Exploring Alberta's Oil Sands

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    Suncor Energy's (SU) Millenium oil sand mining-and-refining site, with its tailing pond and earthen dam, lies adjacent to the Athabasca River near Fort McMurray, Alberta. The Athabasca deposit is the world's biggest reservoir of crude bitumen, a semi-solid form of crude oil. The proposed Keystone Pipeline would run from here to various destinations in the U.S.

    Photograph by Robbie McClaran/Redux

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    An open pit mine run by Albian Sands Energy company extracts bituminous sands near Fort McMurray.

    Photograph by: Etienne de Malglaive/REA/Redux

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    The boreal forest is Canada's largest ecosystem. The oil industry, which is obliged to eventually return the land to its original state, has leveled the forest's center in Alberta.

    Photograph by Etienne de Malglaive/REA/Redux

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    Celina Harpe and Ed Cooper are outspoken opponents of the energy developments near Fort McKay, a First Nations community closest to the oil sands projects. "We lived in the brush and we lived pretty good," says Harpe. "All the land was clean and now the oil companies came and the white people and ... they'll dig till they take the last drop of oil. If there's oil under my house, they'll bulldoze the house. It's all for the almighty dollar. They don't treat us like human beings—no respect for us at all. We're proud people. We were hard workers, but today's generation is different."

    Jon Lowenstein/NOOR/Redux

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    Alberta has become one of the largest petroleum producers in the world. Extremely heavy crude oil is contained in a mixture of crude bitumen, silica sand, clay minerals, and water.

    Jon Lowenstein/NOOR/Redux

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    The Athabasca Lodge is one of many worker camps that dot the landscape in Northeastern Alberta. Some workers receive free lodging, while others pay. Camps offer varying amenities, which can range in quality, expense, and services. PTI Group, which supplies accommodations in challenging sites, writes on its website: "From remote, pristine forests to the harshest, most extreme environments on earth, PTI specializes in making workers comfortable."

    Jon Lowenstein / NOOR /Redux

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    Scott Barnes, 27, watches TV to relax before tomorrow's shift begins. Barnes says he started working in the oil sands when he graduated high school eight years ago.

    Jon Lowenstein/NOOR/Redux

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    Two men shoot pool on a Friday night at the Lion's Den in booming Fort McMurray's Quality Inn.

    Jon Lowenstein/NOOR/Redux

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    Partying on Friday night in downtown Fort McMurray.

    Jon Lowenstein/NOOR/Redux

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    Shopping at the Peter Pond Mall is a favored pastime for well-paid oil sands workers and their families.

    Jon Lowenstein/NOOR/Redux

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    The Eveready Worker Camp is one of many that dot the landscape around the oil sands sites. Workers receive three meals a day and share an entertainment room. Sleeping quarters are private, though some workers must pay for them.

    Jon Lowenstein/NOOR/Redux

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    Steve Gaudet, Syncrude Canada's manager of environmental services and land reclamation, stands before a plume of steam and smoke from an upgrader that processes and separates sand from oil. It overlooks a tailings pond that holds a mix of clay, water, sand, hydrocarbons, and heavy metals left over after water washes oil out of the sand during the extraction process. In one incident last year, more than 1500 ducks died after landing on oily water.

    Jon Lowenstein/NOOR/Redux

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    Syncrude Canada, which maintains a herd of 300 Wood Bison on reclaimed land, hails its reclamation effort as groundbreaking and claims it can restore the affected area to near its natural state. The company says it has spent C$100 million ($100.3 million) on land reclamation since 2003, out of an annual operating budget of C$18 billion.

    Jon Lowenstein/NOOR/Redux

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    Swaths of the boreal forest, which began to emerge after the last Ice Age, are cut down and destroyed as the land is scraped away to access the oil that lies below.

    Jon Lowenstein/NOOR/Redux

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    A floating scarecrow guards Suncor Energy's wastewater retention basin, which holds water used to part bitumen from sand. The scarecrows are deployed in an effort to discourage wildfowl from getting sticky, poisoned, or both.

    Etienne de Malglaive/REA/Redux

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    This water in a Suncor Energy retention pool was used to extract bitumen from sand. Toxic waste accumulation in artificial ponds is thought to generate significant environmental pollution, especially via underground seepage.

    Etienne de Malglaive/REA/Redux