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Oi l & gas

The burning of Canada’s For t McMurray,

gateway to the world’s largest oil sands

reserve, leaves ashes and questions

“Any time we try to make a political argument out of one

particular disaster, I think there’s a bit of a shortcut that can

sometimes not have the desired outcome.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking at a news

conference on 5 May, was warning that to raise environmental

concerns in the midst of a large-scale human tragedy is to risk

the charge of insensitivity. And while the fast-moving forest fire

that erupted on 1 May, forcing the evacuation of virtually the

entire 90,000-strong population of Fort McMurray in Alberta,

yet raged, the emphasis had to be on containment and on

salvaging whatever might remain of the town some 400 miles

north of Calgary.

But neither Mr Trudeau nor anyone else could prevent

the emergence of a subtext, overt or implicit, in media

coverage of an event that one Canadian official described

as “catastrophic”, another as a “multi-headed monster.” And

when the immediate emergency subsided the question would

have to be faced: to what extent can Fort McMurray’s sole

industry – the extraction of oil from bituminous deposits, which

emit higher carbon emissions than conventional sources – be

blamed for its destruction?

Staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert of the

New Yorker

would not wait

to consider the matter – nor to place it squarely in a broader

environmental context. In “Fort McMurray and the Fires of

Climate Change” (5 May), she sketched the history of the

town on both sides of the Athabasca River in Canada’s near

north, whose population tripled during the 1970s and nearly

tripled again in the time since. All this growth, she noted, has

been fuelled by a single activity: working the Florida-sized

formation known as the tar sands.

When the price of oil was high, Ms Kolbert wrote, “There was

so much currency coursing through Fort McMurray’s check-

cashing joints that the town was dubbed ‘Fort McMoney.’”

How the Fort McMurray fire started is still unknown, but there

is no mystery as to why it raged out of control so quickly as

to consume, at this writing, 1,600 houses and other buildings.

The province of Alberta experienced an unusually dry and

warm winter. Rainfall was low, about half of the norm, and

what snow there was melted early. April was exceptionally

mild, with temperatures in the seventies, and on 3 May a

high temperature of 91° Fahrenheit was registered in Fort

McMurray – about 30° higher than the normal regional

maximum for that month. (According to Canadian government

climate data the previous record of 82°F was set in 1945.)








“You hate to use the cliché but it really was kind of a perfect

storm,” Mike Wotton, a research scientist with the Canadian

Forest Service, told the Canadian Broadcasting Company.

While acknowledging the difficulty of pinning a particular

disaster on climate change, Ms Kolbert asserted that in the

case of Fort McMurray “the link is pretty compelling.” In

Canada, and also in the US and much of the rest of the world,

higher temperatures have been extending the wildfire season.

Ten million acres burned in the US in 2015, the largest area of

any year on record. And according to the US Forest Service,

the situation is worsening.

A Forest Service report cited by Ms Kolbert declares that

“climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on

average 78 days longer than in 1970.” Over the past three

decades, the area destroyed each year by forest fires has

doubled in the US, and scientists with the service project a

likely doubling again by mid-century. A study of lake cores

from Alaska, to compile a record of forest fires over the past

ten thousand years, found that blazes were both unusually

frequent and unusually severe in recent decades. The

scientists’ judgment: “a unique regime of unprecedented fire


All of this, Ms Kolbert wrote, brings us to what one

commentator referred to as ‘the black irony’ of the fire that

has destroyed most of Fort McMurray.” In what does the irony

lie? “The town exists to get at the tar sands, and the tar sands

produce a particularly carbon-intensive form of fuel.”

She further suggested that the bitter opposition aroused

by the Keystone XL pipeline project centred on whether

the US should be encouraging – “or, if you prefer, profiting

from” – the exploitation of the tar sands. (Keystone XL is the

TransCanada Corp pipeline, blocked by President Barack

Obama in November 2015, that would have transported tar

sands oil from Alberta to refineries in Texas and Illinois, and

to a distribution centre in Oklahoma.) As to the finger-pointing

deplored in advance by Prime Minister Trudeau, Andrew

Weaver, a Canadian climate scientist who is a Green Party

member of British Columbia’s provincial legislature, observed,

“The reality is we are all consumers of products that come

from oil.”

This is true enough; but it would be a mistake to permit the

apocalyptic images from Fort McMurray to fade too quickly.

Writing from Calgary in the

London Review of Books


Burning,” 9 May), Ben Jackson took note of one observer’s

contempt for “sanctimonious eco-trolls” who celebrate the

town’s misfortune. Mr Jackson denied the existence of more

than a few such people; but he also asserted an imperative

to identify the causes of the conflagration – all of them. “Now

may be the wrong time to discuss [climate change],” he wrote,

acknowledging the difficulty of drawing firm conclusions from

patterns and statistics. “But, since disasters like the Fort

McMurray fire can’t be blamed directly on climate change,

there may never be a right time.”

In the wake of a 60 per cent slide in oil

prices since mid-2014, an “avalanche”

of bankruptcies in the US industry

The rout in crude prices “is snowballing into one of the biggest

avalanches in the history of corporate America,” according


Maritime Executive

. The Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based