The Globe and Mail reports Young, a fervent advocate of alternative energy, compared the northern Alberta boom town to Hiroshima after the atomic bomb struck.
“Fort McMurray is a wasteland," Young said Tuesday. "The Indians up there and the native peoples are dying.”
Young said he visited the city of almost 80,000 recently and found evidence of the impact of oil-sands production under his nose.
“The fuel’s all over – the fumes everywhere – you can smell it when you get to town," he said, according to the Globe.
"The closest place to Fort McMurray that is doing the tar sands work is 25 or 30 miles out of town and you can taste it when you get to Fort McMurray.
"People are sick. People are dying of cancer because of this. All the First Nations people up there are threatened by this.”
Young's observations upset Melissa Blake, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes the city. Young is entitled to his opinion, she said told the Globe, but she was disappointed "there wasn't more rationality to it."
"When people say it's a wasteland, it really and truly isn't," Blake said. "When it comes to the community of Fort McMurray, you're overwhelmed frankly by the beauty of it. You've got an incredible boreal environment that's all around you.
"You proceed further north into the oil sands and inevitably, there's mining operations that will draw your attention because they take up large chunks of land."
Oil-mining operations do indeed look ugly as vast swaths of land are stripped of topsoil to get at the oily bitumen beneath, leaving a moonscape for later reclamation.
Young was one of several participants at the news conference sponsored by the U.S. National Farmers Union in support of a comprehensive farm bill that's before Congress and to argue how the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard creates jobs, reduces greenhouse-gas emissions and reduces American dependence on imported oil.
Young was there because he's been promoting clean energy via his LincVolt, a vintage 1959 Lincoln converted into a hybrid that runs on electricity and biofuel.
Young has been driving the the million-dollar LincVolt cross-country. It broke down briefly near Truckee, Calif., last month as he was heading east, according to the Tahoe Daily Tribune. He was rescued by the California Highway Patrol, which helped him get the car off the road so he could repair it.
Besides attending the news conference, the Washington Post's Reliable Source blog said he turned up at a National Farmers Union rally and spoke for 10 minutes without notes, including about the impact of oil sands development and the benefits of ethanol.
Ethanol has its own skeletons. Much of it is produced from corn, which critics say is inefficient, drives up food prices and would actually increase greenhouse gases because of the energy used in its production. It is only viable thanks to government subsidies to farmers and a requirement that it be blended into gasoline.
But ethanol has its own powerful agribusiness lobby in Washington and state legislatures that touts its benefits to receptive politicians.
Nonetheless, Young's comments were embraced by opponents of the Keystone XL oil-sands pipeline, who hope that getting President Barack Obama to reject the $5-billion project will help curtail oil sands production in Alberta. A stream of Canadian politicians has been visiting Washington to lobby Congress and the Administration to approve the project.
[ Related: Harper insists Keystone XL is important for jobs ]
“Neil Young is speaking for all of us fighting to stop the Keystone XL,” Jane Kleeb, executive director of Bold Nebraska, a coalition of landowners and others opposed to the pipeline, told the Globe. “When you see the pollution already caused by the reckless expansion of tar sands, you only have one choice and that is to act.”
Young dismissed claims the project would be a job generator.
“Yeah it’s going to put a lot of people to work, I’ve heard that, and I’ve seen a lot of people that would dig a hole that’s so deep that they couldn’t get out of it . . .," he said. "I think that’s the jobs that we are talking about there with the Keystone pipeline."
Young is the latest celebrity to speak out against the project, whose star-studded opposition includes actors such as Robert Redford, Daryl Hannah, Kyra Sedgwick and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.