Heads in the Tar Sand

shell albian sands mordor-like wasteland tar sands alberta

our yellow helicopter big bird landon chopper fort mcmurray albertaWhile 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. 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.

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 millenium steep bank tailings pond panorama tar sands alberta

massive tar sands tailing ponds beside athabasca river alberta

suncor millenium steepbank upgrader plant beside athabasca river with reclaimed pond on right tar sands alberta

syncrude tar sands upgrader plant sulfur pyramids close up mildred lake alberta syncrude tar sands upgrader plant sulfur pyramids mildred lake albertafort mcmurray alberta canadaIt’s hard to get an idea of the true scale of the goings on there from these small pictures. 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.

syncrude steep bank tailings pond dike towering over athabasca river bank ft mcmurray alberta suncor steep bank massive tailings pond burm looking northwards tar sands alberta suncor reclaimed tailings pond beside athabasca river alberta suncor millenium upgrader plant across athabasca river from old reclaimed tailings pond alberta suncor millenium steep bank tailings pond dredge barge oil slick boom tar sands alberta suncor millenium steep bank massive tailings pond next to athabasca river looking southwards tar sands alberta suncor energy upgrader plant beside athabasca river ft mcmurray alberta petro canada fort hills tar sands pits fort mackay alberta noralta lodges worker housing complexes next to athabasca river fort mackay alberta aerial view cnrl horizon tar sands project alberta canada

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 abismal compared to traditional sources of oil, ~1-3 for tar sands compared to ~15-100 for traditional sources. This 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.

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…

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.

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 wisemen 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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