Right here in North America could lie the answer to our energy needs. But at what cost? Mining the tar sands of Alberta threatens to strip the world's largest intact forest of its ability to hold carbon and to wipe out the breeding grounds for millions of birds.
As the shallowest reserves are depleted, oil companies will shift from strip-mining toward injecting steam underground and pumping melted bitumen to the surface. This method doesn't scar the landscape as dramatically as mining does. But it requires a spider web of roads and natural-gas lines that will cut through the boreal wilderness, threatening to harm even more birds.
Mammals, too, face mortal danger. In a 2001 study, researchers fitted 36 woodland caribou with GPS collars. They discovered that many of the animals refused to pass within 3,300 feet of oil and gas wells or 800 feet of roads and "seismic lines" cut for geophysical exploration. The tangle of infrastructure reduced the caribou's range by up to half and made them more susceptible to wolf predation. University of Alberta scientists calculated in 2002 that at the current rate of industrial expansion, woodland caribou could disappear from northern Alberta within 37 years. In 2008 the Canadian government announced that most of Alberta's caribou herds are no longer capable of sustaining themselves over the long term without ongoing intensive management, such as predator control or transplanting animals from other populations.
Environmental leaders insist that, with immediate political action, the destruction of the boreal forest and its wildlife can be prevented. The Lower Athabasca Region, an area the size of Maine that encompasses virtually all the current bitumen-production area, maintains 94 percent of its biodiversity, according to the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. This, says Pembina's Simon Dyer, means the region could still be saved--by slowing tar-sands expansion and setting aside protected wilderness. For its part, the United States needs to implement a tough National Low-Carbon Fuel Standard. Such a nationwide policy, like California's recently adopted Low-Carbon Fuel Standard, would encourage the production of alternative transportation fuels with lower greenhouse-gas emissions, like cellulosic ethanol, corn-based ethanol, and biodiesel, and create a disincentive for energy suppliers to use tar-sands oil. So far all attempts to introduce a national standard--including legislation proposed in 2007 by then-Illinois senator Barack Obama and Iowa senator Tom Harkin--have been ultimately shot down. Right now there is no proposal on the table, but the EPA does have the authority to implement a national fuel standard. The United States also needs to dramatically reduce its demand for fossil fuels. By 2020 Americans could save 4.4 million barrels daily--21 percent of our current total and more than the tar sands' forecasted production--by improving vehicle fuel efficiency, enhancing public transit, developing advanced biofuels, doing smarter city planning, and retrofitting houses and office buildings with improvements like cleaner heating systems, according to the NRDC. "There is an alternative future for Alberta's boreal forest," says Dyer.
For Joe Marcel, fighting for that alternative future is a matter of physical and cultural survival. "I've traveled this whole delta all my life," he says. "I know for sure this is where I'm going to see the last of my breath. This is where I'll die." Then he chuckles. "And hopefully," he adds, "we'll still have a little bit of green left."