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The Price of Gold

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Like many of his Inca ancestors, Juan Apaza is possessed by gold. Descending into an icy tunnerl 17,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes, the 44-year-old miner stuffs a wad of coca leaves into his mouth to brace himself for the inevitable hunger and fatigue. For 30 days each m0nth Apaza toils, without pay, deep inside this mine dug down under a glacier above the world’s highest town, la Rinconada. For 30 days he faces the dangers that have killed many of his fellow miners–explosives, toxic gases, tunnel collapses–to extract…read more

Crude Current

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Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, The Exxon Valdez impaled itself on Bligh Ref in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The tanker leaked 38.800 metric tons of crude oil, fouling 1,300 miles of coastline and wrecking the local fishing industry. During the next 20 years, Exxon spent more than two billion dollars on cleanup and lawsuits. Teh accident served as a rallying cry for environmentalists and prompted the U.S. and other nations to implement stricter standards for cargo vessels in their waters. In 2010 a UN phaseout of single-hulled tankers,…read more

One Winter Night

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When Jim Boucher was a young boy, around the time the oil sands industry came to his forest, he was returning alone by dogsled to his grandparents’ cabin from an errand in Fort McKay. It was a journey of 20 miles or so, and the temperature was minus 4 degree F. In the moonlight Boucher spotted a flock of ptarmigan, white birds in the snow. He killed around 50, loaded them on the dogsled, and brought them home. Four decades later, sitting in his chief-executive office in white chinos and…read more

Dark Satanic Mills, Inevitably Come to Mind

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The Alberta Government assets that the river is not being contaminated–that anything found in the river or in its delta, at Lake Athabasca, comes from natural bitumen seeps. The river cuts right through the oil sands downstream of the mines, and as our chooper zoomed along a few feet above it, McEachern pointed out several places where the riverbank was black and the water oily. “There is an increase in a lot of metals as you move downstream,” he said . “That’s natural–it’s weathering of the geology. There’s mercury in…read more

From a Helicopter

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It’s easy tos ee the industry’s impact on the Athabasca Valley. Within minutes of lifting off from Fort McMurray, heading north along the east bank of the river, you pass over Suncor’s Millenium mine–the company’s leases extend practically to the town. On a day with a bit of wind, dust plumes billowing off the wheels and the loads of the dump trucks coalesce into a single enormous cloud that obscures large parts of the mine pit and spills over its lip. To the north, beyond a small expanse of intact…read more

Wells to Wheels

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Most of energy to heat the water or make steam comes from burning natural gas, which also supplies the hydrogen for upgrading. Precisely because it is hydrogen rich and mostly free of impurities, natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel, the one that puts the least amount of carbon and other pollutants into the atmosphere. Critics this say the oil sands industry is wasting the cleanest fuel to make the dirtiest–that it turns gold into lead. The argument makes environmental but not economic sense, says David Keith, physicist and…read more

Without The River

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The fact that we’re willing to move four tons of earth for a single barrel really shows that the world is running out of easy oil Without the river, there would be no oil sands industry. It’s the river that over tens of millions of years has eroded away billions of cubic yards of sediment that once covered the bitumen, thereby bringing it whiten reach of shovels–and in some places all the way to the surface. On a hot summer day along the Athabasca, near Fort McKay for example, bitumen…read more

The Canadian Oil Boom Scraping Bottom

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Continue from the previous article, Nor is Syncrude alone. Within a 20-mile radius of Boucher’s office are a total of six mines that produce nearly three-querters of a million barrels of synthetic crude oil a day; and more are in the pipeline. Wherever the bituman layer lies too deep to be strip-mined, the industry melts it “in situ” with copious amounts of steam, so that it can be pumped to the surface. The industry has spent more than $50 billion on construction during the past decade, including some $20 billion…read more

The Canadian Oil Boom

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Scraping bottom, once considered too expensive, as well as too damaging to the land, exploitation of Albertas’s oil sands is now a gamble worth billions. Squeezing sand for oil. oil sands surface mining operates on extreme scales, with crews working arond the clock through hot summers and subzero winters to feed heavy demand. At the bottom of a mine, a giant shovel (below) devours sand and delivers it to trucks like this three-story, four-million-dollar Catepillar, which muscle up to 400 tons at a time to extraction plants. The bitumen is…read more