The Trump administration granted a presidential permit March 24 for a multibillion-dollar underground pipeline that would move Canadian oil through the US.
Called Keystone XL, the project is a new segment of the existing Keystone Pipeline system, which begins in Alberta’s oil sands, sometimes called tar sands, and ends at holding tanks in Patoka, Illinois, as well as points in Texas along the Gulf of Mexico.
The 1,180-mile (1,900-kilometer) XL segment, which is partially built but may ultimately cost more than $A13 billion, would move larger volumes of oil in less time by shortening the route and burying larger-diameter pipes.
Proponents of the pipeline say it will lessen dependence on foreign oil while creating jobs and growing domestic industry — that is, if financing, local permits, and legal challenges can be resolved. But environmental groups and many Americans — especially Native Americans — are furious about Trump’s support for the project.
Former President Barack Obama canceled the Keystone XL pipeline in November 2015 with an executive order that said it wouldn’t help lower gas prices or create that many jobs. He also said the pipeline’s long-term contribution to climate change — possibly more than 22 billion metric tons of carbon pollution, according to Scientific American — wasn’t worth the loss of America’s global leadership on climate change.
“If we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground,” Obama said.
Neither Trump’s January 2017 reversal of Obama’s order nor this week’s State Department permit grant mention the project’s steep environmental costs, which include the potential industrialisation of 54,000 square miles of Alberta wilderness.
“We’re not saying the project is good or bad. We’re just saying the scale and severity of what’s happening in Alberta will make your spine tingle,” Robert Johnson, a former Business Insider correspondent, wrote after flying over the Canadian oil sands in May 2012.
Keep scrolling to see an updated version of Johnson’s photo essay, which shows the effects of Canadian oil mining — a process in which tar-laden sand is dug from the ground so the oil in it can get separated. That process generates about 50% of the Keystone XL pipeline’s oil.
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To get a look at the oil sand mines, we rented this Cessna 172, which the pilot was allowed to bring down to 1,000 feet. Through the open window we could see what really goes on in one of the most controversial places on the planet.
The Alberta oil sands are spread across more than 54,000 square miles, but we're taking a look at just a small part of it. The red line is an approximate outline of the entire deposit -- the green is where we were flying.
Thousands flock here to make real money in the oil sands, where creating synthetic crude begins in the strip mine.
That's because in the late '90s, oil prices rose, the Canadian government restructured its royalty system, and new technology caused a huge boom.
Trucks and shovels move in to scoop up the oil sand. This shovel is electric and scoops up 90 tons in one load. It takes about 2.5 tons of sand to produce one barrel of oil.
The Cat 797 dump trucks are the largest in the world and can haul 1 million pounds in a single load -- more weight than a fully loaded Boeing 747 aeroplane.
They're so large people say they can drive over a Ford F-150 like it's a 'speed bump.' This shot of one inside a mechanic's shop shows what they mean.
...To crushing plants like this, which break up the chunks into a fine mixture that can be transported along the conveyor belts below.
Conditioning mixes the oil sand with water to create a slurry, in which oil begins to part from the sand.
The slurry is then piped to containers where it separates into three parts: Oil froth on top; sand on the bottom; and oil, sand, clay, and water in the middle.
Most ponds are coated in a sheen of oil that can be deadly to waterfowl, like ducks and geese, that land on its surface.
The ponds are used to clarify the oil-water slurry. Solids slowly sink to the bottom, chemicals and oil float to the top.
After the surface water is skimmed, it's relatively free of sediment and chemicals, and is pumped from one pond to another.
This clarified water is supposed to provide 90 per cent of what the oil companies need to start all over again.
As the sand finally dries, it turns white. Sound cannons boom in these areas to scare birds away, especially after a 2010 incident where hundreds of ducks landed on a roadside pond and died.
Oil companies are required to return the land to its original condition and this reclaimed section, populated with Wood Bison, is not far from the pond.
The petroleum industry is also working to limit surface mining and increase its share of 'in situ' production of oil, which drills wells into hard-to-reach deposits, blasts them with steam, and pumps oil products to the surface.
About 20% of Alberta's oil sand deposits can be reached with surface mining. The other 80% is ripe for the in situ method, which has a less visible footprint compared to mining. The split in method of production today is about 50/50.
So far, only a small portion of Alberta's oil sands are developed. And Canada requires any mining operation to reclaim the area. But there are costs to expanding in situ production.
In situ extraction still impacts wildlife, such as caribou herds, and it takes more energy -- and generates more greenhouse gases -- to extract oil compared to mining.
With the mining method, the crude oil is pulled from the sand and shuttled to an 'upgrader' like Suncor's here on the Athabasca River -- one of the sites where the oil from the sands is converted into synthetic crude.
This is done by heating the raw oil, called bitumen, in a process called coking. Smoke from the process hovers about the whole area and a smell that fills the cockpit of the plane.
After it's coked, the oil is 'cracked' to break the heavy parts down into lighter, more desirable petroleum products.
What's left after cracking gets sent to towers like this. Inside they're hotter at the top than the bottom, forcing dense material down and lighter petroleum products up.
Then everything is exposed to hot, high-pressure gas that removes even more impurities like sulphur.
Route 63 is a deadly stretch of road. A family of seven died the day I arrived in Alberta, and their memorial is right across from Syncrude by the side of the road. After taking this photo, Syncrude security arrived and told me to leave.
Just north of the memorial sit these two machines, which some companies used in mining until 2006. A dragline is on the left, and a grey bucketwheel on the right.
These bucket teeth that dug into the sand were very effective, but when the bucketwheel broke down, mining stopped -- so they were phased out in favour of the shovels and trucks.
Fleets of trucks work the sands. That way, if one breaks down another can simply takes its place. But at $A6.57 to $A7.88 million apiece, they are not cheap.
And they go through tires pretty quickly. The ones for the big dump trucks run about $A59.107 apiece.
At 13 feet wide and 12,000 pounds each, 797 tires are a burden to dispose of -- so they're put to use wherever they can be. Here they make a security fence.
But they don't compare to the deep orange of this oil sand pit we passed in the plane moments later.
Even though city officials are building a state-of-the-art incinerator as part of their modernisation effort.
Most oil workers live in housing like this and are bused in to the compound from their homes in Fort McMurray.
The average dump truck driver working the mines makes about $A75 an hour plus overtime. The average family income here is around $A250,000 a year.
That kind of money prompts many people to settle down and stay far longer than they planned. (This is where the pilot lives with his parents.)
But locals I talked to said they'd like to see more transparency and updates on what exactly is being found and what they should watch out for.
And as you would imagine, the people who live here are very concerned about pollution -- this site was fined $A362,000 for contaminating the Athabasca River in 2011.
...You can be sure they're not going anywhere while there is still oil left to collect -- with or without the Keystone XL pipeline.
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