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Alberta takes environmental hit in quest for oil

By Eddy Moretti, Vice President, VICE Media
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Quest for oil takes toll on Alberta
  • Canadian northwest rich in what is essentially oil-soaked dirt
  • Oil extraction process messy, has contaminated nearby rivers and lakes
  • VBS goes to Alberta to document impact on ecology, economy

Editor's note: The staff at has recently been intrigued by the journalism of VICE, an independent media company and Web site based in Brooklyn, New York. VBS.TV is the broadband television network of VICE. The reports, which are produced solely by VICE, reflect a transparent approach to journalism, where viewers are taken along on every step of the reporting process. We believe this unique reporting approach is worthy of sharing with our readers. This video contains vivid images depicting extremely graphic violence.

Brooklyn, New York (VBS.TV) -- We thought that since you were feeling absolutely dejected watching BP's underwater gusher spoiling the ecology and economy of the Gulf of Mexico, well, we would try to cheer you up by reminding you how the otherwise environmentally conscious Canadians are degrading their own natural splendor and national soul with oil spillage and seepage on purpose.

Bitumen -- A.K.A. tar sand -- is barely oil. It's oil-soaked dirt, but in a world that is constantly scraping the bottom of the fossil fuel barrel, tar sand is oil enough to warrant a mad frenzy to extract. And that's exactly what is happening in the Canadian northwest.

Northern Alberta is rich -- very rich -- in bitumen. Fort McMurray is the small town at the epicenter of a boom in tar sand extraction, and it's a messy, ecologically unsound adventure.

Traditionally, the only way to get oil from the dirt has been to cook it. So, every day, massive excavators rip apart the Boreal forest (also known as the lungs of Canada) to get at the soggy oil sand below, and then millions of gallons of pristine Athabascan water are intentionally spoiled in order to boil the oil out of the dirt (or is it the dirt out of the oil?). It's a very messy, destructive process, which has contaminated rivers and lakes for miles in every direction.

See the rest of "Toxic: Alberta" at VBS.TV

There is a newer method of extraction, called SAGD, in which steam is injected deep underground, cooking the oil out of the dirt and then siphoning the oil out of the boiling mess.

We spent two weeks in and around Fort McMurray, A.K.A. Fort McMoney, documenting what the recent boom has done to the fragile ecology and the local economy. It's a classic boom town, with classic boom town problems: expensive housing, high food prices, overcrowding, traffic and congestion, and charming little additions like alcoholism, cocaine and meth addiction, and prostitution.

What we learned is that we desperately need a clean energy policy. The Alberta tar sands must be the dirtiest "last chapter" of our century-long fascination with oil. We shouldn't want to live in a world which tolerates boiling dirt for every last drop of tar.