Breathtaking Destruction

DSC_4706Earlier this year, aerial photographer Alex MacLean invited me to survey the tar sands of northeast Alberta from the air with him. He’d reserved a plane, complete with pilot, at the diminutive airport of Fort McMurray, the de facto tar sands capital of Alberta. Alberta contains about 170 billion barrels of reasonably accessible oil, the world’s third-largest supply after those of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The sea of crude sits underneath an Iowa-sized territory of rolling hills and valleys of peat bogs and forests of fir, polar and aspen. A valuation of more than a trillion of dollars has caused a stampede of investment from the big oil companies, including Shell, ExxonMobil, Sinopec, Chevron and ConocoPhillips. All of Canada’s top oil producers, while not large on the world stage, are also feasting on Alberta’s lucrative oil bounty.

The TransCanada Corporation is building a network of more than 3,000 miles of pipelines to give Alberta’s tar sands oil greater access to refineries in the US. The final phase of the pipeline project, Keystone XL, would run more than 1,000 miles, with capacity to ship nearly a million barrels of oil a day from Alberta into America. If built, the XL pipeline would approximately double the amount of oil from Alberta that could flow into the US.

In Fort McMurray, Alex rented a Cessna 172, the most popular plane ever built. It feels flimsy — more golf cart than limousine. Before long, we were in the air with a panoramic view of one of the world’s most lucrative, and most environmentally devastating, mining operations. Alex had told me I’d be sorry if I looked down to take computer notes during the flight. Keep your eyes on the horizon — avoid air sickness, he’d said. I hadn’t listened, to my regret.

Alex is clearly in his element, though, 1,000 feet aloft above the mines. He’s not wearing his lap belt — that would restrict his movement. His door keeps popping open and he’s compensated by wedging himself into the cockpit. He flips his window latch and pokes a camera out, steadying the lens against his hand. His face stretches into a grimace pressed against the eyepiece. He clicks the shutter. “Raise the wing,” he tells the pilot, setting up for another shot.

From the vast strip mines below, dust billows behind giant dump trucks bearing 400-ton loads of newly dug tar sands ore. I see at least a dozen of the mammoth trucks below. They operate 24 hours a day. Mining companies chase bitumen veins hundreds of feet below the surface. But the profundity of these depressions barely shows from the air. The land just looks razed and scarred, from horizon to horizon across dozens of miles in every direction.  See a short video with photos that Alex shot from above Alberta.  Read more of Dan Grossman’s reporting on the Alberta tar sands.

This story was made possible in part by a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. You can support Dan Grossman’s next reporting project on the tar sands here at Indiegogo.

Human Journey

Daniel Grossman has been a print journalist and radio and web producer for 20 years. He has produced radio stories and documentaries on science and the environment for National Public Radio’s show Weekend Edition; Public Radio International’s show on the environment, Living on Earth, and news magazine, The World. He has written for the New York Times, The Boston Globe, Discover, Audubon and Scientific American.