Aerial Photographer Alex MacLean Surveys the Source of the Keystone XL Pipeline

September 18, 2014

By Holly Stuart Hughes


Excavating bitumen at Syncrude’s Mildred Lake mining site.

Much of the controversy surrounding the proposed extension of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from oil reserves in Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Gulf Coast, has focused on the environmental impact of the pipeline as it cuts across prairies and wetlands. Less often discussed is the oil itself, which is being extracted from reserves in the Alberta tar sands, an area surrounded by boreal forest and peat bogs. A NASA scientist has called tar sands oil “one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuels on the planet.”

Having read about the massive effort to extract and process tar sands oil, aerial photographer Alex MacLean was curious to document the operation from the air. After visiting the Alberta tar sands in April and photographing its impact on forests, the water supply and the local First Nations community, MacLean calls what’s happening in the area “ecocide.”

MacLean, who is based in Massachusetts, shoots aerials for editorial and commercial clients and has published several books, many of which focus on the environmental impact of manmade structures. He knew that if he photographed the tar sands, he wanted to reach a larger audience than he could through the sales of a photo book, and so was eager to place the work in online news outlets.

MacLean sought advice about funding a project from Dan Grossman, the author of several books and magazine articles about environmental issues. Grossman suggested that they collaborate and pitch a story focused on the Alberta tar sands to the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, the nonprofit journalism foundation which funds photographer/writer teams and helps publicize their stories. MacLean recalls, “We put in the proposal, and we were funded in about two weeks,” with a grant specifically for foreign reporting.

The story is timely. The Alberta tar sands make up the third largest oil reserve in the world, but its oil “comes in the form of bitumen, a combination of clay, sand and very heavy oil that’s tar-like. It has to be diluted if it’s going to be shipped through a pipe,” MacLean explains. “There’s so much energy expended to get it out of the ground and processed that it’s a lot more carbon-intense than regular crude oil.” If a proposal to extend the pipeline is approved, even more Americans will get their fossil fuels from the tar sands. MacLean proposed to show “the scale of the operation” by shooting from a rented plane at 1,000 feet.

Bitumen located less than 70 meters below cap rock is mined by stripping away trees and topsoil. To extract deeper reserves, steam has to be pumped into the ground “so the bitumen can be pumped out,” MacLean says. Having photographed rows of huge furnaces, steam and oil pipes, towering pyramids of sulfur and other byproducts, and retention ponds “the size of Manhattan” built to hold water waste after it’s washed the bitumen, he observes, “The capital investment is mind-boggling.” He photographed trucks big enough to hold small homes, carrying bitumen and byproducts. These trucks run on tires 12 feet in diameter that “cost about $65,000 each and only last about six months. You can get a sense of how much money is being spent.”

Knowing that a covering of snow could add dramatic contrast to images of forests and peat bogs, MacLean was eager to get to Alberta before the spring thaw. In April he and Grossman flew to Edmonton, then rented a car to drive to Fort McMurray, an oil boomtown. Over the course of their trip, MacLean rented three planes, usually a Cessna 172; because his pilot’s license doesn’t allow him to fly in other countries, he had to work with a pilot.

MacLean didn’t know what working alongside a writer would be like, he says. “I usually work by myself, and fly by myself.” At the start of the trip, Grossman interviewed climate scientists and ecologists, and spoke to locals throughout their trip. This background, MacLean says, “helped shape what I wanted to shoot.”

In Chippewa, roughly 125 miles north of Fort McMurray, for example, Grossman talked to members of the local First Nations community who, concerned about the high incidence of cancer, feared that the food that they hunt and fish for along the Athabasca River had been contaminated. MacLean decided to show how close the tailings ponds, which hold waste, had been built to the river. “The other thing that is really apparent is air pollution,” he says, such as the fine, coal-like dust that blows off piles of petroleum coke. “I got pictures of boxcars hauling sulfur,” which is then carried long distances.

From the air, MacLean documented scars that the search for oil has left on the landscape, and some of the oil companies’ attempts to repair the damage. One of MacLean’s photos shows the boreal forest cut into a grid: The lines are made by surveyors who set off seismic explosions in search of bitumen. “When you fragment a forest, it loses a lot of its biodiversity,” MacLean notes. After caribou wandering into these clearings became easy prey for wolves who could spot them from great distances, the oil company began making the sight lines curvy. Bogs of muskeg peat, which took thousands of years to form, have been removed to get to the bitumen below. “The company promises to put it all back,” says MacLean.

Throughout their trip, Grossman sent out tweets about their travels. By the time they returned, he had found an outlet: The story was published in July by Global Post and The Ground Truth Project. The Pulitzer Center posted a version of the story on its website and promoted it on social media, and helped get MacLean’s photos published in Huffington Post, Fast Company’s Co.Create site and other outlets this summer. The thousands of comments and “likes” his images have received show he has reached a larger audience than he could have through a photo book, “which sells 6,000 to 15,000 copies,” MacLean says. “The work has gotten a lot of use, which I find encouraging.”

In May he traveled to Port Arthur, Texas, to photograph the opposite end of the pipeline, where the oil is refined. At press time, he and Grossman were using the crowdfunding site Indiegogo to fund their return to Alberta when fall foliage is out. Maclean hopes eventually to document the entire route and all the structures being built to handle the process from oil extraction to distribution.

MacLean notes that, in his aerial work across America, he had often photographed abandoned infrastructure, such as the network of canals built in the 19th century. They represented a huge capital investment and the cutting edge in transportation technology at the time, but were abandoned quickly after the advent of the railroad. MacLean says of the infrastructure he documented in Alberta, “I think ultimately we have to walk away from it if we’re going to mitigate the climate-change issue.” At the moment, however, these operations are being expanded to meet future demand. How does MacLean feel about that prospect? “To my point of view, it’s a bummer to think about the gas in my car being 17 to 21 percent more carbon-intense, but it might happen if this oil finds its way into our supply.”

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