The Tar Sands: Canada’s Shame
Mark Duell with pictures by Ashley Cooper
Mail Online, Oct 19, 2012
Once this landscape was a pristine wilderness roamed by deer now it’s ‘the most destructive industrial project on earth’
- Lush green forests once blanketed an area of the Tar Sands at Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, larger than England
- Area where blackened earth now stands dubbed by environmentalists as most destructive industrial project on earth
- Boreal forest – once home to grizzly bears, moose and bison – is vanishing at rate second to Amazon deforestation
By MARK DUELL
PUBLISHED: 19:34 GMT, 17 October 2012 | UPDATED: 12:14 GMT, 18 October 2012
These incredible pictures show the bleak landscape of bitumen, sand and clay created by the frantic pursuit of 173billion barrels of untouched oil.
The Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada, are the world’s third largest oil reserve – but lush green forests once blanketed an area there larger than England.
The region where the blackened earth now stands has been dubbed as the most destructive industrial project on earth by shocked environmentalists.
Millions of barrels of tar sands oil have been extracted from underground – producing five times as many greenhouse gas emissions as normal extraction.
And the Boreal forest – once home to grizzly bears, moose, bison, deer and wolverines – is vanishing at a rate only second to Amazon deforestation.
Photographer Ashley Cooper said: ‘I knew a lot about the tar sands before I went there but nothing prepared me for the impact of actually seeing it.
The sheer scale of devastation is almost beyond comprehension. Oily, stained ground stretches for hundreds of miles where there used to be forest.
‘The constant stench of oil and chemicals is sickening. From the air, it’s even worse – you see endless miles of stacks of what look like matchsticks but are actually felled trees.
‘The forest is just gone, for as far as the eye can see. Dotted amongst the wasteland are the glistening, bizarrely beautiful tailing ponds, a toxic death-trap for wildlife.’
The tar sands cover 141,000 sq km of Alberta. Twenty per cent of this has 174billion recoverable barrels close enough to the surface to be strip-mined.
‘The sheer scale of devastation is almost beyond comprehension. Oily, stained ground stretches for hundreds of miles where there used to be forest’
Ashley Cooper, photographer
This is done by removing the forest and the peaty soil beneath, before gas-heated water is then forced through the tar sand to melt and separate bitumen from the sand and clay.
It takes four barrels of water to retrieve one barrel of oil – creating large tailing ponds of dirty water that cover vast expanses.
Lawyer and environmentalist Polly Higgins said: ‘Runaway climate change becomes almost inevitable if the tar sands continue.
‘The tar sands should be classified as an act of ecocide and rendered illegal under international law. This is, in effect, a crime against humanity.’
But others argue that the tar sands are good news, bringing jobs and wealth into a remote northern region.
‘The tar sands should be classified as an act of ecocide and rendered illegal under international law. This is, in effect, a crime against humanity’
Polly Higgins, lawyer and environmentalist
A dump truck driver can make an astonishing £125,000 a year – creating towns that defy the recession such as Fort McMurray.
People flock to live there from around the world in scenes akin to the gold rush, as they look to make their fortune from oil.
So many are employed by the industry that workers are often housed in remote camps of up to 10,000 people. Some of these have their own postcode.
But local doctors in Alberta are becoming concerned at the side effects of the industrial scale output on residents’ health.
In a nearby settlement called Fort Chip, which has a population of 1,200 people, doctor John O’Connor has diagnosed six people with bile-duct cancer.
The extremely rare disease normally affects only one in 100,000 people.
‘The oil sands are an important strategic resource that we are committed to developing in a socially and environmentally friendly manner’
Natural Resources Canada spokesman
But a spokesman for government department Natural Resources Canada said: ‘The oil sands are an important strategic resource that we are committed to developing in a socially and environmentally friendly manner.
‘Between 2010 and 2035, the oil sands are expected to contribute C$2.3 trillion (£1.45trillion) to Canadian GDP and support 630,000 jobs per year.
‘This economic activity provides royalties and taxes to governments across Canada that helps support our social system, including health care and social services.’
The spokesman added that the oil sands represent one per cent of the boreal forest and firms must reclaim all the land after extraction has taken place.
Heavy machinery: Dump trucks line up to remove tar sand from the mine at Fort McMurray
Men at work: Diggers and dump trucks go about the work, forever scarring the once-beautiful location
Industrial revolution: The area was once home to wolf, lynx, cougar, bear, moose, caribou and beaver among other animals
Watch the National Geographic’sOnce considered too expensive, as well as too damaging to the land, exploitation of Alberta’s oil sands is now a gamble worth billions.