These Pictures May Give You Nightmares About The Canada Oil Sands

Oil Sands

Photo: Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Canada’s economic boom depends on tearing up 54,000 square-mile of pristine Alberta wilderness.Development of the world’s third largest oil supply is proceeding rapidly. It already represents a $3.5 billion annual paycheck to the Canadian government and 75,000 immediate jobs.

But many are aghast at the project, which is also the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas in Canada.

When you see the pictures, you may feel the same. 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.

Business Insider sent me to Alberta in early May, when there was still ice on the ground and a bite in the air. I took these shots, trying to stay warm, from about 1,000 feet up, out of the window of a small plane.

The following pictures show oil mining, where the sand is dug from the ground and the oil’s separated through a lengthy and messy process. There are drilling sites in the oil sands, and those are highlighted in the photo essay at the end of this one.

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 — from there, through the open window and with a long lens we were able to 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 that — the red line is an approximate outline of the entire deposit — the green is where we'll be flying

But thousands flock here to make real money in the oil sands — where creating synthetic crude begins in the strip mine

This is how the oil sands have been harvested since 1967

There were only two companies working the sands in 1998 and local officials were concerned even those would be forced to close — there are more than 10 times that number here now

That's because in the late '90s oil prices rose, the Canadian government restructured its royalty system, and new technology caused a huge boom

From small companies to conglomerates like Shell — each outfit starts off the same way

First they clear the trees from the land

Then they scrape away the shallow layer of leafy, peaty topsoil called muskeg

Then the trucks and shovels come in to scoop up the oil sand — that shovel is electric, runs on 15,000 volts — 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 and can haul 1 million pounds in a single load — more weight than a fully loaded Boeing 747

They're so large people say they can drive over a Ford F-150 like it's a 'speed bump' — with this shot from outside a mechanic's shop it's easy to see what they mean

And the dump trucks are everywhere out here

Carrying the chunks of oil sand

Often across bridges like these, which are supposed to be the strongest in the world

To crushing plants like this, which break up the chunks into a fine mixture that can be transported along the conveyor belts below

The conveyors take the sand to be conditioned — the first step in separating it from the oil

Conditioning is just mixing the oil sand with water — creating what's called a slurry — where the 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 — oil, sand, clay, and water in the middle

The sand and water mixture in the middle is pumped to open storage areas called tailings ponds

The ponds are vast and some look more like lakes

Most ponds are coated in a sheen of oil that can be deadly to waterfowl, like ducks and geese, that land on its surface

To help keep birds away scarecrows like this are all over the ponds

The ponds are used to settle out the solids in the oil-water mix as they slowly fall to the bottom — the chemicals and oil float to the top

The surface chemicals are skimmed across the surface using floating lines like those used in oil spills

To give an idea of the size — that dump truck passing the pond is 50-feet-long

This is what one pond looks like on the ground

And this is what the surface material looks like up close

After it's skimmed and the surface water is relatively sediment and chemical free — it's 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

The solids left behind will be used to reclaim the land as the operation moves on

As the sand finally dries it turns white — sound cannons still boom to scare birds away though — 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

It looks a whole lot different on this side

Once the rough oil is pulled from the sand it will get sent to an 'upgrader' like Suncor's here on the Athabasca River — this is one of the sites where the oil from the oil sands is converted into synthetic crude

This is done by heating the raw oil, called bitumen, in a process called coking and produces the smoke that hovers about the whole area and a smell that fills the cockpit of the plane

Here are some small piles of coke

And here is one very immense pile of coke waiting to be used or sold as fuel for smelting iron

After it's coked, the oil is 'cracked' to break the heavy parts down into lighter more desirable petroleum products

Cracked, coked and lighter, what's left gets sent to a tower like this, where inside it's 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 sulfur

The sulfur would normally then be sold

But a glut in the sulfur market is keeping prices low, and in the meantime mountains of it continue to grow

This is Syncrude's Mildred Lake plant along Route 63

Route 63 is deadly, and a family of 7 was killed driving it the day I got there — this memorial is right across from Syncrude by the side of the road — after taking this photo Syncrude security was dispatched and told me to go

Just north of that tribute sit these two machines some companies used in mining up until 2006 — a dragline on the left, and a grey bucketwheel to the right

Spectacularly immense, this bucketwheel is the largest crawling machine in existence

For scale, that fence post is about six-feet-tall

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

There are fleets of trucks and if one breaks down another one simply takes its place, but at $5 to $6 million apiece they are not cheap

And they go through tires pretty quickly — the ones for the big dump trucks run about $45,000 apiece

At 13-feet — and 12,000 pounds each — the 797 tires are a burden to dispose of and they're put to use wherever they can be

To keep vehicles from getting bogged down in the mud, these wooden boards will often be put down

But they're not always practical, so a nearby gravel mine pumps out stone to layer the roads

The gravel mine produces its own uniquely coloured pools of water

But they don't compare to the deep orange of this oil sand pit we pass in the plane moments later

The companies out here all have their own landfills

Though city officials are building a state-of-the-art incinerator as part of their modernization effort

Most oil workers live in housing like this and are bussed in to the compound from their homes and families in Fort McMurray

There are no public gas stations up by the camps and sadly even this store was closed at noon on a Sunday

Which may have been just as well because the bootie dispenser outside the door was empty

The average dump truck driver makes about $55 an hour plus overtime working the mines and the average family income here is around $190,000

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 — he asked for a photo

And just as you would imagine, the people who live here are very concerned about pollution — this site was fined $275,000 for contaminating the Athabasca River just a year ago

The provincial government tests the area waters constantly

But the locals I talked to all said they'd like to see more transparency and updates on what exactly is being found and what they should watch out for

The oil sands, with its up to 2 trillion barrels of oil sitting in the ground, is a complex place

And despite how you may feel about the immense environmental impact the oil companies may have on the world

You can be sure they're not going anywhere while there is still oil left to collect

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