Read an Excerpt
WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY
In which an American discovers how to blast his way to paradise
Manley L. Natland was sitting alone in the southern desert of Saudi Arabia when an extraordinary idea popped into his head.
It was the end of a long day, and Natland was watching the sun set. Wrapped in thought and a Bedouin turban, the American geologist contemplated the climax to nature’s magic hour. “It looked like a huge orange-red fireball sinking gradually into the earth,” Natland later wrote in his diary. His mind wandered, and the display of the sun’s explosion of light caused his thoughts to take a sinister and disturbing turn along the following lines: sun, heat, 15 million degrees Celsius, energy, thermonuclear weapons. And then the idea struck.
Why not nuke Alberta?
It was an odd, disjointed thought process. Yet there was an unmistakable logic to it. Natland at that moment was sitting on the biggest oil reserves on the planet. It was 1956 and the world was in fact swimming in oil. In Saudi Arabia alone, Natland’s employer, the Richfield Oil Company of California, had all the oil they could ever dream of. All you had to do was sink a pipe; nature would do the rest. Yet Natland had become obsessed with a scientific challenge central to a place more than seven thousand kilometres away, in a remote area of Canada few people had even heard of: Alberta’s vast oil sands in the Athabasca basin. This was a place where you didn’t even have to look for the oil–you just reached down and picked up a handful of dirt and it was right there, black and tarlike, clinging to the grains of sand. But it was a treasure chest for which nobody had the key. For half a century a small group of scientists had tried to find a method of extracting the oil at a cheap price. Now Natland joined in the hunt. His solution was by far the most creative–and the most radical.
Natland came down from the mountain and began to record his epiphany. He pulled his everpresent notebook out of his pocket and quickly set to work outlining the basics of his nuclear brainwave. He figured a 9-kiloton bomb, what he referred to as a “thermal device,” would do the trick. Hiroshima’s “Little Boy,” dropped on Japan only eleven years earlier, had a yield equivalent to 13 kilotons of TNT; “Fat Boy,” which was dropped on Nagasaki, yielded about 20 kilotons. So a 9-kiloton bomb, he thought, would be a good start. Bigger bombs could be employed later. Natland imagined bombs as big as 100 kilotons. The size would depend on the proximity of towns and cities, and the effects of the bomb’s resultant seismic shocks on human structures. But for now, 9 kilotons would be good enough.
Natland drew up a plan of action. Bombs would be inserted into boreholes 1,300 feet (396 metres) deep and about 100 feet (30 metres) into what geologists call the Beaverhill Lake Formation of silty limestone, which runs to depths of 600 metres beneath the Athabasca oil sands. The bombs’ massive shock energy as well as the extreme heat would crush and melt the limestone rock, creating a giant underground cavity about 230 feet (71 metres) in diameter, into which, he predicted, several million cubic feet of oil sands would collapse. Natland was confident that the intense thermal heat plus the highpressure shock waves would literally boil the oil out of the sands and greatly reduce its viscosity, allowing it to migrate into pools.
Natland figured that each cavern could hold about two million barrels of oil, which is almost equivalent to Alberta’s current daily production. With an estimated two trillion barrels deep underground and unreachable by known mining technologies, that would come to one million nuclear bombs blowing up the underbelly of Alberta, a horizontal cutout of which would ultimately resemble the world’s largest honeycomb. Of course, there was always the danger that down the road the honeycomb would collapse and Alberta would cave in. One minute you’re home on the range without a care in the world and the next you’re dropping 600 metres into a radioactive cavity.
But Natland didn’t want to think about that. In fact, the whole idea seemed so good to him that he quickly sketched out a rough pictogram of how it would work.
One possible glitch was the issue of radioactivity. Natland considered the problem but quickly dismissed it, predicting the radioactivity would be contained within the cavity, trapped inside the molten rock. Therefore, the oil itself would not be contaminated. Nor would the radioactivity escape into the atmosphere. Or so he thought. “The vitreous nature of the slag will reduce the possibility of introducing objectionable levels of radioactivity into the oil,” he later wrote. He went on to describe what he thought would happen after the bomb was triggered:
A few millionths of a second after detonation, temperatures rise exponentially to millions of degrees, vapourizing and melting the surrounding rock and the superheated gases at pressures of several million atmospheres radially expand to create a cavity. After a time ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes, the roof of the cavity formed by the ninekiloton explosion is expected to collapse from the weight of the overburden. When this occurs several million cubic feet of oil sand will fall into the cavity where the oil will be heated sufficiently to be recovered by conventional methods.
In other words, the underground explosion would produce temperatures and pressures several million times greater than we normally experience on earth, vapourizing, melting and crushing rock to create the cavity and release the precious oil. An oil recovery well would then be drilled and pumps would bring the crude to the surface. Just like a conventional well.
Natland had no illusions about his nuclear solution; there would be a lot of convincing to do, a lot of strategic planning ahead of him. But even Natland was to be surprised at how quickly the idea caught fire. In fact, among its biggest fans would be Albertans themselves. In those heady days of nuclear enthusiasms, it seemed everybody wanted to nuke Alberta.
Some might dismiss Natland’s atomic revelation as that of a mad scientist. Yet his oil sands solution became a serious enterprise undertaken by otherwise sane men. The project employed the expertise of hundreds of scientists, including geologists like Natland, physicists and chemists, plus engineers, politicians and businessmen in both Canada and the United States. For anybody studying its genesis, the idea soon acquires symbolic and metaphoric proportions.
Even in the 1950s, oilmen appreciated the size of the oil sands. They take up about onefifth of the province–148,000 square kilometres. That’s bigger than New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island put together. It’s the size of Florida.
To be prepared to blow up a geological structure of such magnitude simply to extract oil requires breathtaking single-mindedness. Some might even call it psychopathic. But the point is that, in a sort of manic determination to exploit its resources, Alberta showed that it was ready to sacrifice itself.
As is still the case today.
TECHNOLOGY AND MUTUAL DESTRUCTION
HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN
In which we head north on a Thursday despite warnings from Dr. O
and do battle with an oil sands dumper
Dr. John O’Connor, the coroner for Fort McMurray, had warned me:
“Never drive Highway 63 south or north on Thursday . . . Or south or north on Sunday or Monday.”
“Shift changes at the oil sands. The traffic is crazy. Your heart is in your mouth.”
Then he told me about the last accident he investigated: it’s winter and dark. A logging truck swerves to avoid a pickup parked on the shoulder but with one wheel still on the road, its driver fast asleep. Logs fly off the flatbed, piercing the windshield of an oncoming van. Two workers dead, one screaming for an hour before his heart finally gave out.
It’s Thursday morning. I put the car in gear and head north out of Edmonton.
Some Albertans think Highway 63 is a conspiracy. They think the government has intentionally made this 400-kilometre asphalt track narrow and dangerous, with few gas stations or stopovers. It’s the only road north into Fort McMurray and the oil sands. The government wants to discourage Canadians from visiting the sands, the conspiracy theorists suggest. Out of sight, out of mind. What you don’t know won’t hurt you. Maybe the theorists are right. Or maybe it was just a total lack of planning, as Ralph Klein said, that turned the highway to heaven into a death trap.
Highway 63 is the feed line to Alberta’s golden goose. Along this conveyor belt streams an endless flow of heavy machinery weighing up to 145 tons [132 metric tons]. This includes drilling rigs, prefabricated steel sections of refineries, ore crushers, oil extractors and sulphur plants, as well as building materials, food and other essentials and nonessentials. They all move north with the grinding determination of a combustion-driven consumer society. Convoys of tankers, container trucks and flatbeds, which often take up both lanes with their towering, superwide loads, clog the thin twolane highway. An ode to perpetual motion.
Every Thursday it becomes a workers’ run. They speed south towards Edmonton when their twelve-hour, sixday shift ends and they’re free to head back for a week at home, spending their money in shopping malls. Too many little white roadside crosses with fresh or plastic flowers mark the spot where the unlucky few didn’t make it, where their boom-time rhythm of work and sleep and fast money abruptly ended. Roadside real estate comes at a heavy price up here.
Disregarding O’Connor’s advice, I leave Edmonton at ninethirty on a frosty Thursday morning in October. I’m expecting a long drive. I’ve been told to give it at least five hours. Highway 2 takes me past Edmonton’s broadening urban sprawl, where the automobile remains king and global warming is still treated as a joke. Edmonton’s huge steaming refineries can be seen on the western horizon. I pass the strip malls full of Safeways, Arby’s, McDonald’s and Tim Hortons and the automobile concessions with their shiny new pickup trucks all lined up ready for business.
The breakout into the country happens abruptly about twenty minutes up the highway. The urban landscape suddenly becomes a patchwork of greens and golden browns with cut hay and rolledup bales. This is what Albertans refer to as “parkland,” a rolling landscape of ranchland and aspen groves. It is tidy, precise rural countryside that acts as a transition into the more northerly boreal forest where I’m headed.
At Morinville, the highway narrows to two lanes and continues north towards Athabasca. The sky is grey but not threatening, and the rented white Toyota is humming. The radio is tuned to CBC and a reporter is interviewing American border guards in Montana who have taken to horseback patrols to stop enemy aliens and terrorists from invading the United States. It’s too stupid to think about, so I randomly scan over to a country music station, because that’s about all there is and Kenny Chesney’s singing “She thinks my tractor’s sexy.” Country music sets you free. It should be a good drive up.
This section of the highway is straight and clear, and as I close in on Athabasca there’s a billboard advertising a whisky store ten kilometres down the road, which is something to look forward to.
After about an hour I pull into Athabasca and the Husky store, where I fill the tank at eighty-three cents a litre, which is pretty good. I have to make sure I have enough gas to make it to Fort McMurray. I buy a giant takeaway cup of Kicking Horse black coffee, their Kickass blend. I take a sip. Disappointment. It’s weak.
“There’s not much kick to this Kickass,” I say, trying to be funny.
The cashier, whose moon face is pursed and suspicious, refuses to play along. She just stares up at me from behind the counter with a blank, unfriendly look and I can feel her wondering: “What are you thinking?” We have one of those awkward moments between strangers when neither one really knows what’s going on.
“You want another?” she finally asks.
I tell her thanks but no, grab my change, take my coffee and hustle out of there.
Across the street is Athabasca landing, where the Athabasca River begins its swing north to Fort McMurray. This is where, in 1913, a federal geologist named Sidney Ells and his crew of “breeds and Indians,” as he called them, loaded up scows for his trip downriver to Fort McMurray. His mission was to bring samples of the tar sands back to Ottawa to experiment on how best to extract the oil–triggering a technology quest that still goes on today.
The Athabasca is unique in Alberta: it’s the only major river that hasn’t been dammed up. All of its 1,232 kilometres, from the Columbia icefields of Jasper National Park to Lake Athabasca on the northeastern corner of Alberta, is free-flowing except for the fact that five pulp mills and five oil sands projects–with about twenty more in the works–take millions of litres out of it every year. The pulp mills put it back, but the oil sands operations don’t; the water is too toxic. It’s the river that makes the oil sands possible. It’s the oil sands that are destroying the river.
The Athabasca River is two hundred metres wide at the landing. The water is clear and the bottom rocky. A sign on the opposite bank exhorts people to keep Alberta green and warns about forest fires. A large white cross stands nearby.
Athabasca is a crossroads to the former Hudson’s Bay Company forts of northern Alberta. West is the Lesser Slave Lake. East and then north is Fort McMurray. I head up Highway 63, switch the radio back to CBC, where they are talking about oil prices–a constant theme in this province–and how lucky Alberta is to have an abundance of energy resources. “A lot of people would like to be in our position,” one commentator says. “Alberta has such a positive resource in terms of all the massive amounts of oil we’ve got in the oil sands, then all the natural gas and all this stuff, and then with other countries that are energy starved and, you know, we have a thousand years’ supply of coal as well–they think we’re truly blessed.”
They start talking about dwindling water resources–another constant theme in Alberta–and I switch the channel to a news item about how cutting down the forests of Indonesia is putting more greenhouse gases into the air than are produced by German industry. Then there’s news of a British government study warning that global warming will cost trillions of dollars unless we act now to save the planet. I push the scanner button back to country, and Alberta’s own Carolyn Dawn Johnson is begging me to take her fast or slow. Just don’t leave her with a broken heart.
Two hours of driving and the highway enters the boreal forest. The birches are naked. The tamaracks have turned amber yellow. The spruce and balsam look tired and wizened, like old men searching for something to lean on. That’s the way of the boreal forest, struggling in the cold and dark of winter among peat bogs, wetlands, lakes, fens and rivers, stretching from Alaska to Newfoundland, as much the earth’s lungs as the Amazon forest. It’s the mantle over Canada’s shoulders, the last largely untouched forest area. But here in Alberta they are quickly doing something about that. Clearcut swaths and burnt forests with an eerie mist flowing through the tall, blackened trunks break the monotony of Highway 63.
Halfway to Fort McMurray and the oncoming traffic is beginning to pick up. But I still don’t find it crazy. Then I catch up to slow-moving convoys of pickup trucks with flashing lights surrounding a line of flatbeds. One is ferrying a massive new yellow dumper to be fitted onto the back of an oil sands dump truck. The trucks themselves are so big they bring them up in pieces. On the highway the dumper looks monstrous, stretching across both lanes, and that’s with the flatbed hugging the shoulder. Oncoming traffic has to ride the opposite shoulder to avoid it.