Some 1,500 miles northwest of Minneapolis, the luscious green boreal forests that once lined the banks of the Athabasca River have been flattened. All that's left is an empty, lonely, gray moonscape. That, and the drills.
The machines push deep into the earth, farther than they ever have before, in order to extract a thick black syrup that sticks together with the sand and dirt to form a tar-like gritty dough. This is a dense and viscous form of petroleum called bitumen. It's oil, and the U.S. wants it.
A web of pipelines has sprouted up throughout the Midwest, following the Great Lakes, moving all the way from the Dakotas to Chicago and Detroit. The Canadians have stumbled upon an estimated 1.75 trillion barrels of crude, arguably the second-largest usable oil reserve in the world.
But it comes at a heavy cost, a price so large that one environmentalist remarked that in comparison to the nightmarish ramifications of the oil sands, offshore drilling is an "environmental yawn."
The land must be strip-mined and the petroleum heated with diluent hydrocarbons to melt the oil so that it is thin enough to flow.
"The key issue with these tar sands is that this is the bottom of the barrel, the last sludge of oil remaining in the world," says Michael Noble, executive director for Fresh Energy, a Minnesota-based environmental policy organization. "It's the dirtiest and most polluting oil by far, much more polluting than conventional sweet crude. Its mining, extraction, refining, and shipping would all essentially move the refining capacity of the Gulf Coast up to the Midwest Great Lakes region."
Even so, continued demand, the high price of conventional crude, and new technology have made it profitable to extract, and one Canadian company plans to make bank.
EnBridge currently boasts the longest crude oil and liquid petroleum pipeline system in the world and plans to add 16,000 miles to the Midwest region in an effort to exploit the recently available oil sand crude in Alberta.
"The U.S. needs a growing and reliable source of crude oil...EnBridge already transports 11 percent of U.S.-imported crude, and this will provide us even more capacity to tap into this very secure supply," says Denise Hamshere, a spokeswoman for the company. "We're not going to conserve our way out of using gasoline and jet fuel and asphalt tomorrow. So, meanwhile, this is the safest, [most] economic and secure way to meet both needs."
The oil sands issue came to a head in St. Paul last week when, after two years of negotiations, EnBridge appeared in front of the state's Public Utilities Commission for the necessary permit to expand pipelines.
Minnesota's share, 450 miles of pipe, would be composed of two different lines. The Southern Lights line would run north from Chicago, through Minnesota and back into Canada, and would transport diluent hydrocarbons from U.S. refineries to the oils sands so that the clumpy crude could be thinned for transport. A proposed Alberta Clipper line would run southeast from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin, crossing northern Minnesota and moving some 450,000 more barrels of crude to market.
At the meeting, Public Utilities Commission Chair David Boyd, a Republican, took a deep breath before starting the discussion. He told the other commissioners and the crowded conference room to be as succinct as possible; it was sure to be a long day.
Though the commission's staff and an earlier administrative law judge had approved EnBridge's plans, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy had challenged the projects with a flurry of legal paperwork the night before. It was now up to the commissioners to decide.
In order to acquire the necessary certificate of need to build the pipelines, the company must show that there is an increased demand for its product, said Kevin Reuther, staff attorney for the Center. And, at the time of an energy crisis, when people are shouting out for alternative fuel, more crude pipelines are not what we need.
"It's hard to conclude that we're going to stay on the track of ever-increasing oil consumption," he reasoned. "Our governor, our new president, everybody agrees that we need to end this addiction to oil. It's pretty clear that Canadians are really trying to get access to major oil markets."
As he clicked through a PowerPoint presentation, Reuther pointed out that approval of the proposal would essentially double Minnesota's state pollution level. Between extraction, transportation, refinement, and use, the process would add an additional 132 million tons of pollution in the air per year.
In one year alone, the Alberta Clipper project would carry the equivalent of 230 times the capacity of the Exxon Valdez. And EnBridge doesn't exactly have the best safety record. In 2002, the company suffered an oil spill that put 252,000 gallons of crude into the surrounding landscape. Five years later at another location, a pipeline exploded, killing two workers.
The suited lawyers lined up behind representatives from EnBridge didn't seem fazed. As lunchtime neared, Republican Commissioner Dennis O'Brien told his colleagues to vote in favor of the pipeline proposals. He said he would rather have oil from our friendly neighbors up north than from our enemies overseas.
The vote was held. EnBridge's permits were unanimously approved.
All that is left now is for EnBridge to finalize the route, settling disputes with concerned farmers and members of the Fond du Lac tribal community over land issues. The company plans to have the Alberta Clipper line up and running by 2010, and by 2015 pump as much as 1.8 million barrels of crude per day to the U.S.
"It's just the most polluting new fuel we could bring into the economy," says Ken Bradley of Clean Water Action Minnesota. "It is horrible that we are even considering bringing it to the marketplace at all. We should be doing everything we can to stop it."