Ten Years After 9/11 – Canada’s True Cost of Oil

by 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 their each day.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.


The mission of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) is to further environmental and cultural conservation through photography. iLCP is a Fellowship of more than 100 photographers from all around the globe. As a project based organization, iLCP coordinates Conservation Photography Expeditions to get world-renowned photographers in the field teamed with scientists, writers, videographers and conservation groups to gather visual assets that are used to create conservation communications campaigns to foment conservation successes. iLCP is a 501 (c) (3) organization. Support our work at this link.
  • wendelovermats

    terrible scar…we need though to quit thinking about oil as the thing that makes our cars go. (If everyone started biking tomorrow, the oil consumption for the increased bike parts and food calories consumed by riders would be fueled by agri, metal, plastics, and rubber industries would still be an incredibly large footprint.)
    Everything tangible in our environment is sourced from fossil fuel…we need a total rethink of how we process chemicals in all products. Or, we need far fewer people on this globe.

  • maria

    or far fewer rich people, w, the poor ones don’t make much of a footprint.

  • kaeylyn

    there is only sooo much scarring of The Mother before she fights back.It is HIGH TIME that man realizes he is NOT Master of all he surveys,but a living breathing PART of it.There are soo many better ways,you can bet on it,that Mother earth has grown tired of all mans injustices&will7does do things to cleanse herself&renew,and there is NOTHING Man in all his so called Infinite Wisdom can do to stop it,save for starting to be very still&listen,for Mother earth&Father Sky will show you the way,if only you will listen.No matter WHAT kind of deposit,be it oil sands,fracking,drilling,it ALWAYS ends in disaster.Time to wake up&listen.It is time for those in the World to become MUCH less self absorbed&see what is going on around them.If it is NOT a TRUE necessity(which fossil fuel is NOT,it is driven literally by selfishness&Greed),then it is a want.Time to Learn the Difference….

  • […] we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I look back on an essay I posted on my website at the time, bicyclewire.com. I wrote about how […]

  • HMW

    Yea, yea, yea I get it. But the problem I have with the “radical’ environmentalists I know that still drive cars, still wear leather shoes, still eat sea food imported from countries know for drift net fishing, still use fresh plastic bags from the grocery store, still leave the water on while they brush their teeth, still take long showers, still leave their computers on all night, still buy specialty items in tons of packaging etc etc etc. What does this have to do with strip mining, deforestation on a massive scale, oil spills and other ecological disasters? Very little except to where it comes to their credibility. I find it had to take them seriously when I do far more for the environment than they do.

  • […] put me beside myself to see the pictures of destruction that the beautiful forests of Alberta are suffering from for the sake of extracting […]

  • Ron

    So, you’re complaining about an industry that cleans up polluted groun (yes, that’s what they are doing – stripping out the oil from the sand). Simply because a thin layer of sparse forest and muskeg is on the land, doesn’t make it “pristine”.

    As soon as they’ve finish mining the oil sands, they replace the (previously stockpiled) topsoil and replant. A few dozen years later you have forest land in better condition than it was originally found – is that a terrible thing, especially when using oil is such a valuable commodity and so useful to society? I think not.

    And considering only a minuscule amount of the land is being mined this way (wart on the flea on a tick of a dog is probably too big a relative comparison), complaining about the supposed environmental issues is little more than a tempest in a teapot.

    Anyway, most of the oilsands are not being mined – too deep below the surface to do so economically – they use SAGD (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage) – drill a series of wells from a very compact (orders of magnitude less surface disturbance) surface pad and heat the oilsands with steam to extract the oil. Some of these projects are so low impact you’d never know it if you didn’t stumble upon them despite a multi-decade extraction period.

    And it may even be less visible going forward as some of the promising newer tech is called THAI – essentially a fireflood concept – they introduce heat and oxygen underground and let the heat liberate the oil – significantly less energy intensive and traps much of the emissions underground, while at the same time upgrading the bitumen so less energy intensive refining is needed.

  • Marilyn Watson

    I fail to understand how a Government can allow a business to wantonly pollute the environment on such a large scale, without any apparent restrictions. Yes, I understand that they plant new trees in fresh earth, and take a few “feel good” measures in an attempt to mollify certain individuals and *assure* them that Syncrude is Eco Friendly. But that doesn’t erase the “Inconvenient Truth” that their toxic tailings are dumped into unlined pits that leach tons of highly contaminated water into the world’s largest freshwater delta, the Athabasca Delta, endangering it and all the wildlife that depend on it. Nor does it justify the tons of carbon emission that pour daily into the air, to be shared by all that breathe. Anyone who claims this is not an environmental disaster must have their heads buried in the Alberta Tar Sands. And, yes, I also understand that the U.S. has it’s fair share of polluters, but we are, at least, working toward correcting that, albeit, not nearly fast enough. And I also realize that my microscopic attempt at recycling to reduce the Global carbon load is far outweighed by behemoth affronts to the environment, like the Syncrude Upgrader and Tar Sands. Does this mean that I will stop recycling because it seems like an impossible task? Not at all. I, at least, feel that we have a moral responsibility to at least do as much as we possibly can to keep our environment clean. Syncrude needs to step up and do their part., And, the sooner the better!
    Just sayin”.

  • Sno

    just a thought….
    Would you be willing to give up your antihistimines? Your False arm that helps you hold your child? Your anesthetic so you dont feel your surgery? Food preservation…Packaging…Capsules for meds..
    Oil is not just used as a heating source…it is in every part of our day to day lives. We need to look at the whole picture and find ways to make things w a minimum of impact every day as individuals. Less demand w equal less supplies needed. We have to decide what we really NEED not just what we are used to or just want.

  • […] sands exploitation leaves behind a dead zone. It also leaves behind the largest toxic unlined impoundments on the planet, in enormous lakes – some the size of New York City – that require firing off […]

  • […] sands exploitation leaves behind a dead zone. It also leaves behind the largest toxic unlined impoundments on the planet in enormous lakes that require firing off special cannons to keep flocks of waterfowl […]

  • […] sands exploitation leaves behind a dead zone. It also leaves behind thelargest toxic unlined impoundments on the planet in enormous lakes that require firing off special cannons to keep flocks of […]

  • […] cocktail of chemicals.Tar sands exploitation leaves behind a dead zone. It also leaves behind the largest toxic unlined impoundments on the planet in enormous lakes that require firing off special cannons to keep flocks of waterfowl […]

  • Jessie

    oil could be rendered obsolete if we moved to hemp. hemp can make stronger plastics and can be used for over 5000 different textiles and non textiles and medications. one acre of hemp can make as much paper as 4-10 acres of forest, as well as produce the means necessary to be completely oil free, hemp is in the top three for making bio fuel next to algia and sugar cain and can be grown on every continent and in every country. we have had this technology since before 1960

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