athabascaThe ground around Fort McMurray in the far reaches of Alberta Canada is so saturated with oil (bitumen) that one can feel it yield under foot no matter where you walk. To stand still in one spot, one experiences the sensation of sinking.

Watching a heavy truck pass over, one can see the surface convulse, sinking beneath the truck’s wheels and then springing back in its wake; because there is so much bitumen incorporated in the soil, it is elastic. 

The devastation of a gigantic oil spill? Not at all. It’s all natural.

This is the oil sands where oil so permeates the soil that it is economically feasible to extract it and process it for use. In some places the oil pools and runs in black shiny ribbons. In a process which uses steam to heat the oil, petroleum companies are extracting, from the earth, a resource that holds the potential of supplying the US, and /or others, for many decades to come.

On a warm day, the air in this land is laden with the slight acrid smell of petroleum, reminiscent of a garage. It’s so faint though that many locals are acclimated to the smell and hardly aware of it. And, the locals in Fort McMurray buzz about in a city, more modern than most, doing all the things that people do in urban life, with little thought as to what lies beneath the soles of their shoes, except for perhaps the fact of how wealthy it is making most of them.

The streets and new subdivisions march right up to the edge of a boreal forest of aspen trees amid the dark green of larch and jack pine. The forest rises up, thick and wild, and extends in all directions for hundreds of miles, flecked with lakes and ponds, against the back drop of a brilliant blue sky. It is not the bleak, black, devastated landscape one might conclude it would have to be, given the mantra of fear and doom that blares forth from every direction about the hazards of petroleum. Wildlife and fauna flourish here, as it has for millennia. It’s a land that would be comfortable for most Montanans.

The oil sands stretch for 54,000 square miles (more than a third of Montana). But for all that, the mineable oil sands comprise only about four percent, about 1330 square miles of the total oil sands and only 0.1 percent of the boreal forest.

The resource is considered the second largest reserve of oil in the world – second only to Saudi Arabia. The Canadian oil sands are estimated to contain the equivalent of 1.7 trillion barrels of oil, of which about 173 billion are recoverable with current technology.

Most ironically, the oil companies, who are being so villainized by environmentalists as polluters, as they remove this oil from the soil, and as they reclaim the land, are vastly improving it – at least by environmentalists’ standards.

Any water that they discard to the Athabasca River, or other streams is, substantially, “cleaner” than the naturally- occurring oil-laden river water (not that there is much to discharge, since the system employed is a closed one, which recycles the water.)

Environmental engineers, employed by the legions by the oil companies, are proud of the ground-breaking research and work they are doing in discovering the nature of nature, here, and what processes work best in reclaiming the land. They are pioneers but have little opportunity to tell the world, because their achievements are not in keeping with the preconceived perceptions of most of the media, nor are they useful in leveraging political agendas, which depend upon presenting a different picture to an unknowing public.

Not all things are in great harmony here, but some sense of perspective should be brought to bear, in analyzing what it all means.

Oil in the waters of the rivers and lakes and ponds is not conducive to some wildlife. It is a threat for water fowl for sure, and because of that the oil companies take mitigating measures. The quiet of the outdoors is frequently punctuated by the distant dull thud of cannon fire. It discourages water fowl from landing on the holding and settling ponds which are part of the extraction process. A few years ago, one of the cannons failed and a couple dozen ducks perished in one of the ponds. News of the tragedy flashed around the world. The media, in every corner of the planet, lamented the great loss (ignoring the death of a mine worker that happened, the same day, in a mine vehicle accident.)

Industry officials, far more concerned about an employee’s death, were puzzled by the public interest in the death of the ducks, given the fact that the ducks and other water fowl routinely die, in even greater numbers, on a daily basis, as they attempt to land in natural water bodies, which also have oil but have no booming cannons to warn away the unlucky creatures. Such has been the case for centuries. But that, of course, was an aspect of the story, missing, from all the media reports.

There is at work now a cacophony of anti-development individuals and well-financed groups advancing “progressive” policies, crying hysterically about threats (real or not) of exposure to oil from the operation of oil pipelines, as though the stuff were the very antithesis of life. They steadfastly ignore, in their evaluations, how much petroleum products actually contribute to human life, at shockingly low costs.

Of course, it is most desirable, for all concerned, not to have any oil spills, and of course great precautions should be made to prevent such incidents, but in the onslaught of this staged hysteria, let’s be real about the true nature of oil. If it were anywhere near the caustic substance laymen are being manipulated into believing, how could there be such beauty and eco-harmony in northern Canada? Why would any human beings be hanging around the area? Why would they have survived for centuries living as the people of the “First Nations” did, and as they fight hard, now, to have the right to continue to live?

If it’s natural you want, it’s natural you get, in the oil sands. So, shouldn’t there be great joy in the fact that it is no where near the threat that we are being harangued into believing?

What we should be asking in the evaluation of threats posed by pipelines is, “What threat to human life, as we know it, is posed without oil?” Or – “Do the benefits outweigh potential risks of pipelines?” Especially, since almost any thing that could happen can be largely mitigated by human beings. What good news!

From 2000-2007, an estimated $67 billion was invested in oil sands projects in Alberta.

One in thirteen jobs in Alberta is directly related to energy. Almost 147,000 Albertans are employed in the province’s oil and gas extraction industry….thousands more in the service sectors which support the industry. By 2020 those employed in the basic industry is expected to reach 200,000 as the industry invests billions more. “This might be one of the biggest industrial projects in the world, in terms of total investment,” said one industry official.

Of significance to Montana is the projection that the oil sands are expected to produce almost as many jobs outside Alberta as within, generating more than five-million person years of employment. At least, one –third of the jobs created by the development of the oil sands will be created outside Alberta, and four out of every five jobs will start outside the oil sector.

This is especially good news to people in Billings and in Montana. Billings is the first large city this side of the Canadian border, a geographical godsend. Companies have already located in Billings with business plans based upon selling products and services to the industries of the oil sands — and, the oil sands development is still in its infancy! There is no reason – except for the artificial barriers we might choose to impose — that every company, that wants to remain in the US but sell to northern oil companies, shouldn’t locate in Billings, Montana.

So the building of pipelines that will carry the crude oil to refineries and markets, is a matter of great significance to Montanans. Also, of great importance, is the free flow of commerce over all our transportation systems. Filing frivolous law suits is but to poke a finger in the eye of investors and job-creators.

The prospects for our benefit far out weigh any potential risks – which is not to say that the oil companies shouldn’t be held accountable for those risks, and any property owners, impacted, shouldn’t be made whole by the industry. It is to say, however, that just the prospect of risk shouldn’t stand in the way of development. It is wholly unrealistic to think anything of worth can be accomplished without risk. Life imposes risks every day – it is the challenge of human beings to mitigate and deal with risks. Doing that well, is our greatest gift and means of survival.

No risk means no development, no advancement, no survival. The issue of pipelines and other transportation is an issue of no less importance than survival – that should carry a bit of weight when considering the threat of an oil spill or the marring of a scenic view.



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