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Scenes From the Tar Wars

As Canada scrambles to dig up some of the world's dirtiest oil, a bush doctor tracks mysterious diseases, poisoned rivers, and shattered lives.

At a small airport in the northern Alberta town of Fort McMurray, a rickety, single-engine Cessna hurtles off the ground with a roar. Dr. John O'Connor ignores the shuddering fuselage, the tail wiggle, the steep climb above the spruce trees at the end of the runway. For O'Connor, a bush doctor who has tended to some of Canada's most remote Native American communities for more than a decade, this October morning is the start of a routine commute. In his fleece vest and green fedora, the small, middle-aged Irishman looks simultaneously rugged and elfin. A plastic tray of fruit salad vibrates beneath his seat, a gift for locals who are used to subsisting on moose, pickerel, and muskrat.

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Outside, a carpet of boreal forest unfurls at the southern edge of town. Our plane flies past suburban subdivisions, freshly paved culs-de-sac, and what O'Connor says is the largest trailer park in North America. As we head north, tracking the steep banks of the Athabasca River, the forest returns. And then the trees quickly vanish, along with everything else, into miles and miles of rolling hills of sand. "The sand blows around like you wouldn't believe," O'Connor shouts over the propeller buzz. "Drive from Fort McMurray, and you will encounter what looks like a sandstorm."

Below, some 2 billion tons of soil and rock—"overburden," as the oil industry politely calls it—have been stripped away to reveal deposits of hydrocarbon-laced sandstone known as tar sands. Trucks that can carry up to 400 tons lumber across the subarctic expanse, hauling the oily muck out of terraced pits to "crushers" located in massive processing facilities.

The tar sands began forming 350 million years ago, when a prehistoric ocean deposited a layer of organic materials that was gradually cooked into a huge underground pool of light sweet crude beneath what became Alberta. Erosion made way for microorganisms that invaded the oil, forming a thick tar sandwiched between the forest above and the groundwater and limestone beneath. Along the banks of the Athabasca River, the black goop sometimes seeps through the sand as if Jed Clampett just made another lucky strike.

Underlying an area the size of Florida, Canada's tar sands (also known as oil sands) contain as much as 173 billion barrels of recoverable oil—more than the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Russia put together. Only Saudi Arabia possesses larger oil reserves. But removing oil from the sands, which involves injecting them with steam or digging them up and pumping in vast quantities of water to heat them, has always been astronomically expensive—until now. As American politicians talk about weaning us from Middle Eastern crude and the price of oil has skyrocketed, the tar sands have become a viable source of foreign fossil fuel. Canada is now the United States' top oil supplier, selling us more than the Saudis. Not since Texas wildcatters hit black gold 80 years ago has North America seen such a frantic rush for oil. Over the next five years, investment in the Alberta tar sands is expected to exceed $75 billion; oil production is set to increase by 160 percent by 2015. Alberta's 59 tar sands sites now form the single largest industrial zone in the world. If it is fully developed, the result could be up to 54,000 square miles of man-made wasteland.

Digging up the tar sands is a dirty, wasteful business. Yet in their desperate scramble to cash in, the provincial government and the oil companies have downplayed the environmental risks. The boom is a major reason Canada will likely miss its carbon targets under the Kyoto Protocol. Converting tar sand into gasoline emits up to three times the greenhouse gases as drilling and refining conventional oil.

The extraction process consumes roughly twice the energy of producing conventional oil (in total, enough energy to heat a tenth of Canadian homes). And there are growing questions about the mines, which have transformed once-sleepy northern Alberta into an industrial frontier, and their health effects on wildlife and people. O'Connor is under investigation for expressing his concerns, accused by the national health system of raising "undue alarm."

As we cross the Athabasca River, I spot the belly of our plane reflected in a shimmering reservoir of oil waste—two gallons for each gallon of oil produced. Scarecrows dressed in old mining uniforms bob on top of the gunk to discourage birds from landing and drowning in it. The oil industry consumes some 15 percent of the Athabasca River's winter flow—enough to supply a city of 2 million. Tailings ponds such as this one, owned by Suncor Energy, are required by Albertan law to keep waste out of groundwater. Yet the law allows some 1.5 million gallons of slurry containing arsenic and mercury to leach daily from the reservoir into an underground aquifer; some of it drains into the river.

Following the river's northward course, our plane threads the white steam coming from the smokestacks of Suncor's "cracker," the smell of petroleum and sulfur permeating the cabin. Below, the cracker is heating bitumen—the "tar" in tar sands—to 900 degrees Fahrenheit and turning it into synthetic crude oil before it will be piped to special refineries in the United States to be made into gasoline.

A patchwork of more pits unfurls for miles ahead. We fly over Syncrude, partly owned by an ExxonMobil subsidiary, then Albian Sands, a division of Shell. The giant mines give way to fresh clearings where Chevron Canadian Natural Resources Limited and Petro-Canada are just starting to dig. ConocoPhillips and the Exxon subsidiary Imperial Oil have staked additional claims in the area.

Finally, the last tentacles of mining roads give way to pristine forest. The river debouches into Lake Athabasca, and we descend toward Fort Chipewyan, a tiny trading outpost that clings to the rocky shore. In summer, once the ice road melts into an impassable bog, the only way to reach the hamlet is by plane or boat.

O'Connor has been flying in for seven years, serving as the town's only doctor. It's the kind of work that kept him in Canada after he came over from Ireland in 1984 for a three-month stint. "You see the same people over and over, and the whole community," he says. "You feel like part of a family."

The outside world largely ignores Fort Chip, O'Connor says. But isolation has not protected the town's 1,200 residents—Mikisew Cree, Athabasca Chipewyan, and the descendants of French trappers—from the effects of the oil frenzy 70 miles upstream. In fact, O'Connor suspects that the tar sands may be slowly killing them.

At the height of the fur trade in the 1800s, Fort Chipewyan shipped off thousands of beaver pelts to Europe.

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