The U.S. imports more oil from Canada than from any other nation, about 19 percent of its total foreign supply, and around half of that now comes from the oil sands. Anything that reduces our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, many Americans would say, is a good thing. But clawing and cooking a barrel of crude from the oil sands emits as much as three times more carbon dioxide than letting one gush from the ground in Saudi Arabia. The oil sands are still a tiny part of the world's carbon problem—they account for less than a tenth of one percent of global CO2 emissions—but to many environmentalists they are the thin end of the wedge, the first step along a path that could lead to other, even dirtier sources of oil: producing it from oil shale or coal. "Oil sands represent a decision point for North America and the world," says Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, a moderate and widely respected Canadian environmental group. "Are we going to get serious about alternative energy, or are we going to go down the unconventional-oil track? 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."
That thirsty world has come crashing in on Fort McKay. Yet Jim Boucher's view of it, from an elegant new building at the entrance to the besieged little village, contains more shades of gray than you might expect. "The choice we make is a difficult one," Boucher said when I visited him last summer. For a long time the First Nation tried to fight the oil sands industry, with little success. Now, Boucher said, "we're trying to develop the community's capacity to take advantage of the opportunity." Boucher presides not only over this First Nation, as chief, but also over the Fort McKay Group of Companies, a community-owned business that provides services to the oil sands industry and brought in $85 million in 2007. Unemployment is under 5 percent in the village, and it has a health clinic, a youth center, and a hundred new three-bedroom houses that the community rents to its members for far less than market rates. The First Nation is even thinking of opening its own mine: It owns 8,200 acres of prime oil sands land across the river, right next to the Syncrude mine where the ducks died.
As Boucher was telling me all this, he was picking bits of meat from a smoked whitefish splayed out on his conference table next to a bank of windows that offered a panoramic view of the river. A staff member had delivered the fish in a plastic bag, but Boucher couldn't say where it had come from. "I can tell you one thing," he said. "It doesn't come from the Athabasca."
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 within 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 oozes from the riverbank and casts an oily sheen on the water. Early fur traders reported seeing the stuff and watching natives use it to caulk their canoes. At room temperature, bitumen is like molasses, and below 50°F or so it is hard as a hockey puck, as Canadians invariably put it. Once upon a time, though, it was light crude, the same liquid that oil companies have been pumping from deep traps in southern Alberta for nearly a century. Tens of millions of years ago, geologists think, a large volume of that oil was pushed northeastward, perhaps by the rise of the Rocky Mountains. In the process it also migrated upward, along sloping layers of sediment, until eventually it reached depths shallow and cool enough for bacteria to thrive. Those bacteria degraded the oil to bitumen.