After half an hour’s drive, the incessant stretch of virgin land comes to an end and, over the shallow hills, we see white smoke billowing into the sky. A few more miles and an industrial plant comes into view. Against the green-and-white landscape, it is a shock. I recognize it immediately as belonging to heavy-oil giant Syncrude, and as the favorite subject of the myriad anti-oil-sands photographs that are currently circulating around the Web. It is without doubt an ugly thing to see amid so much beauty, and the Tolkienesque distaste for the “scouring” of the countryside that informs the “green” zeitgeist is born of a noble instinct. Yet not all is what it seems. To a layman, the seven sets of white clouds look baleful, but, I learn, six of these chimneys are emitting just harmless steam. Our host, Cheryl Robb, jokes that she prefers conducting summer tours because then “the steam is invisible.” She gives us the details of an ongoing $1.6 billion project that will reduce the emissions from the one offending chimney by 60 percent.
What about the land? “We can almost restore the area to how it was when we found it,” she tells us. Environmentalists grimly call the development the “scar sands” and a score of other unflattering names. Large surface mines such as Syncrude’s are indisputably the most physically intrusive in the region. But, contrary to popular claims, they have left no hellscape in their wakes. What the oil sands’ antagonists routinely fail to mention is that the region’s surface mines are temporary, and that they are not so much growing as they are moving. An area of roughly fixed size is slowly crossing the landscape. Yes, Syncrude’s mine turns an area of beauty into an ugly open wound, but it is an extraordinarily small part of that area — and then they turn it back.