FORT McMURRAY, Alberta - A new supply of precious oil has begun flowing into the gas tanks of Americans, tapped from a source so vast it could one day furnish close to half of U.S. oil needs for 50 years or more.
This oil is stable and reliable. And it promises to substantially reduce America's future dependence on volatile Middle Eastern sources of oil. This new petroleum bonanza comes from Canada and is drawn from dense, tarry deposits known as oil sands. But extracting it causes widespread ecological damage -- and some claim it could accelerate global warming.
Already, about 9 percent of all the oil the U.S. imports comes from Canada's oil sands. Now, as new pipelines are being planned to carry even more to Midwestern refineries, the oil-sands debate is coming to the United States.
How much oil is there?
The oil-sands deposits are massive. About 173 billion barrels of oil lie beneath the province of Alberta across an area about the size of New York state, making up the second-largest proven oil reserve in the world behind Saudi Arabia.
What's the problem?
This oil does not gush freely when tapped with a traditional well. Instead, it's bound up in subterranean sand, as black and dense as a hockey puck and less viscous than peanut butter. It must either be:
Clawed out of surface mines.
This requires churning up huge tracts of ancient boreal forest and polluting so much clean water with poisonous chemicals that the resulting waste ponds can be seen from outer space. Last spring, a flock of 500 migratory ducks perished after landing in one of the waste ponds.
Steamed from deep underground.
This is needed for getting at the deeper deposits and necessitates the generation of huge amounts of steam to liquefy the oil so it can be pumped to the surface. Producing the steam requires burning enough natural gas each day to heat 3 million North American homes. That intensive burning of natural gas is particularly alarming to climatologists, who say it sends three times more climate-changing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than drilling for conventional oil.
Oil-company officials, joined by Canadian government leaders, say they are investing in new technologies to reduce the ecological risks. They also contend that other types of heavy crude result in greater emissions further down the production cycle, in the refining or transportation process, so that by the time it winds up in a consumer's gas tank, oil-sands oil has produced only about 15 percent more emissions.
Federal and provincial officials in Canada, eager to reap royalties and tens of thousands of new jobs, are aggressively promoting the boom.
Fort McMurray, the frontier town of 80,000 that is the gateway to the oil-sands fields, has seen such wild growth -- and resulting housing shortages -- that the average single-family home here now sells for nearly $600,000. Workers are so scarce that oil companies build airstrips next to new oil-sands mines so they can fly them in on chartered 737s.
The U.S. role
Democrats in Congress proposed legislation last year to block the federal government from purchasing any foreign oil that results in higher greenhouse-gas emissions than conventional oil -- a definition squarely aimed at Canada's oil sands.
The rule is currently under dispute by the oil industry.
What they're saying
The oil industry:
"It's difficult to come up with new sources of supply, and the oil sands represent a politically stable and massive resource that could help meet North America's demand for many decades to come. This is a major part of the future."
SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT FOR OIL SANDS, CONOCOPHILLIPS CANADA
"A carbon-based economy is still going to be a very good business for a very long time."
ALBERTA DEPUTY PREMIER
"The rush to develop these oil sands flies in the face of the international image of Canada as a steward of the environment. Yes, the world can use this oil, but at what cost? I don't think Americans would want it if they knew how dirty it is."
SENIOR ADVISER TO SEATTLE-BASED INTERNATIONAL BOREAL CONSERVATION