Post-Apocalyptic Destruction of the Tar Sands: Alberta from Above


With the Keystone XL, Kinder Morgan TransMountain, and Alberta Clipper-Enbridge Line 3 pipelines threatening to inundate the Earth with the dirtiest oil known to humanity, we survey a bird’s-eye view of the post-apocalyptic tar sands oil sacrifice zones in Alberta, Canada, by photographer Alex MacLean.

Alberta Tar Sands, Alex MacLean

Steam and smoke rise from the Syncrude Mildred Lake mining facility in the Alberta Tar Sands. Photo By Alex MacLean.

PHOTOS: Famed Photographer Alex MacLean’s Photos of Canada’s Oilsands are Shocking

By Carol Linnit, Published in DeSmog Canada

Alex MacLean is one of the US’s most famed and iconic aerial photographers. His perspective on human structures, from bodies sunbathing at the beach to complex, overlapping highway systems, always seems to hint at a larger symbolic meaning hidden in the mundane. By photographing from above, MacLean shows the sequences and patterns of human activity, including the scope of our impact on natural systems. His work reminds us of the law of proximity: the things closest to us are often the hardest to see.

Recently MacLean traveled to the Alberta oilsands in western Canada. There, working with journalist Dan Grossman, MacLean used his unique eye to capture some new and astounding images of one of the world’s largest industrial projects. Their work, funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, will form part of a larger, forthcoming report for GlobalPost.

DeSmog Canada caught up with MacLean to ask him about his experience photographing one of Canada’s most politicized resources and the source of the proposed Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines.

“Looking at the pictures of the huge furnaces they have to use in the wells, you can see how much energy this takes to extract,” says photographer Alex MacLean. “If you’re driving around with this fuel, it’s 17% to 20% more carbon intense than regular gas.”

Forest removal for exploratory well pad. Shell Jackpine mining site, North of Fort McMurray, Canada.*

From the tar sands mine or drilling operation to the automobile gas tank, tar sands greenhouse gas emissions are 81 percent greater than those of conventional oil. — NRDC

Beds leading up to tailing pond.

DeSmog Canada: What was it like photographing the oilsands? Was it different from photographing other large-scale human spaces like highways or beaches? 

Alex MacLean: The oilsands covered a vast area of which I was only able to photograph part of. It was not only different from highways, beaches, etc., in that those are linear formations, but the scale of the oilsands area and the devastation to the landscape was overwhelming. I felt a relation between highways and the mines in that open pit mines and seismic exploration lines fragment the boreal forest just as highways do through urban areas.

Patches of boreal forest intertwined with snow-covered muskeg, near McLelland Lake, Alberta, Canada.

The technology for removing bitumen from the tar sands is probably still best described as a work in progress. Where the feed lies closest to the surface, as, for example, at the Suncor site, the bitumen is strip-mined and then separated. But most of the tar sands lie too deep to be mined profitably. In these zones, a method known as in-situ extraction is used. In-situ extraction is based on much the same principle as Manley Natland’s scheme, minus the atom bombs. Typically, two horizontal wells are drilled into the sands, one above the other. High-pressure steam is injected into the top well; eventually, the tar sands grow hot enough—nearly four hundred degrees—that bitumen begins to flow into the bottom well. The technical name for this process is Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage, or SAGD. — Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker

Clearing, dewatering, and seismic grid over the once boreal forest. Syncrude mining site, Alberta, Canada.

By 2022, it is projected that mining and in situ oilsands development will result in th