Bitumen and/or bust

Esquire dispatches John Richardson to report on Fort McMurray, the oil sands and the Keystone XL pipeline.

So what does the damn stuff look like? I’ll show you, Tom says. In a long rectangular building with lots of tubes, he opens a faucet at a station and fills a paper cup with pure bitumen. Thick as melted chocolate, it smells like tar. “That’s our product,” he says. To the touch, it’s lighter than it looks. Mix it with liquid natural gas and it flows. This is what goes into the pipeline under the name “dilbit,” short for diluted bitumen. “That’s what it looks like,” he says. “That’s what all the fuss is about.”

Awe seems the appropriate response. This greasy black gunk with the protean powers of money itself, able to metamorphose into everything from my iPhone to the fancy petroleum-based REI jacket I am wearing, a staggering combination of chemistry and human ingenuity. And yet, according to one credible and centrist study, if Canada caps the oil sands at 1.6 million barrels a day, the world has only a 50 percent chance of keeping CO2 in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million — the target most scientists think will keep the earth from warming more than a few degrees in this century. Current approved flow is already 1.6 million barrels a day. Projects in construction bump that to 2.3 million. Projects announced or in application send it to more than 5 million barrels a day. So the bottom line is: If the production of oil sands keeps on growing at the rate it is now growing, the temperature of the world could go up 11 degrees by the end of the century. You look down at the cup, a sludge the color of hot chocolate. Is this the way the world ends?

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