Bitumen is too thick to pump, so light crude oil and chemicals are added. In most of Alberta, the bitumen is buried so deep that wells must be drilled to extract it, and steam injected to mobilize it, at great energy cost. But north of Fort McMurray the bitumen layer is shallow enough that it can be strip mined in huge open pits. A swath of boreal forest is stripped away to reveal the bitumen-laced ground at the Fort Hills Suncor oil sands site near Fort McKay, Alberta.
The area will soon become a gaping strip mine as the bitumen is trucked away for processing into petroleum products. These are so toxic, ducks and other birds have to be prevented from going near them. Although some companies have invested significantly in technology to address the tailings problem, that has not put a dent in the scale of the problem, according to the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based energy think tank.
The overall volume of tailings has kept growing for more than 50 years. Some ponds are leaking into the Athabasca River, says Paul Belanger, a former oil sands worker and current co-chair of Keepers of the Athabasca, an organization of indigenous peoples and environmentalists. Air pollution, including acid rain , also plagues the remote region. One study found that acid rain would eventually damage an area almost the size of Germany.
Locals say such traditional food sources are becoming more scarce and polluted, and they blame oil sands developments. As a result of these issues, oil from the oil sands has a higher environmental cost than other sources, Belanger says.
Not permanently, Abel argues: By law, he says, oil sands producers must reclaim the land when they are finished with their operations. Only a small fraction of the mined land has been reclaimed so far, however.
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Wade and Chelsea at center say goodbye to their stillborn daughter in Fort McKay on November 11th, Chelsea suffered a miscarriage five months into her pregnancy. The couple attributes the death to pollution—Fort McKay is surrounded by oil sands mines. While fears that the oil sands have caused health effects in the surrounding communities are common, the evidence remains inconclusive. The oil sands industry has been very destructive to the environment and our communities in the region, says Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, executive director of Indigenous Climate Action , an indigenous-led organization.
Karim Zariffa, the executive director of Oil Sands Community Alliance , an industry group, says the industry has tried to work closely with local and indigenous people over decades to share information and provide funding. The best they can hope for is to have some land set aside to buffer the impacts and get some compensation. Dez, 7, plays in his bed in Fort McKay. Dez was born with an underdeveloped heart and has received multiple open-heart surgeries.
Though proof is elusive, his family believes his condition was caused by pollution from nearby oil sands developments. For one thing, Deranger points out, the cleanup of mines and tailings ponds will eventually require enormous investment. One government estimate put the bill as high as U. For another, many indigenous communities in the region are deeply impoverished. So in spite of the history of mistrust, some First Nations communities have become partners in oil sands projects, in return for jobs, grocery stores, housing, and public facilities.
When a community wanted to build off-grid solar for electricity, Deranger says, no one else stepped up to help except the industry. The same was true for a health center. For years, many Secwepemc First Nations people have been rallying to protect their water and prevent an expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline from being built through their territory. In the Canadian government bought the pipeline project from Texas-based Kinder Morgan—the expansion is considered important for opening new markets for the oil sands.
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Surrounded by oil sands mines, it has recently sued the Alberta government to stop a project that would consume some of its last traditional hunting lands. Rather than advocating for the closure of existing oil sands projects, Indigenous Climate Action opposes any expansion of the industry and is working to help communities make a transition away from oil and toward renewable energy projects, particularly those that are indigenous owned and operated. As a result, they are strongly opposed to the Trans Mountain pipeline, since it could help increase the size of oil sands operations and contribute more to climate change.
Even worse, in their view, is the fact that the Trudeau government spent billions to buy the pipeline—money they would have liked to see improve the poor housing, water infrastructure, and energy deficits within indigenous communities. If built, the pipeline could dramatically increase the number of large oil tankers using coastal waters. And, without significant intervention, I suspect it will be me. The Principle of Psychoprofessional Gravitation can help explain the many cases of people who have done work of world-historical significance yet wind up feeling like failures.
Take Charles Darwin, who was just 22 when he set out on his five-year voyage aboard the Beagle in Returning at 27, he was celebrated throughout Europe for his discoveries in botany and zoology, and for his early theories of evolution. Over the next 30 years, Darwin took enormous pride in sitting atop the celebrity-scientist pecking order, developing his theories and publishing them as books and essays—the most famous being On the Origin of Species , in But as Darwin progressed into his 50s, he stagnated; he hit a wall in his research.
At the same time an Austrian monk by the name of Gregor Mendel discovered what Darwin needed to continue his work: the theory of genetic inheritance. From then on he made little progress. Presumably, Darwin would be pleasantly surprised to learn how his fame grew after his death, in From what he could see when he was old, however, the world had passed him by, and he had become irrelevant.
That could have been Darwin on the plane behind me that night. I t also could have been a younger version of me, because I have had precocious experience with professional decline. I worked at it slavishly, practicing hours a day, seeking out the best teachers, and playing in any ensemble I could find. I had pictures of famous horn players on my bedroom wall for inspiration. And for a while, I thought my dream might come true.
At 19, I left college to take a job playing professionally in a touring chamber-music ensemble. My plan was to keep rising through the classical-music ranks, joining a top symphony orchestra in a few years or maybe even becoming a soloist—the most exalted job a classical musician can hold. But then, in my early 20s, a strange thing happened: I started getting worse.
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To this day, I have no idea why. My technique began to suffer, and I had no explanation for it. Nothing helped. Pieces that had been easy to play became hard; pieces that had been hard became impossible. Perhaps the worst moment in my young but flailing career came at age 22, when I was performing at Carnegie Hall. While delivering a short speech about the music I was about to play, I stepped forward, lost my footing, and fell off the stage into the audience.
On the way home from the concert, I mused darkly that the experience was surely a message from God. But I sputtered along for nine more years. I took a position in the City Orchestra of Barcelona, where I increased my practicing but my playing gradually deteriorated. Eventually I found a job teaching at a small music conservatory in Florida, hoping for a magical turnaround that never materialized.
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Finally I had to admit defeat: I was never going to turn around my faltering musical career. So at 31 I gave up, abandoning my musical aspirations entirely, to pursue a doctorate in public policy. Life goes on, right? Sort of. After finishing my studies, I became a university professor, a job I enjoyed. But I still thought every day about my beloved first vocation. Even now, I regularly dream that I am onstage, and wake to remember that my childhood aspirations are now only phantasms.
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I am lucky to have accepted my decline at a young enough age that I could redirect my life into a new line of work.
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