On the southern approach to Dawson City, the heart of the Klondike gold mining region, kilometres of environmental devastation greet the traveller.
A hundred years after giant dredges tore up the ground that was once boreal forest, scattered willows and aspens have just begun to reclaim the tailings piles.
If someone had mentioned this legacy to the gold miners of the early 20th century they would surely have scoffed.
So what? There’s tens of thousands of kilometres of forest out there, stretching away in every direction, far beyond the limits of the human imagination.
What’s a few hundred hectares when there are fortunes to be made?
Scene change: Fort McMurray, 2006. The rush to develop the Alberta oil sands dwarfs the Klondike Gold Rush in every way.
A gold dredge could disappear unnoticed under the wheels of the machines that mine for oil.
Syncrude’s Southwest Sand-Storage Facility, a barren wasteland of polluted water and giant tailings piles, is one of the three largest dams in the world.
There are more than 400 million cubic metres of tailings in Mildred Lake, one of several oil-slick tailings ponds visible to the naked eye from space.
Alberta-Pacific Forestry Limited holds leases for more than 5.8 million hectares of boreal forest, most of which are either stripped bare to accommodate oil sands development, or crisscrossed with seismic lines and roads, and dotted with huge drill platforms and work camps.
Rivers, creeks and underground aquifers are diverted or destroyed, and ancient peat bogs are lost forever.
While environmental standards were unheard of during the Klondike Gold Rush, developers in the oil sands are required to make reclamation plans.
This does not mean that the boreal forest will ever be back. It will be replaced, if at all, by replanted tree farms or grassy hills of toxic tailings, laden with salt, bitumen and naphthenic acid, prettier than the Dawson tailings piles, but far less benign.
Synthetic crude oil, the kind produced by the oil sands, is some of the dirtiest fuel on the planet. Massive amounts of water and secondary fuels are required to extract oil from sand, driving greenhouse gas emissions to unprecedented levels.
Due mainly to oil sands development, Alberta now has the worst air pollution in Canada.
Scene change: Sachs Harbour, Nunavut.
Observations in this high Arctic community demonstrate that climate change is occurring at a far faster rate than ever predicted.
Already, freeze-up occurs a month later than normal, and break-up comes earlier every year. The multi-year sea ice is shrinking, seals and caribou are disappearing, permafrost is melting, causing banks to slough, buildings to shift and lakes to drain. Polar bears and native fish are disappearing and southern species such as grizzlies and salmon are appearing for the first time.
We’re destroying Canada’s North to feed the world’s greed for oil.
At this rate, the polar bear could be extinct in a matter of decades, the grizzly reduced to a scattered handful driven ever farther north, caribou herds decimated, song birds silenced, cancer rates multiplied and multiplied again, the way of life of First Nations and Inuit people and many other northerners lost forever.
Scene change: Mackenzie Valley, NWT.
The Mackenzie gas project is conducting public hearings on its pipeline proposal to trunk natural gas from the Mackenzie Delta to southern markets.
Natural gas is touted as the clean transition fuel that will help to wean us off crude oil and onto renewable energy sources.
First Nations in the corridor are asked to support the project, which “respects the peoples of Canada’s North and the land, wildlife and environment that sustains them”.
But what will really become of the Mackenzie Valley gas?
To extract a barrel of oil using steam-assisted gravity drainage, one of two methods used in the Alberta oils sands, costs 1,000 cubic-metres of natural gas.
At its present level, the oil sands project consumes 0.6 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day.
By 2012, that amount is projected to increase to two-billion cubic feet per day, or 1.5 times the output of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline.
The vast majority of fuel produced by the oil sands project will be shipped to the United States, to feed an ever-growing greed for bigger, faster cars and an ever-expanding war machine.
Americans can’t afford to pay for the millions of barrels of oil they consume each day, so they mortgage their country’s future to the tune of trillions of dollars every year, a few billions of which flows back to Alberta.
But foreign customers are not the only ones footing the bill for the staggering rapacity of the oil sands project.
Besides over-consuming oil, Canadians are paying for the destruction of our ecology and our health with enormous tax breaks to energy producers.
No industry in Canada enjoys the tax advantages of the oil sands developers, who have profited from about $40 billion in federal tax breaks and incentives, and millions more in provincial breaks and deferments.
In short, we’re paying through the nose in cash and in kind to enrich a few and impoverish the planet. Governments spend incalculable resources on the most destructive fuels on Earth and peanuts on renewable energy.
Natural gas, which might be used as a bridge fuel to a saner economy, is squandered on cranking out more oil.
In the meantime, Albertans rejoice when the government drops $400 in their mailboxes. Has acquiescence ever been bought so cheap?
How much will the people of the Mackenzie Valley sell out for, or Yukoners in our turn when the Alaska Highway Pipeline booms and busts? No matter how big the cheque, it will never replace what’s lost every day.
The drive to Dawson City is a lesson in real economics and true costs.
The flight over Fort McMurray proves that lesson has not yet been learned.
Another decade of tax-subsidized oil production at the current rate, and it may be too late to learn.