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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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.
"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."
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