PROLOGUE DUCKS ON A POND
The North American Central Flyway exists primarily as a collective instinct in the minds of millions of migratory birds. Whooping cranes and piping plovers, bald eagles and brown pelicans, mallard ducks and Canada geese—in twos and fours, in dozens and scores and vast flocks of thousands, all of them follow the same general path from winter nest to summer breeding grounds and back again each spring and fall.
The flyway is a vestige of the last Ice Age, when glaciers spread far south over the wide flat centre of the North American continent. The ice sheet isolated birds to the east and west, where they developed migratory routes on either side. When the glaciers retreated, they carved thousands of ponds and lakes into the prairie. Waterfowl and other migratory birds soon returned to the region, following food and sanctuary north and south along this newly thawed route. It stretches today from the Gulf of Mexico
in the south to the Mackenzie Delta on the Arctic Ocean in the north, and it provides habitat and sustenance for millions of birds.
In April 2008, obeying those ancient instincts, in response to spring warmth and melting ice, ducks took flight from ponds across North America’s broad plains. They had wintered in North Dakota and Minnesota, on frigid but unfrozen bodies of water in southern Saskatchewan and British Columbia and on rivers like the North Saskatchewan that cut across central Alberta. They flew north hard and fast, stopping at newly thawed open water along the way to feed. They flew as fast as sixty miles per hour at times, perhaps a thousand feet in the air. In less than a week, thousands of them had reached Alberta’s boreal forest, bound likely as not for the nesting and feeding grounds of the Peace-Athabasca Delta, a waterfowl habitat as bounteous and expansive as the Mississippi.
The flyway had been there before there were roads and rails below, before there were cities and towns, before there was industry. The ducks followed a path older than the farms beneath them in southern Saskatchewan, older than the coal mines they passed over in Alberta’s Badlands. Their route predated the internal combustion engine, the pumpjack, and the ingenious two-cone rotary rock drill bit. It was there before the Cree moved west to find fur for trade, before the peoples of the Peace-Athabasca Delta named their homeland Denendeh, perhaps before any Homo sapien had crossed from Asia onto the American land mass. Each spring, as day’s light stretched into evening and the breeze turned warm, the ducks came north, alighting on thawed ponds to rest and eat before proceeding farther north to the delta to find mates and make nests. And then there would be more ducks to repeat the flight, year upon year, until the ice sheet’s return—an eventuality well beyond the ken of any duck.
On April 20, 2008, as sometimes happens in the boreal forests of northern Alberta in spring, snow began to fall. Along the banks where the great Athabasca River makes its final hard turn north toward the delta, the snow that day fell in a formidable blizzard. It stormed for three days, and nearly half a metre blanketed the river banks and the forests of pine and
spruce and the lakes and ponds strewn across the landscape east and west of the river.
The weather troubled the ducks. The low cloud made it hard to navigate, and the new snow and cold air made open water scarce and harder to spot. Sometime in the evening of April 27 or in the warming dawn of April 28, many flocks of them—mallards, mostly, but also quite a few mergansers, a smattering of other breeds—found a pond in the middle of a broad stretch of treeless ground. They came in one after the other, each chasing the next down onto the dark calm surface of the water. And one after another, they discovered a strange substance floating on the pond’s surface, a thick dark goo the likes of which they had never encountered before. It was native to the region, but it belonged properly to the hidden depths of soil and sand deep beneath the boreal forest floor. It had no place in the flyway’s ponds a thousand years ago, and it was scarce enough even ten years back that no flock of ducks had ever collided with it in such numbers.
Because a duck has never needed to see what is immediately in front of it as it descends upon a pond—or far less need, at least, than it has for seeing distant predators after it lands—its eyes are on either side of its head. Its forward vision thus limited, it isn’t likely to notice its cousins flailing in distress until it too has landed. Landing on a pond is, in any case, the very essence of a duck’s routine. There has never been any need for caution. The ducks flying low over the boreal forest north of Fort McMurray in this disorienting spring snowstorm were concerned only with finding open water. The pond below was an escape, an oasis, a temporary home.
This is how 1,611 ducks came to land on a settling basin at Syncrude Canada Ltd.’s Aurora oil sands mine, a body of water and many other superfluous substances produced during the separation of bitumen from raw oil sands ore. It is better known as a tailings pond.
A duck’s feathers are coated in an oily substance secreted by its uropygial gland, which renders the feathers water resistant. A duck floats on water in part because it has a hollow skeleton but also because the uropygial
oil prevents it from becoming waterlogged and heavy when it alights on water. If the feathers become coated in petroleum, however, the duck’s defences are neutralized. A bird born to float on water can sink.
Because an oil sands tailings pond contains not just water but also residual bitumen, boreal dirt, heavy metals, and a slow-settling slurry of oil-processing chemicals and fine clays, its surface melts faster than a natural lake. And because this phenomenon is well understood by oil sands producers, tailings ponds are routinely ringed each spring with radar-triggered, propane-fired sound cannons. Even if a mallard duck might not know quite what a propane-fired cannon is, or for that matter why it is, it surely knows to hightail it elsewhere when faced with a sporadic barrage of loud explosions. At Syncrude Aurora, though, the blizzard had slowed down the cannon deployment process. The piles of snow had made it especially difficult to get crews out to the tailings pond, and then the rapid switch back to warm spring temperatures after the snow stopped had turned access roads and the pond’s wide earthen dike walls into a mess of mud and snowmelt. The air around the tailings pond was silent on that April morning.
Like any other crude oil, bitumen floats to a pond’s surface at low temperatures. It flows into a tailings pond “frothed”—aerated as part of the separation process. The bitumen froth won’t mix with water, but it clings eagerly to anything else it encounters, including more of itself. It forms broad mats on the surface of the tailings pond. It’s hard to imagine a more fervent mating of complementary materials than sticky bitumen froth and duck feathers. To the 1,611 ducks on the Syncrude Aurora tailings pond that morning, it must have seemed like the pond itself was rising up to snatch them. And refusing, inexplicably, to let go.
• • •
Ducks were still landing on the Aurora tailings pond when a Syncrude heavy equipment operator named Robert Colson came upon the scene at nine in the morning on April 28. Colson could see oddly shaped lumps out among the bitumen mats on the pond. He reported what he’d seen to his boss by radio. Later that morning, an anonymous caller—not
Colson—reported the incident to the Fort McMurray office of the Alberta government’s Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development.
Todd Powell, the area wildlife biologist in the ministry office, had started his career in the Yukon. The land there could feel barely settled, the population sparse, the wild and rugged landscape remarkably close. The Yukon is a place where even the busiest downtown thoroughfares are sometimes shared with bears, and you meet office workers proficient in the field dressing of moose carcasses. Powell found there was never any question of the value of wildlife or the merit of his work protecting animals from human encroachment.
He took a job in wildlife management for the Alberta government in 2007 and relocated with his wife to Fort McMurray. The wildlife was nearby there as well, but he found people’s attention was mostly elsewhere. The pace of life was faster, the money easier, your average resident far more likely than a Yukoner to be a recent arrival, having little direct experience with the wildlife of the Canadian North. There didn’t seem to be much interest in conservation, population management, species at risk. The city existed to dig oil from underneath the forest. The forest’s inhabitants were an afterthought at best.
Powell was out of his office the morning of April 28, but he returned just after lunch to find a voice mail message from an anonymous worker at the Syncrude Aurora site. It described hundreds of ducks mired in the toxic muck of a tailings pond.
“This isn’t right,” the caller said. “You need to get up here and do something about this.”
Powell called Syncrude’s environmental representative and arranged to meet at the Aurora mine.
In April 2008 Fort McMurray was the epicentre of the greatest oil boom in Canadian history, and the boom was just then reaching its zenith. The city’s population had nearly doubled over the preceding decade and was still growing beyond anyone’s reckoning. Which is to say that traffic was its usual mess as Powell crossed the two-lane bridge north out of downtown in his white Alberta government pickup truck, and the traffic
remained heavy as ever on Highway 63 as he drove the seventy-five kilometres north to Syncrude’s Aurora site. Then there were security protocols at the plant gate, a briefing with the Syncrude reps who met him there, all the usual hoops to bounce through. It was early evening by the time he arrived at the tailings pond.
Powell had been on the job with the Alberta government for only a year, but he was already familiar with the destructive relationship between duck feathers and bitumen froth. The environmental reps at Shell Canada’s new Albian Sands mine were particularly fastidious, calling Powell every time a duck or two landed on their tailings pond and got mired in the petrochemical muck. It gunked up their wings, and as they struggled to flap free, they would only become more deeply enmeshed. Sometimes the trapped birds could be plucked out and sent to a rehabilitation centre in Edmonton for cleaning, and sometimes there was nothing more to be done other than put them out of their misery. It was an ugly business, but on an industrial site of such scale, a certain amount of damage was inevitable.
None of these previous incidents had prepared Todd Powell for what he encountered at the Aurora pond that evening. There was a large pool of bitumen some distance from the pond’s edge—far enough away that not every detail was clear, near enough for Powell to raise his camera and begin documenting the situation. The frothy black mat was alive with churning lumps, hundreds of them, which Powell immediately understood were trapped ducks. They were fighting and struggling in vain to regain flight. They would poke at the oil with their heads, searching for a way under it, and when they pulled back up, the gooey bitumen hung from their beaks like cold molasses. Ravens, relentless opportunists of the boreal forest, swooped down from time to time to pluck at their eyes. There was nothing to be done that evening. Powell took photos, shot some video, and left, with plans to return once Syncrude had organized its rescue effort.
He arrived at the pond the next day to find a robust salvage operation set up in a warehouse building nearby. Syncrude had organized a couple of dozen volunteers from the mine’s massive workforce, directed by one of
the company’s environmental monitoring representatives. Powell, like the Syncrude crew, had been anticipating a frenzied rescue scene, a place of triage and first aid, wounded birds by the score to be readied for airlift to a rehab facility in Edmonton. By early afternoon, Powell had mustered a boat and steered out to the edge of the bitumen mat, intending to pull out ducks and ferry them in for cleaning. But few of the birds remained at the surface. Aside from a handful who’d managed somehow to pull themselves from the froth and crawl out onto the muddy wall of the dike, there were none left to be rescued.
The trajectory of their fate had been mercilessly slow but inevitable. In ones and twos or by the dozen, they were swallowed whole by the froth. They had been trapped, and then the weight of the bitumen pulled them below the surface, and then they died. Weeks later, their bloated carcasses began to resurface, often stripped of skin and feathers by chemicals in the murky tailings below the pond’s surface. In all, the pond claimed 1,606 ducks—all but five of the flock that had come to land on it.
Powell took pictures of the few ducks that crawled out onto the dike. In the end, just three birds—two mallards and a bufflehead—were evacuated from the site and airlifted aboard a Syncrude corporate jet to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Edmonton. On April 29 Syncrude issued a press release noting that it was “working closely with Alberta Fish and Wildlife and Alberta Environment to coordinate recovery efforts relating to a large flock of ducks that landed on Syncrude’s Aurora Settling Basin on Monday, April 28th.” Powell passed his photos along to his bosses. There was little else, at the moment, to be done.
The story was picked up by the Canadian Press later that day. The initial report suggested that approximately five hundred ducks had been killed. In a province where hunters shoot and kill more than three hundred thousand waterfowl each year, on a continent home to ten million breeding mallards, the difference between five hundred and sixteen hundred is akin to a rounding error, the statistical definition of a nonstory. The incident was cruel and avoidable, but in greater ecological terms, it meant nothing beyond the gates of the Aurora mine.
There was something, though, about Powell’s pictures and videos, which were on file with the provincial government when the media came calling. The piteous way the beached birds struggled to shake themselves loose of the gluey black bitumen. The way it resonated for an audience primed by larger catastrophes—particularly the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, in which millions of gallons of oil spilled into the ocean off the coast of Alaska, killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds—to empathize with the dying wildlife, to immediately wonder at its potential scope, to imagine years or even decades of recovery. That the Syncrude disaster posed no such larger or lingering threats was lost in this resonance.
The Syncrude tailings pond incident was a top national story in Canada the following day. CBC’s flagship nightly newscast, The National, framed its coverage that night with a simple, damning headline: “Dead Ducks.” International media outlets started to pick up on the story the day after that. And Powell’s documentary point-and-shoot pictures of migrating mallards soaked in bitumen were soon reprinted in newspapers around the world.
For untold millions of people, this was their first real introduction to the colossal industrial project operating in Alberta’s boreal forest and their first encounter with a thick, energy-rich petroleum goo that was often referred to colloquially as “tar sands” (although the industry was vehement in its use of the term “oil sands”). It was, by either name, cast in this story primarily if not exclusively as a producer of toxic sludge that gathered in ponds the size of small lakes and killed innocent ducks. Even for many Canadians, well familiar with the vast oil deposits of northern Alberta and the explosive economic boom that had been felt nationwide over the preceding decade, the images of dead ducks provided the most intimate glimpse they had seen of the daily operation of an oil sands mine.
Both the provincial and federal governments eventually charged Syncrude with neglect under their respective environmental protection regulations. In 2010, after a trial at which Todd Powell was a key witness, a provincial court judge found the company guilty of a provincial charge of failing to prevent the tailings from coming into contact with
wildlife and a federal charge of storing a substance in a manner harmful to migratory birds. Syncrude was ordered to pay a $3-million fine. It was the largest environmental fine ever levied in Alberta, but a shrug of a punishment in terms of Syncrude’s bottom line—less than an hour’s work for a company producing nearly three hundred thousand barrels of oil each day worth $90 apiece. The full cost of the 1,606 deceased ducks, however, would not be measured merely in immediate material terms. In some sense, it is still being paid by Syncrude and the rest of Alberta’s oil patch today.
• • •
This, then, was the lesson the ducks taught the industry, even if it wasn’t understood right away: in a twenty-first-century media environment, you have rapidly diminishing control over how you are perceived in the energy game. None whatsoever, sometimes, over scale and proportion. A few hundred ducks could become the whole world’s ecological decline. By the same process, a single bitumen pipeline can be transformed into the conduit for the entire climate crisis, the fuse leading to a carbon bomb that, if detonated, would be the breaking point for the whole project of civilization. It matters little if these assertions are largely unfounded or their sense of proportion wildly out of whack. In today’s energy business, this is no longer a marginal conversation, the crisis of a single news cycle to be managed and spun. It is central, existential. Years later, the dead ducks will still haunt you.
As a central character in the broader narrative of the global energy industry in the age of climate change, the story of the oil patch that arose over the last fifty years in Alberta’s oil sands—the Patch, for short—began with those slain ducks. The birds and the tailings pond became a proxy for a wider polluted world in conflict, and in short order the whole industry became the embodiment of climate change itself, the poster child for the whole sinful age of fossil fuels, the face of an invisible global catastrophe. Sixteen hundred birds landed on a tailings pond, a collision of ecological disaster and economic necessity, and, in some sense, the fate of the world’s oil industry—and certainly of Alberta’s oil sands project—has come to rest
on its ability to reconcile that conflict with the planet’s energy demands. It remains an open question whether the industry is able to do so.
The conflict now underway in the Patch is not just of incongruous energy and climate policies but of competing world views. Alberta’s oil sands industry emerged out of the High Modern ideal of progress that defined the twentieth century, that trust in bigger machines and better technology to fuel the good life. The industry’s opposition is an extension of a new definition of progress, one native to the twenty-first century, born out of the emerging necessities of the Anthropocene epoch—that new chapter in geological time created by human hands in a time defined by climate change. The Anthropocene ideal aims for balance and sets as its highest priority the rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions created by burning fossil fuels.
The High Modern and Anthropocene world views have collided head-on in the oil sands. This book is a record of the collision and its aftermath, and a survey of that reconciliation project. It is also the story of how the pond came to be along the ducks’ ancient migratory flight path in the first place, and how one of the most colossally scaled engineering projects in human history sprung into being deep in the boreal forest of northern Alberta. And it is finally the story of how the industry that built the pond became the first major battleground in a global conflict over the future of energy in the Anthropocene epoch.
The twenty-first century will be defined by how civilization reconciles its powerful hunger for energy with the toll taken on the planet’s basic equilibrium. The trial run in that long contest—the first skirmish of proxies in that much larger war—is underway today in the Patch.