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Jiyukam Irar Miik of Peru visits the Athabasca oil sands area of Northern Alberta. (Caroline Bennett for The Globe and Mail/Caroline Bennett for The Globe and Mail)
Jiyukam Irar Miik of Peru visits the Athabasca oil sands area of Northern Alberta. (Caroline Bennett for The Globe and Mail/Caroline Bennett for The Globe and Mail)

The age of extreme oil: 'This used to be a forest?' Add to ...

One grey Thursday at the end of April, a plane touched down in Fort McMurray, Alta., carrying four Achuar Indians from the Peruvian Amazon. They had flown 8,000 kilometres from the rain forest to beseech Talisman Energy Inc., the Calgary-based oil and gas conglomerate, to stop drilling in their territory. Talisman's annual general meeting was coming up, and the Achuar were invited to state their case to chief executive officer John Manzoni in front of the company's shareholders.

But first, they wanted to see a Canadian oil patch for themselves, and meet the aboriginal people who lived there.

Their host in Fort McMurray was Gitzikomin Deranger, Gitz to his friends – a 6-foot-4 Dene-Blackfoot activist who lives in a comfortably cluttered duplex with his parents and a revolving assortment of relatives. Many of them crowded in to meet the Achuar, who relaxed on Mr. Deranger's leather couch with surprising ease for people who live in palm huts. He had welcomed them to Alberta with a smudge – having set a small pile of sage to smoulder in a miniature cast-iron pan, he fanned smoke over his guests with an eagle feather.

“Did you kill the bird to get it?” asked Peas Peas Ayui ( PAY-us PAY-us AY-wee), the group's leader, a taciturn man in his mid-40s with gold-capped upper teeth.

“No,” Mr. Deranger said, “we only use feathers that are given. If you find a feather on the ground, it means the eagle put it there for you, maybe even gave up its life for you.” The Achuar talked this over briefly and, for the first time since landing, their lips curled into smiles.

“Condor feathers are sacred for us too, but we never pick them off the ground,” Mr. Ayui explained. “To do so is an omen that your wife is preparing to leave you.” The group's female representative, a butterfly of a woman named Puwanch Kintui Antich, giggled her affirmation.

That was the first of many same-but-differents that the South and North American natives would discover about each other through the weekend. But few of the lessons to follow would end in laughter.

Over the course of three days spent visiting reserves, band offices and the vast sand dunes left behind by the bitumen-scrubbers surrounding Fort McMurray, the Achuar confronted a reality that may one day be their own. And they didn't much like what they saw.

This encounter was born of a new dynamic: the age of extreme oil. Gone are the days of sweet Texas crude and boundless Arabian oil fields, when petroleum lay so near the surface that all a company had to do was prick the Earth's crust and let the black gold gush. To the environmentalists who worry about reaching “peak oil” (and a subsequent decline in fossil fuels), critics can point out accurately enough that the world is flush with new hydrocarbon reserves. They are less quick to acknowledge the epic complexity and risks of most of these new finds.

Alberta's oil sands are the obvious example: Here, on average, two tonnes of earth must be strip-mined and seven barrels of water heated to steam in order to produce a barrel of oil. It takes a barrel's worth of energy to produce just three barrels of oil; 30 years ago it would have been 100.

But extreme oil isn't just a Canadian phenomenon: In 1985, only 6 per cent of the oil from the Gulf of Mexico came from wells drilled in water more than 300 metres deep. By 2009, it was 80 per cent, including BP's Deepwater Horizon rig, which delved 1,500 metres underwater and then another four kilometres below the sea floor before exploding into history in its accident on April 20, 2010.

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