News Archives

Garth Lenz & The True Cost of Oil

September 4, 2015

During assembly on Friday, September 4, Jamie Wagner discussed the photography and the message behind the photography currently on exhibit at JBS:

Good morning students, faculty and administrators. Thank you for the opportunity to introduce the work of Garth Lenz on exhibit in the Bonsack Gallery.

I came across Garth Lenz’s work while researching fossil fuels and found his photographs both beautiful and disturbing, so much so that I reached out to him to see if he ever held shows at high schools. I was thrilled when he actually responded to my e-mail and quickly contacted Ms. Allison to see if we could arrange an exhibit ....  As the introduction to his TED Talk states, his “photographs capture the detailed reality of what happens when a pristine landscape is confronted by an industrial project.”

Mr. Lenz’s photographs have won numerous international awards. Mr. Lenz is also a fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. His work has appeared in leading publications including the New York Times, the BBC, the Guardian, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He has addressed major corporations, publishers, the Canadian senate and the European Parliament. 

Mr. Lenz writes that: "From the outset, a central theme of my work has been the contrasts between the industrialized and natural landscape. The primary focus of my early work was forests and the impacts of industrial logging. As my understanding of ecological issues has grown, so has the range of my photographic subjects. My recent work has been largely focused on the world of modern fossil fuel production and its associated impacts on the landscape. Recent projects have addressed mountaintop removal coal mining, shale gas production, and the Alberta Tar Sands."

The Tar Sands are part of what is called 'tight' oil because it is so difficult to extract, which means it is expensive. The price of tight oil must remain high to make extraction of it profitable. But high oil prices ultimately lead to a decrease in demand. So in this era of 'tight' oil, the world can expect fluctuations in the price of oil. One year ago, the price of oil was above $100/barrel, now it hovers around $50/barrel. Prices drop because of falling demand.

Before 'tight' oil, it did not cost as much to produce oil. The equipment was simpler, made out of basic materials such as wood, and was thus less expensive. In the 1930’s, an oil producer could get 100 barrels of oil with just one barrel of oil.

Today, extracting oil is far more expensive. To get oil from the Alberta tar sands, first the land must be cleared of trees. Then, 30 to 40 meters of peat, clay and sand must be removed before getting to the sand filled with tar. Then, the tar sand must be dug up and transported to the separating facility where the tar sand and rock are crushed and then mixed with enormous amounts of hot water to separate the tar from the sand.

The remaining sand along with some unrecovered tar is transported to huge “tailings ponds.”  The tar is then processed into a more liquid form so it can be transported through pipes.  All of this takes a lot of energy.  Some researchers calculate that one barrel of oil produces only five barrels of oil from tar sands. 

This much lower energy return on energy invested weakens the world economy. ... The poor of the world will be affected earlier and far worse than the wealthy by the economic dislocation and contraction caused by dependence on 'tight' oil.

Mr. Lenz’s work takes us to the very start of 'tight' oil extraction in the boreal forest of Alberta, Canada, where the natural beauty of this pristine setting is threatened. But far more is at risk than just the Boreal forest of Canada, as Mr. Lenz explains in this TED Talk.