Serene scene disguises colossal value of Canadian oil sands
pages 24-25, New Scientist, August 22, 2015
by Gilead Amit
TIME for a moment of reflection. This image of a solitary pumping boat, sailing on the still waters of an artificial lake in the Canadian province of Alberta, was taken in 2013 by the Canadian photographer Louis Helbig.
The serenity of the landscape disguises its colossal economic value. Stretching over 93,000 square kilometres under this part of Canada is the Athabasca oil sands, one of the largest deposits of crude oil in the world and the principal source of petroleum for the US.
The oil is found in the form of bitumen, a thick black liquid whose resemblance to tar means the terrain is sometimes referred to as tar sands. Once extracted from the ground, the bitumen needs to be purified in ponds such as the Syncrude Southwest Sand Storage, pictured here. “What is mind-boggling is the scale of this enterprise,” says Helbig.
Each dot on the water’s surface is a scarecrow called a “bitu-man”, intended to dissuade birds from diving into the toxic water and saving them from the oily surface coating that enhances its reflectiveness.
Helbig has been chronicling the changes caused to this part of Canada by the petroleum industry since 2008. In late 2014 he released Beautiful Destruction, a book containing more than 230 of his photographs of the oil sands, alongside essays presenting a spectrum of views on the future of Alberta’s mining industry. “My role as an artist is to create a space where people will begin to imagine and reflect,” says Helbig.