FREAK Shots: The Oil Sands

Photographer Louis Helbig has been photographing Canada’s oil sands mining (featured in a Freakonomics contest last week) for several years, with fascinating results.

This is a photo of an open pit mine:

DESCRIPTIONAll Photos: Louis Helbig

The overburden, “a layer of earth, sand and gravel up to 100 feet deep covering the bitumen” must be stripped before mining begins:


A tar pond, with a scarecrow. Birds often land on the tar ponds and are poisoned by the toxic water:


A bitumen slick:



Thanks for the photos. I'm not sure what the point of the post is though. What is it?

By the way, I don't think birds "often" are poisoned as described. There was one high-profile case fairly recently in which the equipment used to scare birds away malfunctioned and some ducks died, but it's hardly the mass elimination of wildlife that you imply.


True, Charlie: the oil sands have nowhere near the bird fatality record of, say, the wind power industry, which is also big in Alberta.

Still, environmental issues surrounding water use, energy use and lack of oversight are real and significant.


Agree with Geoff that oil sands are not a huge bird killer.

But, I would also add that wind turbines are also not huge bird killers. Tall buildings kill many, many more birds than wind farms. So do house cats.

Finally, I am also curious what these photos have to do with 'Freakonomics'.


This is here for the cost benefit analysis of a barrel of oil from the gulf and a barrel of oil from the oil sands (factoring direct costs and externalties)...right?


How dirty does the TarSands oil seem now with the Deep Water Horizon / Gulf oil spill fiasco? I find it interesting that there are now pictures of reclaimed land after the open pit mines are complete and filled in.

Lets bring this back from an environmental agenda to an economic one. My question is what is the environmental impact in monetary terms of Oil Sands vs. Off Shore drilling?


Lots of Albertans posting here.

"What is the impact in monetary terms of oil sands vs off shore drilling?" What are you asking, how much money does it take to undo the damage that we wreak on the environment? Find the cheapest and go with that?

How about we spend that money finding ways to reduce consumption of energy and then find ways of producing that energy other than from oil?

The tar sands are a national economic saviour and a national ecological disgrace. How greedy are we?


"What are you asking, how much money does it take to undo the damage that we wreak on the environment? Find the cheapest and go with that?"

Yes, that's what I'm asking.


I saw this in Lord of the Rings!

Maurice Hilarius

Nobody seems to notice the point that in the region of the oil sands, there is so much bitumen at or close to the surface that is was mainly uninhabitable prior to mining!

Even the local aboriginals would not live in the vicinity as there was little or no potable water or food.

Think of the mining and processing as a giant project to REMOVE the contaminants from the region and you get a much more realistic view.

Steve Parr

The tar sands is highly destructive and the notion that reclamation could ever restore the Boreal forest and now polluted waterways is naive. I planted trees in clearcut cutblocks for five years throughout British Columbia, and the success of those operations is marginal and never approaches a complete restoration of the ecology. The main benefit is to the timber companies by providing them with "tree farms".

The drama of the Gulf Oil spill has highlighted the risks of off-shore drilling. It's dangerous. But the tar sands will destroy an area the size of Michigan, including one of the most important carbon-sinks the world has left - the Boreal rainforest.

Did anybody else notice the report this morning that the Arctic sea ice is set for a record low this summer?

Maurice: On the subject of the local aboriginals, check out A band affected by the tar sands, the Beaver Lake Cree, is taking the tar sands to court. They have a real shot at winning, based on their Constitutional rights.




As the tar sands are an inanimate object, how will

1) they destroy an area the size of Michigan? and
2) how will the Beaver Lake Cree sue them?



I think Steve means that oil sands developers are destroying the environment and that the First Nations are suing some or one of the developers.


I would note that all oil sands developers commit to reclamation of their properties once mining is complete. Whether you believe reclamation is possible or probable is up to you, but I have seen some of the limited reclamation work and I am hopeful that the damage can be reversed.

This is in exchange for billions of dollars of investment and tax dollars for Canadians.

Steve Parr

Ray -

1) The tar sands will occupy an area of land the size of Michigan. To occupy that land is to destroy it. I think the images posted above make that pretty clear. If you'd like more information, images and videos about what the tar sands does to the landscape, just google 'tar sands' - there's no shortage.

2) The Beaver Lake Cree are signatories to Treaty 6 with the Canadian Government. This treaty guarantees them rights to hunt and fish in perpetuity. Under section 35 of the Constitution of Canada, aboriginal and treaty rights are guaranteed. Therefore, their rights to hunt and fish trump all other legislation from any government - federal or provincial. The tar sands developers - BP, Shell, RioTinto, Statoil, and many others - have applied for and received 17,000 permits from Alberta's energy regulator to expand the tar sands into the Beaver Lake Cree's traditional territory. Since such development will destroy the land and eliminate wildlife and fish, it would render the BLC's right to hunt and fish meaningless. The Supreme Court of Canada recently held that treaty rights to hunt and fish must be meaningful (i.e., it's not enough to say, hey there's a rat and a worm, hunt that -- Mikisew Cree First Nation v. Canada 2005). Thus, the BLC have already launched suit (two years ago, in fact) to overturn those 17,000 permits on the basis that they are unconstitutional. Their case is underway.

For a better explanation, check this video:

Jason - I think it's important that whether reclamation works or not is not merely a matter of opinion, be it yours, mine, or the oil companies doing it. However, I trust that you know something about wetlands, as there's been so much media coverage on it resulting from the BP oil spill. Wetlands are the most difficult type of terrain to restore, and they comprise almost half of the land that the tar sands is developing.

The claims of oil companies that reclamation work are founded on hubris alone. Syncrude proclaimed in a report that they would restore land to a "stable, biologically self-sustaining state" through something they call "adaptive management". Which means learning by doing, because they do not know how to accomplish it. This is the same fanciful thinking that grounds the tar sands companies' responses to climate change - "we'll develop technology, sometime in the future, to capture the carbon". The fact that there's no scientific grounding for them does not seem to trouble either them or the Alberta regulators.

I don't know a lot about reclamation, but I think we all know how difficult it is to extract oil and other pollutants from the land. Anybody who's been involved with developing "brownland" (former industrial sites) in the city will know how costly this is. If anybody can show me a resource-extraction company with a positive record on post-operations reclamation and restoration, I'd love to see it.

Finally, on the note of the billions of dollars of investment and tax - yes, you're right, it's a lot of money. And in fifty years it will all be gone. The ecology they are destroying has served people and the other species that inhabit forever. And when it's gone, it's gone. And by the way, Alberta has a 1% royalty-fee structure on tar sands development (a pittance compared to most jurisdictions).


Canadian Citizen

Steve Parr-

Your statement "Alberta has a 1% royalty-fee structure on tar sands development (a pittance compared to most jurisdictions)." is incorrect. The 1% royalty is applicable only until the capital cost are repaid (typically 2-4 years), after which the big, bad earth destroyers pay royalties on a sliding scale that moves in synch with oil price. This royalty amount is about 20% at today's prices.

The royalty policy is curent under review.

You may want to brush up on your facts (try google, or if you are going to bury them in your one-sided rhetorical rants.


Steve Parr

CC -

Thanks for adding some nuance to the discussion on royalty structures.

My take from the 2007 Alberta Royalty Review panel was that Alberta's royalty structure remains the lowest of any major oil/gas jurisdiction. Do you differ on this point?

I understand that the royalty structure has changed several times over the past five years.

Do you know if this is the current royalty structure? --

- Steve



You said:

"1) The tar sands will occupy an area of land the size of Michigan. To occupy that land is to destroy it. I think the images posted above make that pretty clear. "

While the total area of the oilsands is approx. the size of Michigan, the current total open pit area is equivalent to the size of Los Angeles.

A significant amount of the new development will be "in-situ", not open pit mining due to the depth of the oil sands.

Water remains the biggest issue surrounding the oilsands, and will remain even with in-situ mining,

raleigh latham

There is no way to justify the Tar Sands, they will unleash RUNAWAY CLIMATE CHANGE if they are allowed to be fully exploited, according to James Hansen.