Canada’s Oil Sands mega-projects, an aerial view: heads in the tar sands

Shell’s Albian Sands project wasteland
Shell’s Albian Sands project wasteland

While working for a mining exploration company in Northern Alberta in the summer of 2012, I had the amazing opportunity of flying over the tar sands projects.

*Larger images coming soon.

Me looking badass
Me looking badass

We were working on a drilling project in the Birch Mountains region, north of Fort McMurray, to increase knowledge of a lithium deposit for our client. I was responsible for much of the project’s logistics, was among the first boots on the ground, helped construct our camp, and was involved in planning the first few drill holes.

Our yellow helicopter ‘Big Bird’
Our yellow helicopter ‘Big Bird’
Suncor Energy’s upgrader plant beside Athabasca River
Suncor Energy’s upgrader plant beside Athabasca River

It was an amazing experience to say the least. Unfortunately, I had to sign an employment agreement not to publish any pictures from that project. But there’s nothing stopping me from uploading pictures of the oil sands projects we flew over. So here are a few of the better aerial photographs I took of the oil sands exploitation effort north of Ft McMurray, as it was in 2012. Flying over the region was an experience that I’ll not soon forget. It felt like flying over Tolkien’s Mordor.

Suncor’s Millenium Steep Bank tailings pond panorama
Suncor’s Millenium Steep Bank tailings pond panorama
Suncor’s massive tailing pond right beside the Athabasca River
Suncor’s massive tailing pond right beside the Athabasca River
Suncor’s Millenium Steepbank upgrader plant beside Athabasca river with reclaimed pond on right
Suncor’s Millenium Steepbank upgrader plant beside Athabasca river with reclaimed pond on right
For scale, this is the nearby city of Ft. McMurray
For scale, this is the nearby city of Ft. McMurray
Syncrude upgrader plant’s sulfur pyramids, closeup
Syncrude upgrader plant’s sulfur pyramids, closeup
Syncrude upgrader plant’s sulfur pyramids
Syncrude upgrader plant’s sulfur pyramids
Suncor’s Millenium tailings pond dredge barge and oil slick boom
Suncor’s Millenium tailings pond dredge barge and oil slick boom

It’s hard to get an idea of the true scale of the goings on there from these small pictures (more full sized pictures here). Suncor, Syncrude, CNRL, Petro Canada, Shell, and Husky Oil are the major players. Each of their individual projects dwarfs the city of Fort McMurray. Each has its own private airport. The bases of Syncrude’s sulfur pyramids are far vaster than the greatest of Egypt’s own pyramids. Those shovels are apartment buildings, the dumptrucks are houses. Even from high aloft, the terraforming effort extends from horizon to horizon.

This is what a ‘reclaimed’ tailings pond looks like
This is what a ‘reclaimed’ tailings pond looks like
Suncor’s Steep Bank, massive tailings pond burm
Suncor’s Steep Bank, massive tailings pond burm
Syncrude’s Steep Bank tailings pond dike towering over Athabasca River
Syncrude’s Steep Bank tailings pond dike towering over Athabasca River

Extracting oil from the tar sands is not only bad because it literally creates Mordor on Earth. It’s bad because the net energy return (NER) is abysmal compared to traditional sources of oil, ~1–3 for tar sands compared to ~15–100 for traditional sources. This basically means is that half of every barrel of oil extracted from tar sand is burned on site in order to extract the next barrel and so on. So roughly half of the energy and carbon contained in oil sand reserves are released into the atmosphere with zero benefit to society.

Suncor’s Millenium heavy upgrader plant across Athabasca River from old reclaimed tailings pond
Suncor’s Millenium heavy upgrader plant across Athabasca River from old reclaimed tailings pond

It is not my purpose here to lay blame on the corporations. We are all responsible for this mess. As long as we’ll burn it, they’ll exhume it from the Earth. And now onto my inevitable rant…

Petro canada’s Fort Hills tar sand pits
Petro canada’s Fort Hills tar sand pits

We’re purposefully sticking our collective head in the sand while we burn down the world around us. And it’s getting a little hot, so we turn up the AC another notch. It’s important that we’re comfortable on our highway to hell.

CNRL’s Horizon tar sands project
CNRL’s Horizon tar sands project

But don’t think about that. Actually, I’m sorry to bring it up. It’s most unpleasant. So will you join me instead in slouching down into my leather couch to eat my feedlot cow? Let’s try not to choke on it, after all entire ecosystems died so we might taste the juice of that tortured animals flesh. But quiet now — the latest popstar singing show is going to commercial so we can dine on an impossible amount of fossil fuel powered suv, adventure, hair product, vacation ads. The American dream is indeed sweet, isn’t it?

And come to think of it, it doesn’t really matter, does it. Soon, Earth will bury its only surviving memories of our gluttony millions of years down in our very own tar beds, oil and gas reservoirs, perhaps a few coal seams. Maybe there’ll be another intelligent species to discover humanity’s graveyard beneath its suicidal mass extinction event horizon? Likely they’ll think twice about burning our bodies as we burned those we found in the Carboniferous and other geologic times. Certainly we’ll leave behind sufficient evidence for their wise-men and scholars to work out the cause of our demise and the sixth great global mass die off. Enjoy you’re bloody steak. Enjoy your diesel. Enjoy your plastic.

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