Piles of uncovered petroleum coke, a byproduct of upgrading tar sands oil to synthetic crude, sit at the Suncor Oil Sands Project. “Petcoke” is between 30 and 80 percent more carbon intense than coal per unit of weight. Image by Alex MacLean. Canada, 2014.
What you don’t know about the tar sands mining industry in Canada could devastate the environment.
Mining of tar sands (also known as oil sands) in the boreal forests of Canada’s Alberta Province is rarely visible to the public. Oil companies restrict access to facilities, and tree lines prevent even distant views. The controversial Keystone XL pipeline would pump refined oil from the tar sands mines into the United States. This past March, science journalist Dan Grossman and aerial photographer Alex MacLean traveled to Alberta. They made flights above the mines and interviewed people on the ground. Their work demonstrates the huge and destructive scale of the mining. Their reporting uncovers evidence of large-scale pollution spread by the tar sands industry.
View more on the project here: The Big Picture: Alberta’s Oil Sands.
1. Alberta sits on top of the world’s third largest petroleum reserve (after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela) and the world’s largest deposit of extra-heavy crude oil, which covers an area the size of Florida.
Image by oilsands.alberta.ca, 2013.
2. More than 250 square of boreal forest has been cleared and mined or otherwise disturbed. As you read this, oil companies are clearing more land.
Excavating bitumen at the Syncrude Mildred Lake mining site. Giant tires line traffic circle. Image by Alex MacLean. Canada, 2014.
3. Tar sands extraction activities currently only occupy a fraction of the Rhode Island sized region designated for strip mining. But production is expected to double by 2022.Large blocks of sulphur, a byproduct of upgrading oil sands at Syncrude Mildred Lake site, near Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Image by Alex MacLean. Canada, 2014.
4. Oil companies use Caterpillar ultra class dump trucks (large enough to fit suburban starter home in the bucket) to clear the land.A Caterpillar 793F autonomous hauling truck deployed in Australia. Image by Caterpillar.com.
5. Alberta regulators claim that the environment will be returned to a ‘pristine’ state after mining is concluded. That will require cleanup of 190 billion gallons of water sitting in toxic settling ponds.
Hot waste filling tailing pond, Suncor Mining Site, Alberta, CA. Image by Alex MacLean. Canada, 2014.
6. While oil company Suncor touts a successful ‘clean up’ of its first waste pond, critics say the project was a cover up: two feet of topsoil planted with shrubs covering a mountain of dry toxic tailings.
Surface oil on a tailing pond, Alberta, Canada. Image by Alex MacLean. Canada, 2014.
7. Contradicting assurances by regulators, Canadian government researchers have discovered that waste ponds are leaking into the Athabasca River. Native Americans, like Violet Clarke, say such pollution is making their traditional way of life impossible. (View video here.)
Violet Clarke is a Cree Native American in the town of Anzac, about a half-hour drive from the mining boom town Fort McMurray. Video and text by Dan Grossman.
8. Alberta’s provincial government has confirmed an unusual number of cases of a rare cancer of the bile ducts in a community downstream of tar sands mining. However, the Chief Medical Officer of the province has chosen not to investigate further. (View video here.)
The day we spoke, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer had recently announced that cancer was unusually high in Fort Chip. But he said that no further study of the town was needed or would be undertaken by his agency. Video and text by Dan Grossman.
9. Officials charged with protecting energy resources and the interests of Canadians in Alberta are former executives of the oil companies they’re told to regulate.
Gerry Protti is new head of the Alberta Energy Regulator. He was formerly president of Energy Policy Institute of Cananda, a non-profit listing the largest oil sands players in the country. Image by Desmog Canada.
10. The Canadian government itself lobbies for the mining industry. It’s engaging in $24 million international marketing campaign to advertise Canadian oil and gas to business leaders and politicians. (View video here.)
Video by oilsands.alberta.ca, 2010.
If you want to learn more about this story and help support Grossman and MacLean’s reporting in Alberta, visit their Indiegogo campaign here.