People concerned about the environmental and social downside of the tar sands boom, should read the Guardian today, with a long feature on the “dark side” of  the frontier town of Fort McMurray, which is an oil sands boom town – going from a “a small town becoming a major city, and a major economic hub, at stunning speed”.

“Just as the California gold rush came to define the American dream, so Fort McMurray defines a particular kind of Canadian dream. Go west. Fort McMurray can change your life. But first, perhaps, consider what price you are willing to pay.”

Aida Edemariam writes:  “Apart from the smell, you get little sense of what the oil sands are like unless you drive 45 minutes up Highway 63 and take a site tour of, say, Syncrude, a consortium that includes Imperial Oil and Petro-Canada. You might know that it’s the world’s largest producer of synthetic crude, but it still takes a while to comprehend the awesome size of its operations here. After the boreal forest is cleared and the peat bog removed, what’s left is dark, molasses-like, oil-saturated sand, which is then transported by trucks with tyres as high as two-storey houses. When full, they weigh more than two Boeing 747s; they can crush a pick-up truck without noticing it.

There is the cost to climate change: “The extraction of the oil requires heat, and thus the burning of vast amounts of natural gas – effectively one barrel of gas to extract two of crude – and some estimate that Fort McMurray and the Athabasca oil sands will soon be Canada’s biggest contributor to global warming; nearly as much as the whole of Denmark.”

There is the cost to the land: “The oil sands excavations are changing the surface of the planet. The black mines can now be seen from space” … In 10 years, it is estimated they will be the size of Florida. Acid rain is already killing trees and damaging foliage.

There is the cost in water: “Two barrels of water are required to extract one barrel of oil; every day as much water is taken from the Athabasca river as would serve a city of a million people. Although the water is extensively recycled, it cannot be returned to the rivers, so it ends up in man-made “tailings ponds” (tailings is a catch-all term for the byproducts of mining), which are also visible from space. The tailings are full of  hydrocarbons and toxic trace metals such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic.

There is the social cost: The town is “buckling under the demands of a population that has doubled in the past 10 years, from 32,000 to about 65,000 – not counting a shadow population of about 10,000 itinerant construction workers. It is projected to grow by another 40,000 in the next five years.”

“A new sewage treatment plant, begun before a credit agreement was even in place, will be finished in 2009 – and will be too small a year later. A school that took three years to build was too small a year before it opened. Medical services are almost overwhelmed.”

One immigrant worker tells the Guardian. “It’s a boom town for people in the oilfields. But is it a boom town for everyone else? The people who are serving the oilfield people? Does anybody care about these people? The better are getting the best, and the lower people are getting nothing. That’s the tragedy of this town.”