Photo essay: Tar-sands Country, Alberta, Canada

Repost from MSNBC
[Editor: This is a beautifully written and photographed documentary of the Alberta, Canada communities suffering under the grab for tar-sands bitumen, which Valero admits could allowably be part of its crude-by-rail import “mix” (in its diluted form, known as “dilbit”).  Read below, and click on the photo to see the photo essay.  -RS]

How Fort McMurray became an energy industry gold mine

By Olivia Kestin and Ned Resnikoff

Photo essay
Photos by Philippe Brault/Agence VU/Pictures from “Fort McMoney” directed by David DufresneyHighway 63 in North Alberta, Dec. 16, 2012. In the winter the road becomes entirely ice. It is called the "the highway of death" because the traffic is heavy and car crashes are deadly. On this road, approximately 150 miles north of Fort McMurray is Fort Chipewyan, one of the oldest communities in the area and home to native groups in North Alberta.

Whether you see it as the key to energy independence or the next step toward environmental catastrophe, tar sands oil’s transformative power cannot be denied. And nowhere is that power felt with more bracing immediacy than in the shale oil boomtowns.

Fort McMurray, in Alberta, Canada, is one such town. Once a sleepy rural village with a population of barely 2,500, “Fort Mac” now has 100,000 residents, many of whom work in the energy industry. The change began in 1967, when Suncor (then known as Sun Company of Canada) finished construction of its Fort McMurray oil sands plant. Since then, the town has practically lived and breathed black gold.

Today, Alberta exports over one million barrels of oil per day to the United States, and the energy industry accounts for over one quarter of the province’s GDP. The Keystone oil pipeline, currently the subject of a heated political battle in the United States, is just one of many pipelines which shuttle those millions of barrels into the United States around the clock. Even if President Obama acquiesces to the demands of environmental activists and blocks the Keystone XL pipeline extension, the blow would barely dent U.S. reliance on Alberta’s rapidly expanding tar sands operation. Fort McMurray, which rests atop the fruitful Athabasca tar sands deposit, is at the center of the boom.

That operation has done wonders for Fort McMurray’s economy, but that’s not all it has done. Tar sands oil is an especially hazardous fossil fuel, producing an estimated 12% more emissions than regular crude oil. Alberta health officials have confirmed that the cancer rate near oil sands is higher than expected, but the vice president of Alberta Health Services says there is “no cause for alarm.” Fishers have repeatedly found deformed fish in Lake Athabasca, near the oil sands.

Photojournalist Philippe Brault traveled to Fort McMurray to witness up close how the oil energy has reshaped nature and society there. His photographs document everyday life in the heart of an energy industry gold mine.

Brault’s photos are featured in the interactive web documentary, “Fort McMoney,” directed by David Dufresne and produced by Toxa, Arte, and the ONF (Canada). The multimedia series is an innovative part game part documentary where players step into the world of Fort McMurray.

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