oil sands

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

  • Posted on: 2 July 2014
  • By: Connor Gibson

Photos by Alex Maclean, posted with permission from DeSmog Canada.

Crossposted from DeSmog Canada, written by Carol Linnitt: PHOTOS: Famed Photographer Alex MacLean’s New Photos of Canada’s Oilsands are Shocking

Alex MacLean is one of America’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.

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

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. 

Steam and smoke rise from the Syncrude Mildred Lake mining facility.

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

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

Syncrude Mildred Lake mining site. View south to upgrading facility with rising plumes of steam and smoke. Alberta, Canada.

Suncor Oil Sands Project. Piles of uncovered petrolum coke, a byproduct of upgrading tar sands oil to synthetic crude. "Petcoke" is between 30-80 per cent more carbon intense than coal per unit of weight.

DsC: What led to your interest in the Alberta oilsands?

AM: I have been photographing around the issues of climate change since early on, and actually put out a book looking at land use patterns as they relate to energy and consumption in 2008 called “OVER: The American Landscape at the Tipping Point.” I was drawn to photographing the pipeline because I feel as though there is little public awareness that, if built, the Keystone XL will make avoiding catastrophic climate change much harder. The pipeline is an important link in a fossil-fuel production machine, stocked with bitumen deposits at one end and refineries at the other. The public is unaware that this oil production machine is poorly regulated, though it will cause serious environmental and health effects on local, regional and planetary scales. 

Mining operations at the North Steepbank Extension. Suncor mine, Alberta, Canada.

Checkerboard clearing of the overburden at Syncrude Aurora North mine site. Alberta, Canada.

Seismic lines and well pad for exploratory drilling through the boreal forest at the Suncor Firebag Oil Sands Project. Alberta, Canada.

Smoke, steam, and gas flares rise from the Suncor upgrading facility. Reclamation efforts seen to the right, on what was once a tailing pond. Suncor has reclaimed only 7 per cent of their total land disturbance.

DsC: What is it like taking a bird's eye view of humanity? Do you sometimes have great insights looking at civilization from such a removed, abstracted position?

AM: One of the interesting things about aerial photography is how so much of what you see about humanity is devoid of people. What I see is tracks and markings that are telling about our culture and values. When you see the destruction of landscapes, in this case of the boreal forest, with the obvious contamination of the environment via water and air pollution, you can’t help but feel that there is very short-sighted exploitation of natural resources that will have long-lasting environmental impacts. 

Hot waste filling tailing pond. Suncor mining site, Alberta, Canada.

Earthen wall to tailing pond. Suncor mining site, Alberta, Canada.

Growing pyramids of sulfur, a byproduct of upgrading bitumen. Mildred Lake, Alberta, Canada.

DsC: You've been photographing 'human' spaces for a long time. Have you noticed a change over the last few decades in your perspective as society has grown more aware of the ecological crisis and the scale of our impact?

AM: You can’t help but notice the growth that has taken place in the last thirty years, and the build-out of what was once natural spaces. I would say in the last 15 years, at an escalating rate, you begin to see more sustainable sources of energy through wind and solar farms, and reconfiguring of urban spaces to make them more walkable. 

Overview of tailing pond at Suncor mining site.

Surface oil on tailing pond. Suncor mine near Fort McMurray.

Open box cars carrying sulfur byproduct. Edmonton, Canada.

* All captions provided by Alex MacLean.

Image Credit: All photos copyright Alex MacLean. Used with permission.

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New Documents show Exxon knew of contamination from the Maryflower oil spill, still claimed lake was "oil-free"

  • Posted on: 21 May 2013
  • By: JesseColeman

On March 29 ExxonMobil, the most profitable company in the world, spilled at least 210,000 gallons of tar sands crude oil from an underground pipeline in Mayflower, Arkansas. The pipeline was carrying tar sands oil from Canada, which flooded family residences in Mayflower in thick tarry crude. Exxon’s tar sands crude also ran into Lake Conway, which sits about an eighth of a mile from where Exxon’s pipeline ruptured.

The cove of Lake Conway which Exxon claimed was "oil-free"

A new batch of documents received by Greenpeace in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has revealed that Exxon downplayed the extent of the contamination caused by the ruptured pipeline. Records of emails between Arkansas’ DEQ and Exxon depict attempts by Exxon to pass off press releases with factually false information. In a draft press release dated April 8, Exxon claims "Tests on water samples show Lake Conway and the cove are oil-free." However, internal emails from April 6 show Exxon knew of significant contamination across Lake Conway and the cove resulting from the oil spill.

When the chief of Arkansas Hazardous Waste division called Exxon out on this falsehood, Exxon amended the press release. However, they did not amend it to say that oil was in Lake Conway and contaminant levels in the lake were rising to dangerous levels, as they knew to be the case. Instead, they continue to claim that Lake Conway is "oil-free." For the record, Exxon maintains that the "cove," a section of Lake Conway that experienced heavy oiling from the spill, is not part of the actual lake. Exxon maintains this distinction in spite of Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel saying unequivocally "The cove is part of Lake Conway…The water is all part of one body of water." Furthermore, Exxon water tests confirmed that levels of Benzene and other contaminants rose throughout the lake, not just in the cove area.

Though Exxon was eventually forced to redact their claim that the cove specifically was  "oil-free," the oil and gas giant has yet to publicly address the dangerous levels of Benzene and other contaminants their own tests have found in the body of Lake Conway. The Environmental Protection Agency and the American Petroleum Institute don’t agree on everything, but they do agree that the only safe level of Benzene, a cancer causing chemical found in oil, is zero. Benzene is added to tar sands oil to make it less viscous and flow more easily through pipelines.  Local people have reported fish kills, chemical smells, nausea and headaches. Independent water tests have found a host of contaminants present in the lake.

Dead fish in Palarm creek, which Lake Conway drains into. Palarm creek is a tributary of the Arkansas River.

According to Exxon’s data, 126,000 gallons of tar sands crude oil from the pipeline spill is still unaccounted for.

Exxon's spill emanated from the Pegasus Pipeline, which like the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, connects the Canadian Tar Sands with refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

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Is Exxon trying to hide the effects from their tar sands pipeline spill?

  • Posted on: 4 April 2013
  • By: JesseColeman

 

Greenpeace photo of Exxon's Tar Sands oil spill, before the No-Fly zone was established

Sure seems like it. According to reports from the ground, Exxon is in full control of the response to the thousands of barrels of tar sands oil that began spilling from Exxon's ruptured pipeline in Arkansas last weekend. The skies above the spill has been deemed a no-fly zone, and all requests for aerial photos must be approved by Exxon’s own “aviation advisor” Tom Suhrhoff.

In addition, the entire area has been cordoned off and news media have been prevented from inspecting the spill zone.

Now, Exxon is trying to limit access to the animals impacted by the tar sands crude. A wildlife management company hired by Exxon has taken over all oiled wild animal care. The company, called Wildlife Response Services, is now refusing to release pictures and documentation of the animals in their care, unless they are authorized by Exxon’s public relations department.

A dead American Coot covered in oil from Exxon's Pegasus Pipeline

The spill, which leaked heavy, viscous tar sands oil, emanates from the Pegasus Pipeline, which was built in the 1940’s. The pipeline pumps diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast, just like the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. However, the Pegasus is much smaller, carrying 90,000 barrels per day (BPD), while the Keystone would carry 800,000 BPD. Tar Sands oil is shipped through pipelines in the form of Diluted Bitumen (Dilbit), which must be heated and forced through the pipeline at high pressure. Due to the corrosive nature of the tar sands oil, which contains sand, plus the high temperature and high pressure needed to pump it through the  pipes, tar sands oil pipelines are particularly dangerous.

Exxon’s control of the oil spill response is reminiscent of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, when the polluter, BP, effectively controlled the response and cleanup.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=sMQCj9UHCpM

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DeSmogBlog: Valero's Ties to Tar Sands Fueled Prop 23 Funding

  • Posted on: 12 November 2010
  • By: Connor Gibson

The tar sands of northern Alberta, Canada can be seen from space.  Photo credit.

DeSmogBlog's Emma Pullman recently took a look at how Valero Energy's investments in the devastating tar sands of Alberta, Canada motivated their funding of Proposition 23. 

Tar sands mining has been credited as the largest industrial project on the planet, and comes with extreme costs to the region's people, forests, waterways, animal species, and the broader specter of global warming.  If you missed it, National Geographic published a great piece on the controversies of tar sand operations.

As noted by DeSmog, Valero faces declining oil sources from Mexico and a shifty political scene in Venezuela, turning to the tar sands craze in Canada to secure more access to oil.  The rapid development of tar sands extraction has helped secure Canada as the United States' top supplier of oil--we import almost twice as much oil from Canada as from Saudi Arabia, and half of Canada's oil is sourced from tar sands mining.

As the refining of bitumen from tar sands mines creates particularly dirty fuel, Valero and the other oil companies crawling around northern Alberta aren't happy to see California's Global Warming Solutions Act survive Proposition 23.  Pullman notes:

As tar sands oil has a much larger carbon footprint than conventional oil, climate change legislation targeted by Prop 23 would limit California's imports of high-carbon fuels -- fuels that would likely include toxic tar sands oil from Alberta.  Valero's Texas refineries may be halfway across the United States, but industry worries about the 'domino effect' of climate change legislative efforts and how they may be adopted elsewhere.

While Prop 23 flopped, Proposition 26 did pass, to the delight of some of its most philanthropic financiers.  Chevron spent almost $4 million on the initiative, and ConocoPhillips, Exxon, Shell, and Occidental Petroleum added another $1,125,000.  

All of these giants are involved in tar sands production, and have just as much motivation as Valero to roadblock a low carbon fuel standard.

Be sure to check out Pullman's full article on Valero's mischief.

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