn't get studied. Even though the rapid pace of tar-sands development astonishes McEachern ("It appears to me that the Alberta government hasn't done any deep thinking about the speed"), he admitted that CEMA isn't monitoring groundwater -- or tackling climate change. "It's not on the list," he said.

It's a serious omission, since the tar sands now represent Canada's largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions. An open-pit mine and its accompanying upgrader, which converts bitumen into lighter crude by either removing carbon or adding hydrogen, spew out as much greenhouse gas in a day as 1.35 million cars. Yet a string of policy initiatives by successive governments in Ottawa have failed to reduce emissions nationally by any meaningful measure.

Although the current government proposes to reduce the intensity of greenhouse gas emissions in the tar sands by 40 percent by 2020, this approach will allow new mines to increase total carbon pollution by 248 percent above 2000 emission levels. By 2020 tar-sands emissions will exceed 140 megatons and account for 15 percent of all Canada's emissions. This helps explain why Canada is failing to meet its commitment to reduce greenhouse gases under the Kyoto Protocol. Recent government estimates suggest that in 2010, Canada will miss its Kyoto target by at least 270 megatons, or almost 30 percent. The breakneck development of the tar sands also explains why Canada's auditor general found "inadequate leadership, planning, and performance" in the country's climate change programs. At the moment only three of 49 major companies in Alberta's oil patch have any plans to deal with carbon emissions or global warming.

CEMA's Sustainable Ecosystems Working Group, meanwhile, has posted only one document on wildlife; the subject was toads. Yet a 2006 study ("Death by a Thousand Cuts") by the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based energy watchdog, reported that woodland caribou populations around current in situ developments have crashed by 50 percent in the last decade, and that fur-bearing animals and boreal songbirds will decline by 80 percent in industrialized tar-sands landscapes. The paper concluded that in situ projects alone would "push many species over the brink."

The association's avoidance of groundwater issues is also alarming. In situ thermal operations, which inject steam into underground formations of bitumen, typically draw their water from fresh or salty aquifers. But these operations are growing so quickly that industry now uses three times more water than the government ever predicted. Many of the oil-bearing geologic formations lie beneath shallow aquifers and wetlands. In a comprehensive 2005 study for the Alberta Energy Research Institute, independent consultant Bruce Peachey noted that in situ projects could create such huge voids in the ground that water from shallow aquifers and surface wetlands could fill them on a "mega scale." If this happened, Peachey concluded, it would either compromise the environment or diminish energy supplies (and the revenues they bring).

So CEMA's performance to date has been underwhelming. "They've spent heroic sums of money and have been very reticent to share information," says a prominent ecologist who formerly worked for CEMA and who requested anonymity. "A lot of their studies are absolute s**t. Some read like the [tar] sands are nirvana and everything is a win, win, win. The fundamental issues have been ignored."

Neither Canadian political leaders nor the Canadian media have talked much about the fundamentals of water, trees, or carbon in Alberta. But the federal government has excitedly championed the fact that the tar sands will contribute nearly a trillion dollars to the nation's gross domestic product by 2020 and boost the continent's energy security. Tar-sands CEOs typically describe the megaproject as "an anchor of prosperity that has drawn interest and inspired the hopes of opinion-shapers and policy makers all over the world." Some U.S. analysts, such as Frederick Cedoz at the Global Water & Energy Strategy Team, a Washington, D.C.-based advisory group, even claim that "Canadians have proven that, with patience, the brightest minds and a little bit of money can tackle the toughest energy challenges."

A growing number of critics believe that's oily nonsense. The most incisive skeptic may be Houston investment banker Simmons, who doesn't think that the tar sands can reach a targeted production of three million barrels a day "without basically destroying Alberta." His advice for Canadian and Alberta policy makers is stark: Go slow, charge for water, cap tar-sands production, and "find some other way to produce this atrocious resource than using scarce natural gas..... To get more addicted to the tar sands doesn't make any sense to me."

About 46 miles north of Fort McMurray, the Highway to Hell crosses the Athabasca River at a place the locals used to call the bridge to nowhere. Now the bridge delivers thousands of workers to Shell's Albian Mine, Imperial's Kearl Mine, and a Chinese-run outfit known as Syneco. Near the river a small patch of forest has been spared the truck-and-shovel makeover. Two years ago archeologists found more than 300,000 ancient artifacts on the site, including knives, scrapers, stone flakes, microblades, and even a spear point with mammoth blood on it.

That's where I found Derrick Kershaw, a tar-sands veteran and senior vice president of Birch Mountain Resources, a gravel mining company. Kershaw called the site "overwhelmingly important" -- so significant, in fact, that his company has volunteered to set it aside as a protected area even though it is building the largest gravel quarry in Canada right next door to provide the tar sands with aggregate.

Standing by a small, nondescript excavation in the forest, Kershaw told a remarkable tale. Ten thousand years ago a great glacier rapidly melted and released a massive flood of water, which scraped away the forest floor and exposed a rare, fine-grained limestone. The stone made such superb tools that a tribe of entrepreneurs set up camp here every summer, producing reliable killing weapons for most of western Canada.

Kershaw, a tall engineer with a British accent, continued the tale. "The quarry was a source of projectile points and was a hell of a lot more valuable than oil. It fed families. These people were kings in their day. It was their boom. It was their currency, just as we are kings today with oil. So the cycle continues." A boom in weather-changing tars, then, has replaced a boom in killing stones.

The footprint of "the quarry of the ancestors" probably occupied a square mile. In contrast, the tar-sands operation is well on its way to consuming more than 50,000 times as much land. But Kershaw didn't think the people of Fort McMurray had got "their minds around the fact that Saudi Arabia is coming to northeast Alberta." The only question left to be resolved was "how big it should be." The people who will shape the answer are U.S. oil consumers.