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©Alex Maclean, 2014

Having worked on projects in the past with renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben, MacLean considers himself a “quasi-activist.” He saw some images by other photographers working in the tar sands like Garth Lenz and Louis Helbig, which piqued his interest in capturing images of the Keystone XL’s source in Canada’s north.

“I thought the issue was really important,” MacLean told Inhabitat. “I’ve seen photographs and it’s an amazing landscape in the scheme of things. And what it represents for climate change is important.”

Related: Is Canada Muzzling Journalists Over Tar Sands?

In the proposal for his project, “The Big Picture: Keystone XL From Above,” MacLean refers to the project as “‘the fuse of the Alberta carbon bomb,’” that “will tap the world’s largest oil reserve buried under the vast boreal forest of Alberta. The deposit contains approximately 200 billion barrels of accessible oil worth more than 10 trillion USD.” He adds that the pipeline would carry nearly a million barrels of oil a day to American refineries in the Midwest and Gulf Coast – or the equivalent of about three supertankers each week.

While the scale and scope of the Alberta tar sands is more broadly known in Canada, MacLean feels there is little public awareness of what’s actually happening at the source of the proposed Keystone XL project.

“I don’t think anyone really associates (the tar sands) with what’s coming through the pipeline,” MacLean says. “I didn’t really understand bitumen and its nature – or some of the problems that could happen if it should spill. There are much more severe consequences for cleanup (than other kinds of oil).”

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©Alex MacLean, 2014

MacLean told The Huffington Post that what he saw in his flights over the tar sands “shocked him,” particularly the scale of the operation, which he said is “mind-boggling.” And the images he brought home with him tell the tale well, showing a vast, scarred landscape full of massive industrial developments and huge toxic tailings ponds.

When asked by Inhabitat what struck him the most during his flights, MacLean said it was the fragmentation of the ancient boreal forest that surrounds the roughly 276 square-miles of land disturbed by tar sands projects.

Related: Six Reasons to Kill the Keystone XL Pipeline

“It seems there is, at least with the strip mining, a complete disregard for the environment,” he says, noting that though mining companies say they will restore the land, there’s no way they can ever put it back to its original state. “You can plant trees and make a mono-forest, but it’s not going to be putting peat back that’s taken thousands of years to accumulate and become a complex ecological environment.”

And MacLean recently took a trip to Houston, Texas – to visit refineries at the other end of the Keystone XL’s route. What he saw there brought the whole story of the project together for him nicely.

“Up there in Alberta, it takes your breath away, the extremes we’ll go to to get our hands on oil,” he says. “You really have to wonder what’s downstream that’s driving this kind of demand. Then I get to Houston and see a 26-lane highway and understand the craziness of our culture – everything starts to fit into place.

Images by Alex MacLean and Marc Cumming