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Boon from Canadian oil sands comes at price

The oil sands of Alberta, Canada, represent the second-largest source of crude oil in the world, behind Saudi Arabia, but mining it comes at a cost.

The road leading to the Fort McMurray Airport. The Oil Sands or Tar Sands region in Alberta, Canada is now one of the largest producers of petroleum in the world. The Athabasca Oil Sands (also known colloquially as the Athabasca Tar Sands although there is no actual tar) are large deposits of bitumen, or extremely heavy crude oil, located in northeastern Alberta, Canada - roughly centered around the boomtown of Fort McMurray. These oil sands, hosted in the McMurray Formation, consist of a mixture of crude bitumen (a semi-solid form of crude oil), silica sand, clay minerals, and water. The Athabasca deposit is the largest reservoir of crude bitumen in the world and the largest of three major oil sands deposits in Alberta, along with the nearby Peace River and Cold Lake deposits. Together, these oil sand deposits lie under 141,000 square kilometres (54,000 sq mi) of sparsely populated boreal forest and muskeg (peat bogs) and contain about 1.7 trillion barrels (270?10^9 m3) of bitumen in-place, comparable in magnitude to the world's total proven reserves of conventional petroleum. With modern unconventional oil production technology, at least 10% of these deposits, or about 170 billion barrels (27?10^9 m3) were considered to be economically recoverable at 2006 prices, making Canada's total oil reserves the second largest in the world, after Saudi Arabia's. The Athabasca deposit is the only large oil sands reservoir in the world which is suitable for large-scale surface mining, although most of it can only be produced using more recently developed in-situ technology.[ Jon Lowenstein

One of Alberta's first oil sands plants sits abandoned five decades after its last use.

Alberta's three major deposits here lie under 54,000 square miles of sparsely populated but heavily forested land and peat bogs. They are thought to hold 1.7 trillion barrels of bitumen, comparable in magnitude to the world's total proven reserves of conventional petroleum. But oil from the sands is much more expensive to produce. Some 10 percent of those deposits were considered to be economically recoverable at 2006 prices, making Canada's total oil reserves the second largest in the world after Saudi Arabia's.

The deposits make Canada one of the largest producers of petroleum in the world. These oil sands consist of crude bitumen (a semi-solid form of crude oil), sand, clay and water.

Jon Lowenstein

Machine operator Bob Gerlitz is paired with a landscape shot to show the connection between oil sands workers and the natural area, says photographer Jon Lowenstein. "By pairing each person’s images with a portrait of a tree, I hope to bring attention to both the global nature of the oil industry and the destruction of the boreal forest that exists above the bitumen reserves," he says.

Gerlitz also reflects the prosperity that jobs here bring. An Alberta native, he works 12-hour days for 20 days straight and then takes a 10-day break. His pay for 20 days work after taxes, housing and health care? $6,500, he says.

Jon Lowenstein / NOOR

Ed Cooper is a member of the First Nations Community in Fort McKay, about an hour north of Fort McMurray. Although the community has suffered a loss of land, it has also gained a large amount of economic support, and many of its members work for the industry. Fort McMurray even has an affectionate nickname: Fort McMoney.

Jon Lowenstein / NOOR

Rylee McClean, 5, lives in Fort McMurray. Her entire family works for the oil sands industry. Even her grandmother, who moved there to be closer to the family, works for the health clinic that tests workers for drug use.

Jon Lowenstein / NOOR

A flare from a plant that processes oil sands into crude lights up the night.

A 2006 study by researchers at Simon Fraser University near Vancouver, British Columbia, calculated that the oil sands industry creates five times as many greenhouse-gas emissions as conventional oil wells. On top of that, forests are cleared to make way for the extraction, releasing carbon dioxide in the process.

While gaps in climate science exist, leading some to question the degree of mankind’s impact as well as whether anything should be done, most governments as well as the science academies of the U.S. and other industrial nations agree that mankind is a significant factor and that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced.

Jon Lowenstein

This oil sands plant lies north of Fort McMurray. In 2007, Alberta enacted a law requiring large facilities to reduce their emissions intensity by 12 percent from 2003-2005 levels starting in 2007.

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Jon Lowenstein

Syncrude, Canada's largest oil sands producer, runs the processing plant in the background. Environmental Services Manager Steve Gaudet says the company is committed to restoring the area back to nearly its natural state once mining is done. Some land has already been reclaimed, and 300 bison now roam there.

Also shown is a tailings pond, a byproduct of the mining process. The ponds hold clay, water, sand, hydrocarbons and heavy metals left over after water washes oil out of sand in the extraction process. The tailings ponds are quite toxic, and in 2008 1,500 ducks died after landing on the oily water. Noisemakers designed to scare the birds had failed to go off. Syncrude is facing charges.

Jon Lowenstein

This worker camp is one of many that dot the landscape around the oil sands developments. Some workers receive free lodging while others pay. They get three meals a day, have an entertainment room and typically their own private rooms.

"Many of the residents in Fort McMurray were concerned that this would just be another negative story about the oil industry and reflect poorly on their town," photographer Jon Lowenstein says. "I have tried as much as possible to tell the whole tale and connect the dots. Yes, there is great environmental destruction and impact by the mining of the land, and yet we are all complicit. I fill my car more than once a week with at least 15 gallons of gasoline. I am a part of this story and tried to take that attitude when telling it."

Jon Lowenstein

The Athabasca deposit is the largest reservoir of crude bitumen in the world and the largest of three major oil sands deposits in Alberta, along with the nearby Peace River and Cold Lake deposits. The Athabasca deposit is the only large oil sands reservoir in the world that is suitable for large-scale surface mining, although most of its oil can be produced only using more recently developed in-situ technology.

For more information on this project go to Consequences by NOOR

Jon Lowenstein