Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tar Sands - The Dirtiest Oil of All

By Garth Lenz
Conservation photographer, Canadian citizen

In case you missed it, this August 21st, the U.S. State Department approved a multibillion-dollar pipeline to bring the world's dirtiest, most carbon intensive crude oil to refineries in the United States. The Presidential Permit to Enbridge Energy is for the Alberta Clipper - a 1,000-mile/1,607-kilometer crude oil pipeline that will run between Hardisty, Alberta, and Superior, Wisconsin, bringing crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands to the U.S. for further refining.

The U.S. approval of the Alberta Clipper pipeline is a massive investment and commitment to the status quo, locking America into a dirty energy infrastructure for years to come. At a time when the way forward, both economically and environmentally, points in the direction of renewable energy and a green economy, investment in the Alberta Tar Sands seems backward.

Not only is it investment in a fossil fuel future, but it is investment in a fossil fuel that represents the most deadly cocktail of environmental impacts of any fossil fuel and on a scale never before imagined. None of the the major energy projects in the Middle East are even close to the scale of the oilsands and the current scale will grow by five times by 2020.

Clearwater River
Located opposite Fort McMurray, this intact area is in the heart of the Tar Sands region and is an example of what the area looks like beforeTar Sands development. This area could be developed as a result of proposed expansion of the Tar Sands. The forests, wetlands, soils, etc are referred to as "overburden" and scraped off in order to replace this ecosystem with tailings ponds, tar mines and refineries.

Alberta Wetland

This wetland is just south of Fort McMurray and the developed region of the Alberta Tar Sands.
Although it is not currently threatened directly by Tar Sands development, it is representative of what the Tar Sands area looked like before development. Wetlands like this one are one of the greatest carbon sinks and best defenses against global warming.

Aspens and Spruce

This forest is relatively near but not directly within the Tar Sands region. However it is representative of the forests that existed in the region before being removed for Tar Sands development. The boreal forest of Northern Canada is perhaps the best and largest example of a largely intact forest ecosystem. It is also the greatest terrestrial carbon sink - storing an amount of carbon equal to ten times the total annual global emissions from all fossil fuel consumption.

Syncrude Operations - Alberta Tar Sands

Open pit mining operations in the Alberta Tar Sands

Machines like these work 24 hours a day.

Effluent Pump

An effluent pump dumps mine tailings into a vast tailings "lagoon" at one of Syncrude's sights in the Alberta Tar Sands. The effluent ponds of the Alberta Tar Sands are so large that they can be seen from outer space. Every barrel of oil requires 3-5 barrels of fresh water to refine.

Tailings Pond

One of many large tailings ponds in the Alberta Tar Sands. One of Syncrude's dams holding back a tailings pond is second only to China's Three Gorges Dam in size.

Another Tar Sands operation under construction

Can this possibly be what was envisioned when President Obama campaigned on a promise to cut global warming and America’s addiction to oil while investing in a clean future? Imagine the possibilities if all the scientific and technological brilliance, entrepreneurial zeal and financial resources that are being invested in the Alberta Tar Sands, were instead invested in the research, development and marketing of renewable energy. This is the true tragedy of the Tar Sands.

As long as this mammoth investment in the Alberta Tar Sands and similar projects persists, there will never be the motivation or resources to truly achieve the renewable energy alternatives which are the key to our future.

It is time for all of us to demand a positive, green and clean future for our children and tell our leaders to stop supporting investment in dirty and backward developments like the Alberta Tar Sands and start directing those resources to the green economy they have all been promising.

About the Author

Known as an outspoken advocate for the environment, Garth Lenz has been invited to show his work to The European Parliament, Canadian Senate, major corporations and business leaders. He has given numerous public presentations throughout Canada, the U.S., Europe, and Japan, on issues of wilderness and environmental protection.

In 1993 and 1994, Lenz made major tours of Europe, the U.S. and Japan, in order to build the international campaign for the conservation of British Columbia’s temperate rainforests and Clayoquot Sound. During this same time, he helped develop the markets campaign to encourage corporate responsibility as a tool for forest protection and conservation. In this role he has given presentations to The New York Times, Nippon Telephone and Telegraph in Tokyo, Major Newspapers in London, GTE in Los Angeles and many others.

Lenz’s recent images from the boreal region of Canada have helped lead to significant victories and large new protected areas in the Northwest Territories, Quebec, and Ontario. His boreal images and work from the Alberta Tar Sands received major awards at the Prix de la Photographie Paris, and International Photography Awards in 2008. In 2008, he was also awarded the Fine Print award in the Center for Fine Art Photography’s “Our Environment” exhibition for one of his Alberta Tar Sands aerial images. In 2009, he was named a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers.

Lenz makes his home in Victoria, British Columbia, with his wife and two daughters.

All images are © Garth Lenz


Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Art for Conservation said...

Thanks very much for visiting our blog and for your comments about the tar sands piece. The Tar sands issue is one that deserves much more attention than it has been getting and the effects of continued development there will reach far beyond our lifetimes.

Please share this with your friends and anyone who cares about protection of key ecoosystems.

Hope to hear from you again and if you have any suggestions for new blog topics, please share. We wnat this blog to be a conversation not just a monoloogue!


Maureece in McMurray said...

Hi, I just sort of stumbled across your site while looking for info/photos of tailings ponds, just to settle my curiosity. Found precisely what I was seeking right here. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hello Garth
Thank you... I'm a fan of your work. I came across it quite by accident but will visit as often as I can.
If you host or attend any events in which you'd like more support, I'd love to be involved. Since you're in Victoria and I'm in Kelowna, it isn't a long way to go so please don't hesitate to contact me. I've spent the last four months redefining my career and although I haven't made a thing yet, it isn't really why I got into this. Survival and a chance to do something for the planet is all I ask. My website is here;
Cheers & good luck