Athabasca Oil Sands in All Their Terrible Glory

Athabasca Oil Sands in All Their Terrible Glory


Growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, photographer Garth Lenz didn't have any exposure to the so-called Alberta Tar Sands or First Nations. But during a 2005 cross-country trip documenting the boreal forest, he laid eyes on what is formally called the Athabasca Oil Sands for the first time.

“I’d heard about the tar sands but I hadn’t been, so I went there and spent a couple of days and was pretty much flabbergasted by the scale of the devastation and the impacts,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network at a Brooklyn, New York, reception honoring an exhibit including his photos.

“I had photographed industrial devastation all over, including some of the most massive clear-cuts on the planet, right in British Columbia and in Chile and Patagonia, so I’d seen that massive industrialization of the landscape on a huge, huge scale,” he said. “But I was completely unprepared for what I found. Because this is just completely off-the-grid crazy—the scale is unbelievable.”

In Washington, hundreds of people from both sides of the U.S.–Canada border have been arrested for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,700-mile-long affair that would bisect the United States to carry oil south to the Gulf of Mexico. But where does this oil come from? It comes from the oil sands under the Athabasca River Delta, one of the world's largest watersheds. Though oil has been extracted from this region for more than a century, the vast area will be expanded greatly if current plans are approved.

Besides the global nature of the ecological devastation is the harm done to the food sources of First Nations who live in the area. Food must be flown into these remote communities at enormous cost, Lenz pointed out, and the development harms the fish and caribou that they rely on.

“If they don’t hunt, if they don’t get enough caribou for the winter, they go hungry,” said Lenz, who has spent time with First Nations leaders and community members in the oil sands region. (The pipeline itself would cut through Sioux territory in the U.S.)

And it goes beyond clear-cutting the forest.

“It’s the complete eradication of an ecosystem,” Lenz said. “I mean, the forest is clear-cut, the wetlands are drained and dredged, the soil is dug up, replaced by massive mines and toxic ponds which you can see from outer space.”

To capture the scale of it all, and the terrifying beauty of the before-and-after, Lenz flew over the sands by helicopter and small plane.

“I’m trying to basically show the contrast of the beauty of the intact ecosystem and the industrialization,” Lenz said. “I think the industrial pictures are quite beautiful in their own way as well. Hopefully people can enjoy them aesthetically while at the same time realizing that the truth of the images is very disturbing. So it sort of draws you in at the same time that it repulses you, almost.”

His photo series, Canada’s Tar Sands and the True Cost of Oil, won first place in a photo competition at Social for exhibition in a show, Ten Years After Nine/Eleven: Searching for a 21st Century Landscape, exhibited at the Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn along with photographs from two others depicting the global, human facets of the West’s addiction to oil. It was all tied in to the 10th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

“If the Keystone XL pipeline is approved it’s obviously a very bad thing because what it does is it really ties us more and more deeply into petroleum production and this addiction to oil,” Lenz said. “First of all, all oil has dramatic negative impacts, whether it’s on local populations, the environment or both. And [the] tar sands is probably one of the worst examples of that. So what we really need to be investing our time, energy and money into is not perpetuating oil, not becoming tied to the dirtiest oil on the planet, but on looking for alternatives to that.”

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