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.

Ahead of the global climate talks in December 2009, nine photographers from the photo agency NOOR photographed climate stories from around the world. Their goal: to document some of the causes and consequences, from deforestation to changing sea levels, as well as the people whose lives and jobs are part of the carbon culture.

The road to and from the airport at Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, is hardly the one less traveled. Thousands of workers come and go, taking turns on shifts at huge industrial sites that process what's known as oil sands.

The region promises jobs, company profits and government royalties for decades to come. The costs have been toxic ponds and greenhouse gas emissions. Jon Lowenstein / Consequences by NOOR
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 / Consequences by NOOR
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 / Consequences by 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 / Consequences by 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 / Consequences by 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 / Consequences by NOOR
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.

Share your thoughts about these slideshows and climate change. Jon Lowenstein / Consequences by NOOR
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 / Consequences by NOOR
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 / Consequences by NOOR
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 / Consequences by NOOR