From Garth Lenz:
Ten years ago, my wife and I sat huddled together, watching in horror the images from New York. We had just learned that my wife was pregnant, and as we sat there in disbelief, we feared for the future World our children would inherit. It never occurred to us that those terrible events would lead to the development of what would soon become known as the World’s largest and perhaps most environmentally damaging mega project, and that it would lie in the heart of Canada’s vast boreal forest wilderness.
Thousands of miles north from the horror of 9/11 lay the World’s second largest oil reserves, their development soon to be spurred on by the realities and fears arising from that fateful day. The ensuing search by America for a friendlier source for its energy needs, and the rapidly rising cost of oil propelled the development of Alberta’s Tar Sands to the point where they are now the United States' largest single source of oil and America is the market for the vast majority of the approximately 1.5 million barrels of oil produced there each day.
A few years later I had my first glimpse of Canada’s Tar Sands. Hovering over them in a helicopter, below me lay devastation on a scale that could be only described as biblical. Vast tar mines, refineries fouling the air, and the leaching and unlined tailings “ponds” which lie along the Athabasca River are the world’s largest toxic impoundments. Toxic lakes of industrial waste that can be seen from space.
A scant 70 miles downstream from the Tar Sands, the scene is replaced by one which is its polar opposite. The Peace Athabasca Delta, the world’s largest freshwater delta, set amidst the surrounding boreal forest ecosystem whose wetlands and forests store the greatest concentration of carbon of any ecosystem, and are being systematically destroyed to mine the tar that lies underneath. It is a terrible juxtaposition that earth’s most carbon rich forests and wetlands are being cleared, dredged, and dug up, all to be replaced with mines, tailings ponds, and pipelines, in order to produce oil whose production produces almost twice the carbon of conventional sources. [Text Continues Below Photos.]
Images and captions courtesy of Garth Lenz.
The refining or upgrading of the tarry bitumen which lies under the Tar Sands consumes far more oil and energy than conventional oil and produces almost twice as much carbon. Each barrel of oil requires 3-5 barrels of fresh water from the neighboring Athabasca River. About 90% of this is returned as toxic tailings into the vast unlined tailings ponds that dot the landscape. Syncrude alone dumps 500,000 tons of toxic tailings into just one of their tailings ponds everyday.
This area, located in the extreme northwest of British Columbia, marks the western boundary of the Boreal region. On the border of the Yukon and Southeast Alaska, the western flank of these mountains descends into Alaska's Tongass Rainforest and British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest. Far from the Tar Sands, the greatest remaining coastal temperate and marine ecosystem is imminently threatened by the proposal to build a 750-mile pipeline to pump 550,000 barrels per day of Tar Sands crude to the coast. Once there, it would be shipped through some of the most treacherous waters, virtually assuring an ecological disaster at some point in the future.
Even in the extreme cold of the winter, the toxic tailings ponds do not freeze. On one particularly cold morning, the partially frozen tailings, sand, liquid tailings and oil residue, combined to produce abstractions that reminded me of a Jackson Pollock canvas.
Photographed in late autumn in softly falling snow, a solitary spruce is set against a sea of aspen. The Boreal Forest of northern Canada is perhaps the best and largest example of a largely intact forest ecosystem. Canada's Boreal Forest alone stores an amount of carbon equal to ten times the total annual global emissions from all fossil fuel consumption.
Twenty four hours a day the Tar Sands eats into the most carbon rich forest ecosystem on the planet. Storing almost twice as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests, the boreal forest is the planet's greatest terrestrial carbon storehouse. To the industry, these diverse and ecologically significant forests and wetlands are referred to as overburden, the forest to be stripped and the wetlands dredged and replaced by mines and tailings ponds so vast they can be seen from outer space.
In an effort to deal with the problem of tailings ponds, Suncor is experimenting with dry tailings technology. This has the potential to limit, or eliminate, the need for vast tailings ponds in the future and lessen this aspect of the Tar Sand's impact.
So large are the Alberta Tar Sands tailings ponds that they can be seen from space. It has been estimated by Natural Resources Canada that the industry to date has produced enough toxic waste to fill a canal 32 feet deep by 65 feet wide from Fort McMurray to Edmonton, and on to Ottawa, a distance of over 2,000 miles. In this image, the sky is reflected in the toxic and oily waste of a tailings pond.
The Caracajou River winds back and forth creating this oxbow of wetlands as it joins the Mackenzie flowing north to the Beaufort Sea. This region, almost entirely pristine, and the third largest watershed basin in the world, will be directly impacted by the proposed Mackenzie Valley National Gas Pipeline to fuel the energy needs of the Alberta Oil Sands mega-project.
Tar Sands pit mining is done in benches or steps. These benches are each approximately 12-15 meters high. Giant shovels dig the tar sand and place it into heavy hauler trucks that range in size from 240 tons to the largest trucks, which have a 400-ton capacity.
The Alberta Tar sands are Canada's single largest source of carbon. They produce about as much annually as the nation of Denmark. The refining of the tar-like bitumen requires more water and uses almost twice as much energy as the production of conventional oil. Particularly visible in winter, vast plumes of toxic pollution fill the skies. The Tar Sands are so large they create their own weather systems.
Located just 70 miles downstream from the Alberta Tar Sands, the Athabasca Delta is the world's largest freshwater delta. It lies at the convergence of North America's four major flyways and is a critical stopover for migrating waterfowl and considered one of the most globally significant wetlands. It is threatened both by the massive water consumption of the tar sands and its toxic tailings ponds.
This network of roads reminded me of a claw or tentacles. It represents for me the way in which the tentacles of the tar sands reach out and wreak havoc and destruction. Proposed pipelines to American Midwest, Mackenzie Valley, and through the Great Bear Rainforest will bring new threats to these regions while the pipelines fuel new markets and ensure the proposed five fold expansion of the Tar Sands.
Development plans are to increase the production of the Tar Sands up to five million barrels of oil within the next 20 years and industrialize an area of land the size of Florida in the process. While we still need oil to meet our energy needs, true energy security will not be achieved through the expansion of the tar sands and further entrenching our dependency on fossil fuels, but through the development of alternate sustainable energy sources and through all of us reducing our consumption.
This will be difficult but we need to do it for our children. Recently, on a rainy Friday evening as we prepared to pick up a video for our weekly family video night, I suggested we drive to the store as the weather was bad and my children were fighting the flu, it was my youngest child’s turn to choose and there is no way she was going to miss the trip. She looked at me with the shock and disgust only a four year old can really muster and implored, “Dad, don’t you know, under a mile, bike in style!”
In order for that to happen, projects like the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to bring tar sands crude to the gulf coast for processing, and the proposed Gateway pipeline to facilitate shipping it to Asia, will need to be approved.
While we still need oil to meet our energy needs, true energy security will not be achieved through the expansion of the tar sands but through the development of alternate sustainable energy sources and through all of us reducing our consumption. This will be difficult but we need to do it for our children. Recently, on a rainy Friday evening as we prepared to pick up a video for our weekly family video night, I suggested we drive to the store as the weather was bad and my children were fighting the flu, it was my youngest child’s turn to choose and there is no way she was going to miss the trip. She looked at me with the shock and disgust only a four year old can really muster and implored, “Dad, don’t you know, under a mile, bike in style!”
The Tar Sands, also known as Oil Sands, - if you prefer the public relations created term – are now Canada’s largest, and fastest growing, single source of carbon. At the same time, Canada has gone from being one of the first signatories to the Kyoto Protocol to now becoming an obstacle to international efforts to reduce carbon and our dependency on fossil fuel.
In terms of global warming, the impacts of the Tar Sands are multiple. The vast forests and wetlands of the boreal forest which they lie under, are considered the most carbon rich forest ecosystem on the planet. Storing almost twice as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests, the boreal forest is the planet’s greatest terrestrial carbon storehouse. To the industry, these diverse and ecologically significant forests and wetlands are referred to as overburden, the forest to be stripped and the wetlands dredged and replaced by mines and tailings ponds so vast they can be seen from outer space. So, as the expansion of the tar sands consumes more boreal forest and wetlands, it is releasing to the atmosphere all the carbon stored in this ecosystem. At the same time, we also lose the long term future carbon sequestration of these forests and wetlands. In turn, they are replaced by an industrial operation which produces almost twice as much carbon as conventional oil production.
However the global reach of the tar sands is even greater than that. Pipelines to the American Midwest and Texas pump this bitumen for refining there. In the process, these areas are will also be importing many of the toxic impacts of the Tar Sands to their jurisdiction. The building of the proposed Alberta Clipper and Keystone pipelines, will only increase this trend and the impacts.
Born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, and originally trained as a classical pianist, Garth Lenz left his music career in 1992 to dedicate his photography towards conservation. He is a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. He has photographed environmental, wilderness, and indigenous peoples issues throughout Canada, the U.S., Chile, Ecuador, Borneo, and China.
Garth recently was awarded the First place award for the Social Documentary.net photo competition, Ten Years After Nine/Eleven: Searching for a 21st Century Landscape. Garth's work on the environmental degradation caused by the Alberta Tar Sands, one of the United States' largest sources of oil will be exhibited at powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn, NY from August 20, 2011 through September 16, 2011. An opening reception is scheduled for September 10 from 7 to 9 pm.---