February 23rd, 2009
04:53 PM ET

Photos of the oil sands boom

Editor's Note: Rob Kunzig, of National Geographic Magazine, went to northern Alberta last summer to write about the oil sands boom. To read his blog about the assignment, click here.

Rob Kunzig
National Geographic Magazine

In the Athabasca Valley north of Fort McMurray, the oil companies are going to amazing lengths to scrape oil from the frozen ground. First, they raze the boreal forest, then they strip-mine tarry sand with gargantuan trucks and steam shovels, and finally they cook the tar out of the sand and then cook it some more to upgrade it to oil. It takes a huge amount of energy. That puts a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, above and beyond what comes out our tailpipes when we burn the resulting gasoline.

Here are photos of the region.

Dust hangs in the sunset sky above the Suncor Millennium mine, an open-pit north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Canada’s oil sands are layers of sticky, tarlike bitumen mixed with sand, clay, and water. Around a hundred feet of soil must be stripped off to reach many deposits.

A giant shovel at the bottom of a mine delivers sand to trucks like this three-story, four-million-dollar Caterpillar, which muscle up to 400 tons at a time to extraction plants.

Oil sands surface mining operates on extreme scales, with crews working around the clock through hot summers and subzero winters to feed heavy demand.

A giant shovel at the bottom of a mine delivers sand.

As the bitumen rises to the top of the wash, Suncor employee Lee Flett skims off wood, leaves, and other debris before the sticky load is sent to an upgrading facility that converts it to synthetic crude oil.

Beneath a green sweep of fen and forest in northern Alberta lies a promise of wealth–vast layers of hydrocarbons that can be refined into petroleum products like gasoline. Undisturbed until now, these trees may soon fall: This land has already been staked out by prospectors.

Editor's Note: For more information, check out the March issue of National Geographic Magazine.

soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. julie ,p.i.

    This method of extraction sure looks "environmentally unfriendly" but must be economically feasible/worth the expense that they continue to do it. How sad that they mine for oil this way, without a care that they are ruining the environment.

    February 24, 2009 at 2:52 am |
  2. KIm

    A promise of National Security and Energy Independence ! That's the wealth for future generations !

    February 24, 2009 at 1:33 am |
  3. Brandon Scuff

    hey my vehicles need gas how am i going to get to work!!!!! i got kids a wife and my girlfriend to support!!!!!

    February 24, 2009 at 1:13 am |
  4. KIm

    100% Re-Power America ! Wind corridors open yet ? Oil ! A part of an ending as we see new innovations moving foward and don't look back. " Europe begged Russia....it's cold " Alarm clocks are set for a wake up call at T.Boone Pickins.com. Alternative energy is critical for our environment and national security. 90 billion is headed for energy and yes we will !

    February 24, 2009 at 1:11 am |
  5. Amanda Walton-Fort Erie, Ontario

    Great photo's, yet your description and the photos make my stomach turn thinking about what they do to get oil from the region. A lover I am of the undisturbed beauty of the boreal forrest as all natural land, the destruction already done and what they want to do brings tears to my eyes. Such beauty and serenity being slowly raped for the sake of our lifestyle we have created.

    What a crying shame 🙁

    February 23, 2009 at 11:16 pm |
  6. Mike Juenke

    The US has huge deposits of gas hidden in gas shales throughout the country. New techniques in horizontal drilling and reservoir stimulation (fracturing) has opened the massive resource. Why don't we see incentives to invest in making natural gas available in gas stations. This is a clean fuel that we produce in the US. Normal gasoline engines and be easily converted to natural gas. I've been to many foreign countries such as India and Brazil whos car can be easily switched from natural gas to gasoline with a simple flick of a switch. I just don;t understand why we do not tap this resouce.

    February 23, 2009 at 10:13 pm |
  7. Annie Kate

    As terrible as the oil sands are with their destruction of the boreal forests, we are doing the SAME thing in the US in the Appalachian mountains of West Vriginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina – its called mountaintop removal mining where they raze all the old forests off the mountain and then blast the mountain tops apart to get to the coal. The result is a moonscape devoid of trees, wildlife, and everything else that made it one of the most bio-diverse places in the US. Look up mountain top removal mining in Google and look at the pictures and read the accounts. While they are strip mining coal with this method its coal that comes into all of our homes while we destroy not only a forest, an ecosystem, part of our heritage as the oldest mountains in the country fall, and a lot of our future as well as the lives of the people who live nearby. We can do better and we need to hurry up and do it before its too late.

    February 23, 2009 at 9:39 pm |
  8. Ali

    This oil is expensive to extract and has destroyed this area – I'm ashamed of it as a cdn.

    February 23, 2009 at 7:55 pm |
  9. sharon from Indy

    Global demand in oil is causing this disgrace. Alternative energy solutions is the only answer. The world has vast amounts of technology and money to invest in solar, hydrothermal, etc. Why don't we? It is too hard and it will cost too much money to change a system that has been lucrative to a few and an addiction to others. We are oil addicts. As long as we can get our fix, why should we want to go into rehabilitation for this planet. Exactly.

    February 23, 2009 at 6:31 pm |
  10. Nicole Murphy

    Truly the photos speak for themselves and provided an insight to greed. It's too bad that the beautiful trees that provide us with so much may be destroyed in mans process of never being satisfied. That is until everything is all gone and the dust has settled. Shame.

    February 23, 2009 at 6:16 pm |
  11. Floridavoter

    Canadians do a great many things right but this is terribly, terribly wrong. It reminds one of the devastation wreaked on the Amazon, or Indonesia. Tragic.

    February 23, 2009 at 6:12 pm |
  12. Krista

    Sad and wrong on so many levels! When are we going to get our act together and find alternative energy sources???

    February 23, 2009 at 5:59 pm |
  13. Ray Khan

    Fantastic photos. The oil sands are an amazing resource and some say that the reserves found in Canada, are the tip of the iceberg; however at what environmental cost and how far are we willing to go in the pursuit of oil?

    February 23, 2009 at 5:57 pm |