We’ve stopped talking about the Fort McMurray fire and that’s a shame.
Our short attention spans, us humans, is one of our most dangerous bugs (to borrow a software terminology). It’s worrisome because the bigger systems that govern our world are long term and, situations like the Fort McMurray fire that was only recently put out (in June), require an ability to think long term and learn from our mistakes.
’Cause and effect are not closely related in space’ is a systems statement that has stayed with me since news of the fire was everywhere in May. Our actions (positive or negative) that impact our macro systems take a while to manifest. But, as with all systems, the cumulative effects of actions tend to accelerate the closer the system is to failure (or success as the case may be). Donella Meadows in “Thinking In Systems: A Primer” explains this better suggesting “A quantity growing exponentially toward a constraint or limit reaches that limit in a surprisingly short time”. So how is it that we have so quickly stopped talking about the largest fire and costliest disaster in Canadian history (1.5M acres). It’s barely two months since it happened!!
Let’s go back and see how our own actions led to this fire…
Cause and effect are not closely related in time..
I know a chap from the oil industry Nigeria who ended up in Fort McMurray with stories about the oil/gold rush that descended on this part of Canada where oil could be found in sand without having to drill drill drill… So much so that Fort McMurray came to be known as Fort McMoney. Another commonly known condition of Fort McMurray is that forest fires happen every Spring in Alberta, Canada. But the ferocity of this daddy of fires leads me to believe it has a lot more to do with tar sands.
Yes, the claim is that the fires might have been started by a human. Yes, the combination of low humidity, record-setting temperatures and high winds caused the intensity of the fire to grow and spread rapidly. Yes. But to deny a connection between the fires and oil exploration is to prematurely absolve ourselves of our culpability in systems disruptions like this.
modified from maps by rta.ca, oilsands.alberta.ca
To make the connection between the fire and tar sands we need to understand a little about how oil is drilled from tar sands with the short engineering lesson below.
- Where oil deposits are found in sand that is more than 225ft underground an open pit, dug under the sand deposits, is pumped with steam and bitumen (a residue from petroleum distillation) flows to the surface of the sand. For surface level sand the surface of the sands is ‘mined’ for oil sands and driven to on-site processing facilities.
- The cleaned sand is mixed with hot water and bitumen is skimmed off from the top.
- The bitumen is then processed at an upgrading facility to convert it into crude oil.
- The water that is used for this process (steam) can be cleaned and reused. If the bitumen-water spills into waterways, since bitumen is denser than water, it is difficult to clean up the water.
We now understand how oil is obtained from tar sands. Glance back to the map above (blurry as I had to combine a few maps) and you’ll see that close to Ft McMurray is the Athabasca Oil Sands, the largest single oil deposit in the world, containing an estimated 1.74 trillion barrels of bitumen, the core raw material in the production of synthetic crude oil.
At this point we have a few fire-primed conditions (high winds, dry and hot weather) but we need an oil spill…in the not too distant past…to make this convergence of factors for a great fire complete. Did we have oil/bitumen water (from the extraction of oil) spill into the waterways of Fort McMurray? Yes we did. 31k barrels of crude covering a 22 mile radius spilled in August 2015. What happens when water dries up like it did in the period of spring fires? It leaves the bitumen (that has been treated and is close to being crude oil) at the surface to burn. And unfortunately, burn it did. That fire was aided by man-made actions of extraction and negligence. We have no one but ourselves to blame…
That fire was aided by man-made actions of extraction and negligence. We have no one but ourselves to blame…
This article might be considered insensitive (people lost their homes and it’s not time to talk about climate change). You know what’s more insensitive? Our neglect of the planet. We need to pay a lot more attention to our energy usage actions today. It’s time to move to renewables at a pace that is more urgent than the sluggish pace we’re currently on. The planet doesn’t care about our sensibilities since we haven’t shown much regard for it.
I leave you with a quote from a friend who suggests that “In a 100 years our grandchildren will consider us stupid for taking oil and deciding that the thing to do with it was to burn it for fuel”. I hope our grandchildren also say we got our act together in time…
originally published here.