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The Tar Sands: A Personal View

As a pilot for 25 years, LightHawk's executive director Rudy Engholm has seen some incredible things from the air. But nothing could prepare him for what he saw when he embarked on a four-day, 5100-mile journey across North America to the Alberta Tar Sands.

This is his story.

The Route: Portsmouth NH - Fargo ND - Calgary - Ft. Chipewyan - Ft. McMurray - Fargo ND - Portsmouth NHThe Trip

The Alberta Tar Sands and its associated pipeline proposals have become a controversial international topic. In an effort to see and understand the implications of this industrial zone for ourselves, LightHawk board member and volunteer pilot Tom Haas and I visited Alberta in August.

Once airborne from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Tom, and his co-pilot Janice Newman, spent most of a day flying to Calgary, Alberta. There we picked up photographer Garth Lenz, an International League of Conservation Photographers Fellow from Victoria, BC. Garth partnered with LightHawk to document environmental issues in western Canada for more than 20 years he served as our guide during the visit.

John Rigney and the map of leases

Our destination was Fort McMurray - the boomtown at the epicenter of the Athabasca Tar Sands. On the way north, we first stopped in the tiny community of Fort Chipewyan on the southwestern tip of Athabasca Lake to meet with John Rigney, the man in charge of special projects for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

To give a sense of scale, John showed us a map of the various leases in the Athabasca region. The total leased area in that region alone is approximately 36,000 square miles. Some of this area is being actively mined; some of it has been perforated with underground pipes for in-situ mining known as SAGD (steam assisted gravity drainage, where steam is pumped into the ground to melt the underground bitumen and collect it through a network of pipes); and some of the leases are not yet developed. Looking closely at the chart, we saw Japanese, European, Mideast, Canadian and American companies represented.

The Aerial Perspective

LightHawk has long maintained that the only way to see and appreciate landscape scale developments is from the air. Nowhere is that more true than in the Tar Sands - where much of the ground areas are off-limits to outsiders. A local Cessna 206 took us on a 125-mile loop (shown in red on this map) to tour three of the major projects straddling the Athabasca River: the mines of Suncor, Syncrude and Shell.

Incidentally, the Athabasca River is part of the Mackenzie River drainage, the third-largest watershed in the world after the Amazon and the Mississippi. The Mackenzie and its tributaries flow north and empty into the Arctic Ocean, and protect and drain over one-fifth of Canada's fresh water.


Mordor Below

From the plane, we thought we were flying over Mordor, the mythical dark land in Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings". We could see vast areas where the trees, wetlands, fens, and habitat of the Canadian Boreal forest (i.e., "overburden" in industry terms) have been scraped away, and there appears to be little or no living vegetation. This photo shows five massive electric shovels working simultaneously. Each is the size of a small apartment building, and they all feed a never-ending stream of trucks. The work goes on all day and all night, 365 days a year, in all weather.

The tiny truck barely visible in the very center of the photo above is actually a behemoth, capable of 400-ton loads. It's the world's largest truck.

You can get a sense of scale from the size of the tire. Standing next to it, my head does not even reach the axle.

The Processing

At the Suncor plant, trucks deliver sandy bitumen to a conveyer belt. This is the start of the "upgrading" process. Even though the local industry-funded Oil Sands Discovery Center museum demonstrates that the consistency of the bitumen mined in the region is as hard as a hockey puck, no one in Fort McMurray actually uses the term tar sands. They prefer "oil sands" to make the whole undertaking seem more benign, and more in keeping with all other oil extraction activities. I suppose this is like calling a sawmill a furniture factory, but what comes off the conveyor in the photo below sure looks more like rock than oil to me.

At the heart of the whole enterprise is water and heat - vast amounts of both. The bitumen is mixed with hot water and ground into a frothy slurry, where the tarry substance is separated from the sand in giant vessels like this one.

According to his book Tar Sands, Andrew Nikiforuk notes that Canada only has enough natural gas to recover less than a third of the bitumen in the tar sands. Right now the Tar Sands produce around 1.7 million barrels of synthetic crude per day. If they reach their targeted 5 million barrels a day, the oil companies would consume 60% of the natural gas available in Western Canada by 2030. As one Albertan recently observed, "Using natural gas to develop oil sands is like using caviar as fertilizer to grow turnips."

Subsequent cracking in refineries like the one shown here break down stubborn hydrocarbons. Our tour guide Sarah told us the smokestack in front of us was just issuing steam. Sarah is an earnest young woman one month out of college, who mostly spoke from a typed script she held. With no trace of irony, she said she worked for the Alberta Tourism Ministry, but wore a Suncor employee badge around her neck. (Perhaps this is in keeping with a local trend, where a Suncor Vice-President assumed a government position in 2007 as Assistant Deputy Oil Sands Secretariat while having her salary paid by Suncor.)

In spite of Sarah's statement, what I actually observed was a steam cloud dissipating a few hundred feet from the stack, with a long yellowish downstream smoke tail. We experienced extremely hazy flying conditions even at 26,000 feet in a 50-100 mile radius around Fort McMurray en route to Fort Chipewyan. The Nikiforuk book says that the area has the highest concentration of airborne pollutants in Canada.

Surface Extraction

Almost nothing I can say adequately describes the next several images. Garth took them along our flight route in what is described as the largest industrial project in the world. This is not one site photographed from different angle, this is the landscape we observed below us for mile after mile.

There is a Latin term used in the law: "res ipsa loquitur" - "the thing speaks for itself."

The Toxic Ponds

Some of the most prominent features of the landscape are vast lake-sized tailings ponds. Remember the frothy slurry? The ponds contain the residue after the oil is extracted.

In a recent highly publicized incident, 1600 ducks landed on one of these ponds - which lies right on a major migratory route. In spite of heroic rescue efforts, virtually all of the ducks died. Everyone, including the companies, acknowledge that the tailing ponds contain toxic substances.

The plant tour guide spoke about improved methods of tailings disposal that will be coming Real Soon Now. But in the meantime, millions of gallons per day are added to the ponds, there is evidence of leaking toxics into the Athabasca River, and new ponds are visibly under construction.

The People

Not surprisingly, tar sands mining affects those living far downstream from the mining region. Fort Chipewyan is a community of three tribal groups with just over 1,000 people about 140 miles downstream from Fort McMurray. We had to fly in because the community is inaccessible by road for 9 months of the year.

In the winter, residents create an ice road across marshes and rivers to Fort McMurray. This lasts for three months before it melts in the spring.

It was an eerie feeling to stand at the end of the road where we road signs read: "Ft. McMurray 280km."

John Rigney told us that in the last few years, this tiny downstream community has developed a tremendous spike in otherwise rare cancers, along with very high asthma and diabetes rates. He also said that the Fort McMurray boom economy has split the town along age lines. Young people all want to move to Fort McMurray, earn the $80,000 paid to beginning welders and truck drivers, and spend it on boats and snowmobiles. He said that most people over age 50 are seeing their traditional values, their health, and their land degrade.


A centerpiece of the message during the Suncor bus tour, at the Oil Sands Discovery Center, and from some residents we spoke with seems to be that, although there are problems at present, it will all be made better by eventual reclamation. Even though we were not allowed to see the inside of any mines or plants on the tour, we were taken to the Wapisiw Lookout site - the location of the first reclaimed tailing pond. There is a nearby sign celebrating 5 million trees planted, and the guide told us that approximately 600,000 of those had been planted on the Wapisiw site.

One PR photo showed people planting 12-18" tree seedlings at the site, but I could not see any trees from the fenced-off visitor deck. Here is a photo of what you can see. The tree snags are placed for visiting birds and raptors.

Reclamation Fiction

Andrew Nikiforuk’s Tar Sands book devotes an entire chapter to the "Fiction of Reclamation." Personally, a total of 257 acres of reclaimed grassland after 15-20 years of efforts does not really inspire confidence. Then there is the question of in-situ bitumen SAGD recovery promoted as a benign alternative to surface mining. This mostly involves "steam cleaning" hundreds of thousands of underground acres, and SAGD requires a substantial surface industrialization.

An appendix to Nikiforuk’s book entitled "The Problem with Steam Plants: An Insider’s Analysis" looks at the chemical and financial economics of burning natural gas to extract bituminous oil. It takes an unimaginable number of BTUs to heat up thousands of square miles of underground pipes in a region where winter temperatures fall to -40 degrees. When you factor in that heating energy input, the Canadian SAGD operations emit 18.6 times as much greenhouse gas compared to the total extraction process for the benchmark Norwegian North Sea oil.

Map courtesy of Duke Nicholas School of the EnvironmentMy Personal Take

After he returned from a recent LightHawk Tar Sands Expedition a few weeks ago, I asked Wyoming volunteer pilot Ray Lee for his impressions. He said: "There has got to be a better way." I agree.

The more I see and read about the Tar Sands, the more concerned I am about massive impacts to fresh water, human health, the atmosphere, energy, international security, democracy, and a host of other things. For example, Enbridge (the "sponsor" of the Kalamazoo River pipeline spill ... still not done after spending over $565 million in cleanup costs) - has a Trailbreaker Pipeline proposal on the table to pipe Tar Sands oil to a shipping terminal in Portland, Maine, a few miles south of my home. It envisions pumping abrasive bitumen crude under high temperature and pressure through an aging pipeline segment that passes within 0.2 miles of Sebago Lake - the source of drinking water for most of southern Maine (including me). While the Trailbreaker Pipeline proposal has the potential to risk my drinking water, there are many other pipelines that may affect you as well.

For Tom, Jan, Garth and me, flying over the industrialized portions of the former northern Alberta boreal forest engaged our eyes and minds, but it also reached our hearts. Yes, of course we all use oil and other resources. However, it all boils down to scale and alternatives. My house in Maine receives 100 percent of its total electric power and over 80 percent of its hot water from rooftop solar energy. But I didn’t have to unravel the earth to achieve it.

At the scale we observed, it is hard for me to think of Tar Sands oil extraction as anything less than a declaration of war against our planet.

The Role of LightHawk

It is unrealistic to expect anyone in the midst of the Fort McMurray boom to question their own boom times. However, we are in a unique position to offer our flights to help others convey a difficult story like the Tar Sands. The public deserves something more enlightened than one-sentence political slogans about the Keystone Pipeline.

Garth says public opinion has turned against the Northern Tier pipeline that would run from the Tar Sands to Kitimat, a shipping terminal on the eastern edge of the Great Bear Rainforest. The GBR is the last and largest essentially pristine temperate rainforest left on earth. LightHawk has already provided aerial views for key GBR residents and a platform for iLCP photographers making an important difference in that issue. I truly believe the Tar Sands oil represents an issue that will eventually affect every one of us, but I know LightHawk is in a unique position to add clarity, and some reality, to the Tar Sands dialogue with our flights.

Many thanks to Tom Haas and Janice Newman for making the trip possible and immensely enjoyable (in spite of the sobering sights). And to Garth Lenz for being a true champion who uses his incredible and inspiring photography to further conservation.

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