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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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ExxonMobil, other pipeline operators don't have to pay into oil spill fund when it's tar sands oil?!

  • Posted on: 2 April 2013
  • By: Connor Gibson

Photos courtesy of Lady with a Camera.

Written by Carol Linnitt, crossposted from DeSmog Canada.

As Think Progress has just reported, a bizarre technicality allowed Exxon Mobil to avoid paying into the federal oil spill fund responsible for cleanup after the company's Pegasus pipeline released 12,000 barrels of tar sands oil and water into the town of Mayflower, Arkansas.

According to a thirty-year-old law in the US, diluted bitumen coming from the Alberta tar sands is not classified as oil, meaning pipeline operators planning to transport the corrosive substance across the US - with proposed pipelines like the Keystone XL - are exempt from paying into the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

News that Exxon was spared from contributing the 8-cents-per-barrel fee to the clean-up fund added insult to injury this week as cleanup crews discovered oil-soaked ducks covered in "low-quality Wabasca Heavy Crude from Alberta." Yesterday officials said 10 live ducks were found covered in oil, as well as a number of oiled ducks already deceased.

Photographer Eilish Palmer, known as Lady with a Camera, has been working with HAWK (Helping Arkansas Wild Kritters), a wildlife rehabilitation centre, to locate and help ducks and other animals affected by the spill.

We I connected with Eilish on the phone she was in the rain, searching for more oil-covered animals: "I'm actually out in the woods right now looking for animals. We just found two dead ducks and one live one…We actually saw a dead wood duck and we saw its mate, it couldn't fly away, only walk. It was pretty saturated." 

Eilish said HAWK was the first responder for affected wildlife in the area but has since seen Exxon establish a local mobile unit to treat animals on site. "As the number of animals increased Exxon brought in their own rehabilitation centre because we were taking that animals to a centre about an hour away. HAWK doesn't have a mobile unit."

In addition to ducks, the team working with HAWK also found this oil-laden male muskrat, suggesting a number of species may be affected.

Faulkner Country Judge Allen Dodson said "I'm an animal lover, a wildlife lover, as probably most of the people here are. We don't like to see that. No one does."

He added, "Crude oil is crude oil. None of it is real good to touch."

The Exxon spill leaked 80,000 gallons of oil into an Arkansas residential area, causing the evacuation of 40 homes. This weekend Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. president Gary Pruessing told displaced homeowners, "If you have been harmed by this spill then we're going to look at how to make that right." 

According to InsideClimate News, Exxon is currently preventing the media from accessing the spill scene. Today the Arkansas Attourney General announced an investigation is being launched into the cause of the 60-year old pipeline's rupture. 

The Pegasus pipeline was originally built in the 1940s and was recently dormant for four years before its flow was reversed to carry Alberta diluted bitumen from Illinois to the Gulf Coast. In 2006 Exxon called the line's reversal a win-win for the people of the Gulf Coast and Canada.

The revelation that companies transporting diluted bitumen in the US have some concerned about pre-existing pipelines, as well as the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that will transport the tar sands-derived oil across a number of ecologically sensitive areas. 

According to the NRDC, in 2011 a number of pipelines carried Alberta bitumen in the US:

Although the spread of oil refineries across the US receiving bitumen suggests the network of tar sands oil transport is much more widely spread across the States:

The network potentially connecting bitumen-carrying pipelines with other pipelines is quite extensive across the US:

Last week a coalition of environmental groups, communities and inviduals petitioned the US EPA and Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Association (PHMSA) to place a moratorium on pending tar sands pipelines, including the Keystone XL pipeline, until new safety rules are established. 

"Simply put, diluted bitumen and conventional crude oil are not the same substance," the petitioners wrote. "There is increasing evidence that the transport of diluted bitumen is putting America's public safety at risk. Current regulations fail to protect the public against those risks. Instead, regulations ... treat diluted bitumen and conventional crude the same."

Image Credit: Refinery map by ForestEthics. Wildlife photos courtesy of Eilish Palmer, Lady with a Camera, used with permission.

 

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