Fort McMurray: Bitter Fruit

A wildfire on May 3 forced the evacuation of the city of Fort McMurray in the heart of Alberta’s oil sands region. Credit CBCNews, via Reuters

A wildfire on May 3 forced the evacuation of the city of Fort McMurray in the heart of Alberta’s oil sands region. Credit CBCNews, via Reuters

Alaska has had its share of wildfires. WC sympathizes with the residents of Fort McMurray and the surrounding area, whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed by the huge wildfire there. More than 700,000 acres have burned, some 2,500 residences and with the fire moving north into the oil fields, the potential for still more damage is very high.

As any forestry scientist will tell you, wildfire risk in the boreal forest is directly tied to the amount of moisture in the duff, the layer of dead leaves, needles and detritus covering the forest floor. Long hot spells dry out the duff, and the fire risk skyrockets. Alberta has experienced a tripling of heat wave days since 1950 – days when the average daily temperature is 9° F or more above average. Spring is coming earlier, as well. With the snow gone sooner, the duff has more time to dry out than in the past. The earlier springs and the hotter summer temperatures have created near-explosive fire conditions in the boreal forest.

Famously, 99.7% of the world’s climatologists believe the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are causing the warming of Earth’s atmosphere. The increased CO2 levels are a factor, perhaps the biggest factor, in Alberta’s climate change.

Fort McMurray itself is almost completely the result of oil sands development. Its population in 1950 was something less than 1,000. More than 80,000 were forced to evacuate the city this month. An eighty-fold increase. Bitumen production, the product of oil sands mining, is the reason Fort MacMurray has grown 80-fold in the last half century.

But oil sands mining is a horribly inefficient way to create energy. As WC has written before, in traditional oil extraction the energy in one barrel of oil produces 117 barrels of oil. In tar sands production, the energy inone barrel of oil produces just 3-4 barrels of bitumen. Put another way, producing one barrel of bitumen generates almost 30 times as much CO2.

Which makes Alberta tar sands oil extraction – the foundation of Fort McMurray’s economy – a significant contributor to global warming. Which, in turn, makes Fort McMurray’s economy a significant contributor to the current crisis. Tar sand extraction isn’t the only reason Fort McMurray is burning. The recent El Niño is a factor, as is Alberta’s poor forest management techniques. But it is one of the factors, and the one Fort McMurray will be living with the longest.

Bitter fruit, indeed.

There’s a lesson there for Alaska, but WC is skeptical Alaska’s leaders will heed it.