National Geographic : 2009 Mar
to say nothing of the rest of the world, are a far larger source of CO than the oil sands. By 2020, according to the plan, the province s carbon emissions will level o , and by 2050 they will decline to 15 percent below their 2005 levels. at is far less of a cut than scientists say is nec- essary. But it is more than the U.S. government, say, has committed to in a credible way. One thing Stelmach has consistently refused to do is "touch the brake" on the oil sands boom. e boom has been gold for the provincial as well as the national economy; the town of Fort McMurray, south of the mines, is awash in New- foundlanders and Nova Scotians eeing unem- ployment in their own provinces. e provincial government has been collecting around a third of its revenue from lease sales and royalties on fossil fuel extraction, including oil sands---it was expecting to get nearly half this year, or $19 billion, but the collapse in oil prices since the summer has dropped that estimate to about $12 billion. Albertans are bitterly familiar with the boom-and-bust cycle; the last time oil prices collapsed, in the 1980s, the provincial economy didn t recover for a decade. e oil sands cover an area the size of North Carolina, and the pro- vincial government has already leased around half that, including all 1,356 square miles that are minable. It has yet to turn down an applica- tion to develop one of those leases, on environ- mental or any other grounds. FROM A HELICOPTER it s easy to see the indus- try s impact on the Athabasca Valley. Within minutes of lifting off from Fort McMurray, heading north along the east bank of the river, you pass over Suncor s Millennium mine---the company s leases extend practically to the town. On a day with a bit of wind, dust plumes billow- ing o the wheels and the loads of the dump trucks coalesce into a single enormous cloud that obscures large parts of the mine pit and spills over its lip. To the north, beyond a small expanse of intact forest, a similar cloud rises from the next pit, Suncor s Steepbank mine, and beyond that lie two more, and across the river two more. One evening last July the clouds The oil sands are gold not only for the oil companies, but also for Alberta's provincial govern- ment, which owns the mineral rights to virtually all the land and has encouraged the industry for three-quarters of a century.