Follow the Rocky Mountains north into Canada and they trend westward into the eastern half of British Columbia. The neighboring province, Alberta, shares the range along its western boundary. Head east from there and you enter into a vast country of plains known as the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin. It is bounded on the east and north by the Canadian Shield, ancient rocks a billion years old that underlie such places as Lake Hudson. In that enormous bowl between the high peaks to the west and the broad plateaus of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories you will find enormous reserves of fossil fuels. The most famous, or infamous if you are an environmentalist, are the oil sands found in the valley of the Athabasca River.

The Athabasca River originates in the glacier country of what is now Jasper National Park. It flows northeast for several hundred miles and empties into Lake Athabasca in Saskatchewan. That lake is drained by the Slave River into the Great Slave Lake and those waters ultimately find their way to the Arctic Ocean via the Mackenzie River. Athabasca is from the Cree language and supposedly describes the mixed willows and grasses of the delta country at the confluence with the Peace River. My late mother-in-law, the artist E.B. Rothwell, was inspired by this region’s native inhabitants and created a triptych of etchings called Athabasca I, II, and III which are similar in style to her Spiritus Loci series. That means “spirit of the place” and you can see something of that from the detail below (Athabasca III):

Athabasca III detail
This is from the right-most panel in the triptych.

The name has always evoked a sense of mystery and adventure for me. It’s one of those places that sounds like a fantasy region, and in fact I thought it was until I got to know my mother-in-law better! She loved the lake and forest landscape of the Quetico-Superior country she grew up near and used it a lot in her work. All of her etchings of natural areas were inspired by real places and she especially loved the ones with poetic-sounding names. Check out Chiricahua, for example.

But this is a noir blog, is it not? I mean it says so in the title: “High Country Noir.” So what’s noir about Athabasca? I don’t see any fedoras or femmes fatale. What’s noir about anything, for that matter? How about the dark heart beating in the human breast? Don’t we all have one? And what could be darker than oil and our industrial society’s addiction to it? Our modern world runs on electricity and fossil fuels. Coal, oil, and natural gas power our generating stations and heat our homes and offices. Gasoline and diesel make our cars, trucks, ships, and planes go. Despite the advances in alternative fuels we are still utterly dependent on the hydrocarbons we extract from fossil plants.

Geologists talk about a time between 300 and 360 million years ago when our oxygen-enriched planet was awash in thick forests, many like the contemporary Amazonian rainforests. They named this period Carboniferous for the multitude of coal beds they found all over the globe which they discovered had similar origins. Coal is vegetation that’s been compressed by layers of sediment and then heated and metamorphosed by the tectonic energy of the earth. Petroleum—crude oil—forms similarly, but is primarily from marine organisms like algae and zooplankton. To find oil you look for ancient depositional features like sea beds and lake bottoms. The province of Alberta was under water in the Cretaceous period or about 150 million years ago. The sediments left behind by this inland ocean were buried, cooked, and shoved northeast by the growth of the Rocky Mountains. Petroleum formed under the ground and as it migrated towards the surface bacterial degradation created what oil folks call bitumen, a tarry, rock-like goop that got trapped in the local sandstones. Hence the current name of the resource, the Athabasca Oil Sands.

The amount of bitumen available in the Athabasca and nearby basins has been estimated to be equivalent to all the existing proven conventional crude oil reserves in the world. The numbers they use are 1.7 to 2.5 TRILLION barrels. Think about that. The current estimate of the entire world’s proven reserves is roughly 1.6 trillion barrels. Saudi Arabia sits on about 16% of that, just for perspective. A “proven reserve” is not the same thing as the total amount of oil but an estimate of what is economically viable and recoverable with existing technology. The Canadians only claim about 15% of the oil sands are commercially utilizable but that is still three-fourths of all the reserves in North America.

The total land area (140,000 sq. km or 54,000 sq. miles) under which these oil sands sit is about the size of Florida and occupies about 20% of the province of Alberta. Now that’s a big project. Only a tiny portion of that resource has been exploited so far but it’s clear that the demand for oil is not slowing down so we should expect more of Canada’s muskeg (peat bog) and taiga (boreal forest) country to be denuded in the never-ending search for new black gold. I’m not picking on our neighbors to the north. We are all part of this desperate hunger, this hopeless addiction to petroleum products. Whatever we do to our air, land, and water is on us—all of us. It is not my intention to preach or argue politics. I’m just interested in energy and resources and what it costs us economically and ecologically to live the way we do. If you are too, stick around, I’ll be posting more on the subject. Food for thought: Americans consume about 7 billion barrels of oil annually. That’s out of a worldwide total of around 32 billion.

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