Standing on the outskirts of Edmonton and looking northeast, a cluster of twinkling lights amid tall silvery smokestacks puffing out steam and smoke rises up out of the horizon.
Driving northeast towards those lights, following along the North Saskatchewan River, you will pass through the industrial city of Fort Saskatchewan, where petrochemical processing plants and bitumen upgrading facilities line the roads heading out of town. Train tracks run alongside the road and cylindrical rust stained train cars sit dormant, waiting to be filled with petrol products and sent along their way.
Here between Fort Saskatchewan and the next town, Bruderheim, is where the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline would start. I am on a reconnaissance mission to aerially map the beginnings of the pipeline, which would carry crude from the oil sands here in Alberta west to the British Columbia coast for export.
The last few big box stores fade into the background as the landscape empties out into fields, telephone poles, and industrial facilities. The roads empty out too. A few passenger vehicles whiz by, but the traffic is mostly industrial.
Driving along the road, I feel out of place in my station wagon. This feeling is confirmed soon after I pull off the road to take some photographs. A truck coming in the opposite direction makes a quick u-turn and pulls up alongside me. Worried about being questioned for taking photographs, I pull my camera slightly behind my back as I turn towards the men in the truck. “Is that your car up there?” the driver’s friend asks. Did your car break down? Do you need help?
I smile in relief at their friendliness and concern and quickly reply, no, no, I’m fine, my car is fine. They look slightly confused as to why anyone would be walking in the gravel pitch alongside this empty corner of the world, but refrain from asking me more probing questions. I’m grateful for their concern, but it emphasized how out of place I am in this remote landscape.
I am standing in what Alberta calls its Industrial Heartland, aka Upgrader Alley. It is also where the eastern terminus for the Northern Gateway pipeline is proposed to be built. The transformation of this agricultural zone into an industrial one did not take place without some nudging. In 1998, the five municipalities in this region just north of Edmonton partnered to form Alberta’s Industrial Heartland Association, a non-profit association whose aim is to develop the region into a gas, oil, petrochemical and chemical processing powerhouse.
The initiative has succeeded in transforming the region into a heavy industrial zone, with many other energy infrastructure projects proposed or under construction. It is currently Canada’s largest hydrocarbon processing region, a fact evident in the patchwork of energy companies that dominate a recent landholdings map.
The air is heavy and sour with an unidentifiable—to me—chemical smell. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but it makes sense that the terminus of the pipeline would be at an oil transfer facility in an industrially zoned area and not in the center of a cluster of residential communities or farms, although the pipeline will eventually cut through both farther down the line.
The Northern Gateway will start in a region named the Heavy Astotin Industrial Area, within 1 mile (2km) west of the Astotin Natural Area, a provincially protected natural habitat. While it is “a relatively small area of forest for a nature reserve,” according to Travels and Trails, an online trail rating site, there are plenty of trails running through this rectangular wilderness zone.
In an environmental sensitivity and sustainability assessment report made in 2005, this northern section of Strathcona County is labeled “a large area of highly sensitive lands” because of its “extensive native vegetation cover and a broad groundwater recharge area.” The sandy composition of the soil made it inhospitable for agricultural development, creating a largely intact area of natural vegetation. The highly permeable soil–again due to its sandiness–meant that surface water could percolate through the soil rapidly to recharge groundwater aquifers.
The area’s dense forest, which includes the only stands of jack pine in Alberta, provides a habitat for wildlife including the broad-winged hawk and northern goshawk, two bird species ranked as sensitive in Alberta.
It’s winter now and most of the ground and vegetation is covered in a thick layer of snow, obscuring most definable landmarks. It’s hard to spot the vegetation that I read about in the report. It would be interesting, I think to myself, to return in the summer to map the park vegetation with an infrared camera, which would help highlight all the vegetative growth. The environmental assessment report mentioned above came out in 2005. What has changed in the interim decade, and could these new maps I intend to make provide any clues?
I get back in my car and drive farther down the road, continuing past the Shell* plant on my left and looking for the beginning of the pipeline. I am scouting the area before returning the next day for the mapping event I had planned. Since it’s legal to take photos on public roads, I want to make sure there are accessible roads we can walk along during the mapping session of the landscapes the pipeline will cross through.
“You have arrived”, announces my Google assistant. I step out of the car with my camera, to look around.
Ann Chen is a photographer, multimedia artist and researcher from New York City. She is currently in Western Canada tracing the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline through collective storytelling, community mapping and citizen science. Read her earlier posts here or follow her project on Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
This post originally appeared on National Geographic’s Voices blog.
*Shell is sponsor of the Great Energy Challenge. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.