By Roger Annis, May 4, 2016 (updated on May 5, further below are map updates on May 9 and 11)
Unseasonably dry and hot weather in Fort McMurray, northern Alberta has inflicted disaster on the city.
The city which serves as the hub of one of the world’s largest climate-wrecking projects, the Alberta tar sands, is burning to the ground due to wildfires sparked by unseasonably dry and hot weather.
The wildfires began some five days ago in the forests west of the city and then worsened when strong winds carried the fires to the edge and into the city, creating quasi-apocalyptic conditions. The city center is burning, including the city hospital. Flights in and out of the airport were cancelled as of noon on May 4.
Scott Long, executive director of provincial operations for Alberta Emergency Management Agency, is reported in the Globe and Mail daily on May 4 saying that the entire city may burn to the ground. “Based on the wildfire reports, the conditions – we don’t want that to happen; obviously we’re working towards preventing that – but it is a possibility that we may lose a large portion of the town, yes.”
Temperatures in northern Alberta have been way above seasonal normals, in the high 20s and low 30s (Celsius). More strong winds are expected through the evening and night of May 4 and 5 as cooler weather moves in.
According to CBC News on May 4, the building housing the command center of firefighting operations in Fort McMurray is threatened by the fire and operations had to be moved. The fire has consumed 10,000 hectares of forested and city land (app. 39 square miles). Some 1,600 homes and buildings have been destroyed.
The city was ordered evacuated on May 3. Most residents fled by road to Edmonton to the south. The rapid pace of the fire’s advance left many residents with very little time to flee. Roads were jammed, causing the normal exit time of ten minutes out of the city to stretch into hours. All four lanes of the highway connecting to Edmonton to the south were occupied by traffic exiting the city.
Thousands of residents have moved into the work camps at tar sands operations north of the city. Most of those operations are well north and are not threatened by the fire.
Update on May 5: The fires burning Fort McMurray continue to spread. The communities of Anzac and Lake Gregoire, located 40 km south of Fort McMurray, have been ordered evacuated. Tar sands extraction operations are not immediately threatened, but several are undergoing expensive shutdowns. About one third of Albert’s daily oil and bitumen production of two million barrels has been shut down.
The government of British Columbia has announced it is unable to send firefighting equipment and personnel to assist in Alberta because similar hot and dry conditions that sparked the fires in Fort McMurray are causing unseasonably high numbers of forest fires in that province. There have been 203 fires in BC since April 1, compared to 93 during the same stretch last year.
Extensive news coverage and analysis of the burning of Fort McMurray and its aftermath is being written and published in the online National Observer.
Resident Cassie White, 19, told the Globe and Mail that she feared for her life as she fled the city. Her southbound journey was stalled near Gregoire, just south of the city. “On the left was a big gas station; the flames jumped over the highway and blew up the gas station. It was torched,” she said.
“People were driving on the highway shoulder. There were flames maybe 15 feet high right off the highway. There was a dump truck on fire – I had to swerve around it – and there was a pickup truck on fire as well. The entire trailer park on my right was in flames. Roofs were coming down.”
A huge sheet of debris – possibly part of a roof – hit her car as she drove up a hill, she recalled. She saw police officers in oxygen masks and civilians breathing through wet cloths. “It almost looks like a zombie apocalypse,” she told the Globe.
Leaving Fort Mac on May 3, 2016: Watch a 30-second video of the highway leading south out of Fort McMurray on May 3, posted to YouTube by resident Jason Edmondson:
Canada’s radio and television airwaves are swamped with reporting of the panicked escapes of the tens of thousands of residents of the city. Some were stalled at roadside leaving the city as their vehicles ran out of gasoline or their vehicle engines were disabled by smoke. CBC Radio One’s The Current program talked to survivors in its broadcast of May 4.
On the May 5 broadcast of The Current, Fort McMurray resident Crystal Mercredi spoke of her harrowing and chaotic escape from the city, saying that emergency services were barely evident. “They evacuated us so late. So late that people were stuck in traffic, and people were calling the radio station, saying…’We’re bumper-to-bumper. We can’t move. Come and save us…we’re sitting ducks.’ ”
“My nephew got out of school an hour before it burned down,” Mercredi said. “They should not have had school yesterday. This was so poorly handled.” (An interactive map at the Current weblink shows the spread of the fire from May 1 to 5.)
The fire chief of the town of Slave Lake told the Globe that forest conditions in northern Alberta are the driest in 20 years. Chief Jamie Coutts and his department answered the call to travel the 400 km to Fort McMurray to fight the fires.
Karl Hill was a fire department captain in Slave Lake in May 2011 when a similar wildfire burned down a third of the small city. He told the Globe that like other firefighters in Slave Lake past and present, he felt a growing sense of unease in recent weeks due to warm and dry conditions across Alberta.
“This spring reminded me a lot of Slave Lake in 2011, in terms of the wind and the early warm weather. I’ve been nervous the last two weeks hoping that another repeat of Slave Lake didn’t happen in Alberta. Unfortunately, today seems to suggest that it has happened. It’s unbelievable.”
Until now, the 2011 fire in Slave Lake was the second largest property damage insurance claim in Canadian history. It was second to the ice storm that hit Montreal in January 1998. That year, a freezing rain storm downed the giant power cables feeding Montreal from hydro-electric dams on the coast of James Bay, 1000 km to the north.
There is a grim irony that the service center of the Alberta tar sands behemoth is burning to the ground due to… rising global temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Other factors that may be contributing to the disaster are the geographic planning of Fort McMurray, a city which has grown rapidly along with tar sands production itself during the past two decades, and the many decades of destructive, clearcut forest industry practices which are common right across Canada.
There is great political tragedy that the burning of Fort McMurray coincides with political offensives by the supporters in Canada of fossil fuel extraction and burning. The federal government in Ottawa is unleashing a ‘social license’ campaign in favour of expanded tar sands pipelines emanating from the province of Alberta. The Government of Alberta and its NDP premier, Rachel Notley, is embarked on a parallel, pipeline promotion effort, with the premier herself in a role as lead attacker against the pro-planet Leap Manifesto and the movement promoting it.
The premier of the neighbouring province to the west, British Columbia, where this writer lives, is counting on the tar sands as a customer to the giant ‘Site C’ hydroelectric dam her government is bulldozing into construction. Site C was and is entirely superfluous to the province’s energy needs if the government was serious about shifting energy supply to renewables. The dam is conceived to realize the government’s dreams to sponsor the creation of a liquefied natural gas industry. But those dreams have been frustrated by the exigencies of the world market for fossil fuels.
- A news story with photos and video of the raging fire in Fort McMurray is here in the National Post, one of the two daily newspapers in Canada, both conservative and pro-fossil fuels.
- Scientific American has reported on May 4, 2016 the burning of Fort McMurray: Destructive Wildfire near Canada’s Oil Sands May Have Been Fueled by Global Warming, by Brian Kahn, May 4, 2016
‘The devastating natural disaster in Fort McMurray is “consistent” with climate change’
* * *
Coincidentally, two recent articles summarize harrowing indicators of an acceleration of destructive consequences of human-induced warming of the planet caused by rising greenhouse gas emissions.
‘Arctic Sea Ice is Falling off a Cliff and it May Not Survive The Summer‘ is a summary of the findings from temperature readings and sea ice conditions in the Arctic region. It is published on Roberts Scribbler on May 2, 2016.
The article reads: “Back in the first decade of the 21st Century, the mainstream scientific view was that Arctic sea ice would be about in the range that it is today by around 2070 or 2080. And that we wouldn’t be contemplating the possibility of zero or near zero sea ice until the end of this Century. But the amazing ability of an unconscionable fossil fuel emission to rapidly transform our world for the worst appears now to outweigh that cautious science…”
Meanwhile, Truthout.org‘s always-gripping climate science reporter Dahr Jamail has penned a new article on May 2 in which he writes:
Each month as I write these dispatches, I shake my head in disbelief at the rapidity at which anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) is occurring. It’s as though each month I think, “It can’t possibly keep happening at this incredible pace.” But it does.
By late April, the Mauna Loa Observatory, which monitors atmospheric carbon dioxide, recorded an incredible daily reading: 409.3 parts per million. That is a range of atmospheric carbon dioxide content that this planet has not seen for the last 15 million years, and 2016 is poised to see these levels only continue to increase.
Jamail’s latest article is here: As climate disruption advances, UN warns: “The future is happening now”.
* * *
‘Governments across Canada not preparing as climate change causes more forest fires’
Excerpt from an article by Mike De Souza published in the National Observer on May 4, 2016:
The provincial, territorial and federal governments developed a Canadian Wildlands Fire Strategy in 2005, calling for “more resilient communities, improving fire management approaches to balance ecological integrity with protection of life and property, and implementing modern business practices.”
But Carr was told that governments didn’t invest enough money to support that strategy in the last decade. “Governments remain supportive of the Strategy, but progress towards implementation over the past decade has been limited, primarily due to fiscal constraints,” said the briefing notes, prepared for Carr.
“The frequency and severity of wild land fires have been trending upwards in the past few decades and summer 2015 was particularly severe. As a result, there have been calls from the public, communities and provinces for increased federal involvement in wildfire management.”
David Schindler, a University of Alberta scientist who studies the ecology of inland bodies of water, said there have been increasingly favourable conditions for forest fires in recent years. He noted that climate scientists have been predicting the increase in forest fires for at least a decade.
“What’s extraordinary up there is humidity has been very low and temperature very high,” Schindler said in an interview with National Observer. “Those are all ingredients for fire weather formulas.”
But he said that it would be hard for anyone to prevent an event like this one.
“My analogy with climate warming is like athletes on steroids,” Schindler said. “You can’t predict world records or who’s going to set them, but you can predict there’s going to be a higher probability of that happening.”
* * *
‘Wildfire seasons around the world are getting longer’
Excerpt from Canadian Press article in Vancouver Sun, May 5, 2016:
Sara Harris, a senior instructor in UBC’s Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, said data suggest that over the long term, wildfire seasons around the world are getting worse. She said that globally, fire seasons are 20 per cent longer than they were 30 years ago.
The above article and appended other readings was published in CounterPunch on May 6, 2016.
Postscript: Note from a reader, and a reply:
You wrote: “The premier of the neighbouring province to the west, British Columbia, where this writer lives, is counting on the tar sands as a customer to the giant ‘Site C’ hydroelectric dam her government is bulldozing into construction. Site C was and is entirely superfluous to the province’s energy needs if the government was serious about shifting energy supply to renewables.”
My understanding is that hydroelectric (water) generated electricity is a renewable source. I’m not debating the merits or lack those regarding Site C…
May 9, 2016
Thank you for your note, and apologies for my delayed reply.
I think the environmental consequences as well as the dedicated purpose of the proposed Site C dam preclude giving it any consideration as a ‘renewable energy’ source. The dam will require massive flooding of precious farmland and it will flood unceded First Nations territory, against the objections of the original inhabitants of the Peace River region in northeast British Columbia. Site C’s production was originally intended to fuel expanded natural gas fracking in northeast BC and expanded mining throughout the province. As of the collapse of world oil and gas prices, the dam is now being re-configured as a ‘renewable’ source of energy to make the tar sands operations of Alberta more ‘sustainable’. These phrasings by oil industry proponents (who include BC Premier Christy Clark) make a mockery of science, common sense and the English language.
I do not believe there is such a thing as ‘renewable energy’. All energy production requires inputs of material resources, both for original construction and for ongoing operations. The imperative before humanity is to lessen the voracious consumption of what Nature provides to us through millions of years of evolution. Our choices of energy production are political: humanity must choose a sustainable level of energy production and consumption, and in that framework select the least harmful methods of achieving that. As the Leap Manifesto argues, correctly in my view, any and all industrial megaprojects which fuel expanded fossil fuel production must be halted as part of the effort to avert the worst of inexorable global warming.
The cause of the global warming crisis is the relentless expansion imperative of the capitalist economic order. This is what must be brought to heel to give humanity its best chance of a livable future.
Map updates on May 9 and May 11, 2016 from the Globe and Mail national daily:
The cost to the Alberta tar sands industry of shutdowns due to wildfires, May 2016, article by Brent Jang, Globe and Mail, May 12, 2016
The wildfires in the Fort McMurray region have placed the spotlight on an industry that has been reeling from low oil prices. Here is a look at the ripple effects in the oil sands.
* $65-m daily: Revenue in dollars estimated lost by companies from plant shutdowns, at peak earlier this week
* 1.2 m barrels daily: Daily production off-line at the peak of lost production earlier this week, as estimated on Tuesday by ARC Financial Corp
* 48 per cent: Total production in Alberta’s oil sands that 1.2 million barrels a day represents
* 14 million barrels: Total of lost production, assuming a gradual ramping up of output later this month, as estimated by Goldman Sachs. Value could be as much as $760-million.
* Eleven: Number of oil-sands plants that were off-line this week
Syncrude Canada Ltd. and Suncor Energy Inc. are the two largest operators, each with a capacity of 350,000 barrels a day at their main plants. With the evacuation of Fort McMurray last week, thousands of employees and their families exited. Projects such as those operated by Syncrude and Suncor relied on essential staff to carry out controlled shutdowns. Smoke became a concern in the days after the evacuation on May 3, though the operators said on the weekend that there wasn’t any danger to workers on site or to the facilities.
The major operations, located north of Fort McMurray, have a long history in the region. Suncor opened in 1967, while Syncrude became the second oil sands facility when it opened its Mildred Lake plant in 1978. Syncrude and Suncor transform tar-like bitumen into synthetic light crude. Four of the 11 plants that shut down are located south of the city: Surmont, Long Lake, Leismer and Hangingstone.
While precise production numbers for each project haven’t been disclosed by the energy producers, ARC Financial Corp. estimates that earlier this week, there were 1.2 million barrels of oil a day that had been taken off-line. That represents 48 per cent of the daily output of 2.5 million barrels from northern Alberta’s oil sands in early 2016. While there are both higher and lower estimates on the number of barrels knocked out due to the plant shutdowns, industry analysts agree that at the peak of the wildfire’s impact, Alberta lost at least one million barrels a day of output.
Goldman Sachs reckons that 14 million barrels of production will be lost in May, or the equivalent of more than 650,000 barrels a day over a three-week period, assuming the plants gradually ramp up later this month. “So far, the only reported damage to oil-producing facilities has been minor damage to Nexen’s Long Lake facility (production was already reduced prior to the fire),” Goldman Sachs said in a research note. The value of the lost production in May could be as much as $760-million, according to some observers.
Oil price impact
Oil prices rose initially after last week’s plant shutdowns. “The reason the oil price did not gain more is because, at this point, the shut-ins are expected to be short term – that is, assuming that there continues to be no lasting damage to facilities or critical infrastructure such as power lines or pipelines,” ARC Financial said in a research note. Goldman Sachs described the plant shutdowns as significant, though not enough to lift oil prices for long. Slumping oil markets since 2014 had already crimped Alberta’s economic growth.
“There is an economic consequence to taking production off-line. There is forgone revenue to both companies and to the Crown,” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said. The effects will be felt beyond Alberta. A forecast released Wednesday by Bank of Nova Scotia said Canada’s real gross domestic product is expected to fall by an annualized 0.5 per cent in the second quarter of 2016. “The renewed slump in non-energy exports is compounded by the falloff in crude-oil shipments due to the Fort McMurray wildfires,” Scotiabank said. A report by National Bank Financial Inc. said GDP growth could bounce back in the third quarter, with worst-case scenarios now averted. A huge plume of smoke from wildfires burning rises in this aerial photograph taken above Fort McMurray, Friday, May 6, 2016.
Ms. Notley met on Tuesday with Suncor chief executive officer Steve Williams and other oil bosses to map plans to get the plants up and running. “We agree that operations will only restart when it is absolutely safe to do so,” she said. Mr. Williams said there was no damage to the sites north of Fort McMurray. “Our employees are very keen to get back in,” he said. “Some facilities are simply turning up the volumes now. Some will be more difficult and could be a week or two.”
Highway 63, the crucial route through Fort McMurray that got cut off last week, reopened on Tuesday to traffic headed to the oil sites north of the city. That is important because it allows workers and contractors to regain access and deliver supplies. “The dislocation of oil sands employees and their families from Fort McMurray has created challenges – none of which are insurmountable, given sound planning and the resolve of Albertans,” RBC Dominion Securities Inc. said in a report on Wednesday titled Phoenix Rising. Premier Rachel Notley speaks to the media along with Suncor President and CEO Steve Williams, right, and President and CEO Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers Tim McMillan, left, at the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton, Alberta, on Tuesday, May 10, 2016. They met to discuss recovery strategies, including prioritizing restarting industrial activities, moving forward in Fort McMurray after the devastating wildfires.
Premier Rachel Notley speaks to the media along with Suncor President and CEO Steve Williams, right, and President and CEO Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers Tim McMillan, left, at the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton, Alberta, on Tuesday, May 10, 2016. They met to discuss recovery strategies, including prioritizing restarting industrial activities, moving forward in Fort McMurray after the devastating wildfires.
“While output is expected to eventually return in line with the earlier uptrend, oil firms will never make up for the lost output during the interruption,” National Bank said. There is only one major new project under construction in the oil sands: The $15-billion Fort Hills joint venture, located 90 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, is slated to open in late 2017. Fort Hills is led by Suncor, which holds a 50.8-per-cent stake. Its partners are France’s Total SA and Vancouver-based Teck Resources Ltd.
DBRS Ltd. said there has been little to no damage to facilities from the wildfires. “DBRS considers the impact on credit profiles to be minimal,” the rating agency said. In the long term, despite the cancellation of planned projects in northern Alberta during the slump in global energy markets, the oil sands are forecast to maintain a leading role in Canada’s oil and gas industry. Nearly 60 per cent of the country’s oil production comes from the oil sands, and the region is expected to drive future production growth, the National Energy Board said in a report released Wednesday.
It is unclear how fast or slowly the oil sands will expand in the years and decades ahead. “Oil production growth will depend on future prices and pipeline development,” the NEB cautioned. Proposals that industry executives say are crucial to the oil sands’ future include Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway oil pipeline plans from Bruderheim, Alta., to Kitimat, B.C., and Kinder Morgan Canada’s proposed expansion of its Trans Mountain oil pipeline from the Edmonton area to Burnaby, B.C. Both those proposals face opposition from environmentalists and many First Nations in British Columbia.