October 3 2005
I was way out in Calgary, Alberta, last week, the tar sands capital of western Canada. I was there to yak on camera for a CBC-sponsored documentary about suburbia, and the city itself proved to be a strange and interesting case of immersive delusional behavior.
Calgary started out, of course, as the railhead for western ranching and a jump-off for various gold rushes in the late 19th century. Now it has become an archetypal city of immense glass boxes in a sterilized center surrounded by an asteroid belt of beige residential subdivisions -- sort of what Rochester, New York, would be like if it had an economy. The vast suburbs ooze out onto the prairie to the east, along with their complements of strip malls, power centers, car dealerships, and fry-pits, and on the west they bump up against the foothills of the Rockies.
The real estate scene in Calgary is rip-roaring because newcomers are flooding in to work the tar sand angles. No doubt the tar sands will generate a lot of wealth in the years ahead. But those who think they will save western civilization from a Peak Oil clusterfuck are going to be very disappointed. We are not going to run the interstate highway system, Walt Disney World, and WalMart on the Canadian tar sands.
These days, a lot of people (including news reporters) are saying that the tar sands contain the equivalent of a trillion barrels of oil, which is just plain nonsense. It's more like the equivalent of 180 billion barrels -- with world consumption at 30 billion annually (do the math). But the word equivalent is tricky, too, because it's only the equivalent in volume, not in the cost of recovery, since the stuff does not flow out of the ground at room temperature like Texas sweet light crude. The process requires a huge up-front mining operation on top of everything else, conducted in a climate so cold that the 13-foot-diameter tires of giant dump trucks crack regularly. The Achilles heel of the operation is that it requires hundreds of millions of dollars a year worth of natural gas to melt the stiff goop out of the sand, and that Canada's natural gas supply is verging on depletion just as ours is. They'll have a gnarly choice in a few years: either heat their homes or power the tar sands operation.
Another catch is that even in the short term, the petroleum that is recovered is not going exclusively to the United States or even Canada. The Chinese have been very busily inking contracts for substantial gobs of it. Is George Bush going to send the 82nd airborne into Alberta to secure access to the tar sands?
But this blog entry is not really about the tar sands, it's about the expectations of the people working off of them, which is that they assume the easy motoring utopia will continue indefinitely and are madly busy building a suburban infrastructure for it to dwell in, even while Canadians themselves are now paying the equivalent of $4 US a gallon for the privilege to commute forty miles a day.
What's going on in Calgary, with new subdivisions of half-million dollar houses opening every month, is the North American tragedy in microcosm. Because every new suburban house built, every new Target store opened, every new parking lot paved, every highway widened will be a project in the service of a living arrangement with no future. It is a true madness that beats a path to historic tragedy.
And this is what you have to think about, wherever you live in the US or Canada: what kind of projects and proposals are moving right now in the permitting pipeline of your own municipal planning boards? Things waiting to be built in the next year or two. Chances are they're the same suburban furnishings we've been getting for half a century, in the latest state-of-the-art releases. Each one is a tragedy. Each one will carry us further into darkness.
How do you stop such suicidal behavior? Probably not by persuasion or exhortation. People change what they are doing when circumstances compel them to and not before. The American public barely even thinks about these things. The Sunday New York Times news section contained not one story this week bout the current state of oil-and-gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico. The fact is that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed more than 90 production platforms as well as pipelines and drilling rigs. The implications are so obvious and we are not getting them.
Oh, how I wish I'd known that you were in Calgary. I would have really liked to meet you. I've been reading your work for quite awhile and have been promoting the concept of Peak Oil to anyone who will listen -- pretty hard in a money-grubbing city where everyone has big blinders on. Albertans are very possessive of their 'birthright' and freak out whenever mention of sharing the wealth is even thought of. Our mayor is pro-sprawl and his legacy of wider roads and interchanges reaching out further and further to hinterland suburbia will be his legacy. The car culture has left this city devoid of any substantial culture and the exodus of the downtown oil company workers at five P.M. leaves the downtown core eerily quiet most weeknights. Calgary truly is a microcosm of the problems we are creating for future generations. I live in Calgary and haven't had a car for 10+ years, but it is very difficult to be mobile in a city built for one mode of transportation only. I doubt very much that Calgary and Edmonton will see the folly of their ways until it is far, far too late.
Oh, and by the way, despite the fact that the NG required to extract the oil is nearly gone, they are already considering nuclear plants to be built exclusively for that purpose.
"As the tar sands deposits are landlocked, transport from them is expensive and the bitumen is mixed with sand and other materials, processing must take place near the deposits. This means that the air pollution from burning very large amounts of fossil fuels will be concentrated in northern Alberta and northwestern Saskatchewan, which will be especially serious in winter. It is estimated that the extraction of the roughly 300 billion barrels (oil equivalent) which appears to be accessible with current or foreseeable technology will result in the creation of a lake of oily water and sludge the size of Lake Ontario. Thus the exploitation of the tar sands on a very large scale would involve the relegation of much of northeastern Alberta and northwestern Saskatchewan to the status of continental sacrifice areas, to be destroyed for the benefit of the urban lifestyles, and the "car culture" of the more densely inhabited areas of the continent."
It's all very sad.