On a clear day, aboard a small plane over Alberta, the carpet of green below seems to stretch forever. The pine and spruce make up one of the last original forests on the planet, long considered one of Canada's most precious treasures.
But these days, it is the dirt beneath those trees that is most admired, because it holds as much oil as the United States, Russia and the United Arab Emirates combined. The rush to get it becomes obvious a couple hundred miles north of Edmonton, where the green blanket disappears in the world's largest industrial zone.
In the last decade, dozens of massive open pits have been dug out of the boreal forest. The Muskweg River Mine is six miles in diameter and every hour of every day -- Christmas included -- it crawls with some of the largest trucks ever built.
"It's pretty much like driving a two-story house," says truck driver Jennifer Sims, glancing into a side mirror the size of a refrigerator.
She will spend her shift hauling loads of dirt that look and feel like chocolate cookie dough and smell like diesel fuel. This earth is a mixture of sand, soil and a gooey type of petroleum called bitumen. One load in Sim's truck will eventually produce around 8,000 gallons of gasoline, and there are more than enough truckloads up here to bury the state of Florida.
Thanks to bitumen, Canada's oil reserves are second only to Saudi Arabia. But unlike the sweet, light crude that flows out of the Saudi desert, this sticky goop must be strip-mined -- or steamed and pumped -- from the sand and clay. It is, in essence, scraping the bottom of the barrel.
For decades, oil sands were considered more trouble than they are worth. But since oil prices topped $100 a barrel, they can't dig it up fast enough.
Every day the mines and plants burn as much natural gas as every residence in Ohio combined, heating up to four barrels of river water for every one barrel of oil. That water is then stored in massive, toxic reservoirs called tailing ponds. One of them killed a flock of 500 ducks this spring, raising concerns that oil sand production could be poisoning the water, land and air.
"Concerns are concerns. People have concerns," said Brian Maynard, vice president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. "I'm not one to say if they are fair or not."
But beyond the obvious impacts on the ground, this mining and refining process also produces two to three times more global warming pollution than conventional oil. That might not matter to some countries, but this is Canada. With a leaf on the flag and a loon on the money, America's kindly neighbor has long been considered a champion of the Earth. When their government signed the Kyoto Accord and promised to reduce global warming faster than any nation, three quarters of Canadians polled approved.
But if current trends continue, there is no way that they will meet the Kyoto targets. According to the U.N., Canadian carbon emissions have increased 27 percent since 1990. And if oil sands development continues at the current pace, that carbon footprint can only get bigger.
"Canada likes to think of itself as, you know, an environmental leader," said Dan Woynillowicz, director of strategy and external relations for the Pembina Institute, an environmental watchdog, "and yet that seems to have been taken over by the federal government's belief that Canada is and should be an energy superpower."