The Oil Sands Of Alberta
And the millions of Chinese who have moved from their bicycles to traffic jams are driving up the demand for oil. It's virtually insatiable and the Canadians want to step up production quickly. What's holding them back is labor — the shortage of it.
Brian Jean says another 100,000 people are needed in Fort McMurray.
That's why one oil company has built a runway to fly workers daily from civilization to Fort McMurray. But why would anyone want to come work in a place where temperatures plummet to 40 below and the sun sets shortly after it rises in the long winter? Well, perhaps because the oil companies pay some of the highest salaries in North America.
Take Josh Lichti, who says he could be making $120,000 by the time he is 22.
"It's amazing," he says.
But even if workers come flocking, the oil companies still have other problems. Creating energy from oil sands requires so much energy that the oil companies wind up spiking greenhouse gas emissions.
"And they do it in volumes that exceed any other production of oil crude anywhere on the planet," says Elizabeth May, the director of the Sierra Club of Canada.
She takes issue not only with what the oil sands are doing to the atmosphere, but to the land. The oil companies, environmentalists say, are digging up an entire province. Take a helicopter ride over the mines and you'll think you're flying over the moon after a moonquake.
"One of the reasons they can be mined the way they've been mined is the out of sight, out of mind aspect of it. And your film crew is one of the few that's gone in there to look at how devastating this is," May says.
Even money men, like Pickens, have noticed. "Can't argue with it. I mean, there's no question that, that they've got a mess up there. But I do think they'll take care of it over time," he says.
The oil companies say they will reduce greenhouse gasses and they point out they are required by Canadian law to refill old mines and plant new trees, and that is happening — slowly. One company, Syncrude, has even introduced bison to land that once was a barren pit.
Rick George of Suncor Energy insists in the future people won't recognize the mines. "So what you see today is a mine. What you'll see 10 years from now is a replanted forest," he says.
"You're telling me that if I come here, it's gonna be pretty?" Simon asks.
"Absolutely," George says. "These sites will all be going back. Now we'll be minin' at a different location at that point.
"This will look forested when we get done with it in 20 years time."
But there is a larger question that not only environmentalists are asking: will the availability of an enormous supply of secure oil right next door mean America will have little incentive to reduce its dependence on oil?
"What Canada's doing," says May, "is continuing to feed the U.S. addiction to fossil fuels, instead of being the kinda friend who says, 'Let's make a helpful intervention here.' We're acting as the supplier of a drug fix to the U.S., while all the time saying, 'Just say no.' But we keep selling it."
But unless the Chinese go back to bicycles and Americans trash their SUVs, there will be buyers — for oil anywhere, no matter how it's found or mined. Right now, Canada has become the land of opportunity for oilmen. They will tell you there is little else on the horizon.
"Bob, if you take a tablet and put on it where is supply gonna come from that we don't know about today. And you put down all the optimistic points, that tablet will basically be blank," says Pickens.
As blank as the landscape around Fort McMurray, where the world of oil exploration ends.
Does Pickens think the days of cheap oil are gone?
"They're gone," he says. "From what we knew as cheap oil, when I pumped gasoline in Ray Smith's Sinclair station on Hinkley Street in Holdenvale, Oklahoma, 11 cents a gallon, that's gone."
Will we ever again see $1.50 a gallon? "We won't ever see $1.50 a gallon. No, that's gone," says Pickens.
Right around the corner from Fort McMurray you can still see oil being produced the traditional way. It's picturesque now. The wells are still pumping but they belong to the past, like the iron horse that once rode across these prairies.
The future? Up here in Alberta they're convinced it's in the dirt.
By Draggan Mihailovich
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