Nebraska regulators on Monday approved Keystone XL, a 1,180-mile-long (1,900-kilometer) extension of the existing Keystone Pipeline operated by TransCanada Corp.

But the 3-2 vote in favor of expanding the pipeline followed a leak of 210,000 gallons of oil just days before. That oil gushed from a section of Keystone in South Dakota before TransCanada cut off the flow.

Plans for Keystone XLcall for the pipeline to begin in Alberta’s oil sands, sometimes called tar sands, and end at holding tanks in Patoka, Illinois, as well as points in Texas along the Gulf of Mexico.

Former President Barack Obama canceled the Keystone XL pipeline in November 2015 with an executive order that said it would neither help lower gas prices nor create that many jobs. He also cited the pipeline’s long-term contribution to climate change — possibly more than 22 billion metric tons of carbon pollution, according to Scientific American.

“If we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground,” Obama said.

But President Donald Trump overturned Obama’s cancellation with a new presidential permit.

The XL segment already is partially built, and may ultimately cost entrepreneurs more than $10 billion. Upon completion, it would move larger volumes of oil in less time by shortening the route and burying larger-diameter pipes.

Proponents of the pipeline say it will lessen dependence on foreign oil while creating jobs. But environmental groups and many Americans — especially Native Americans — remain furious about the project. Beyond the risk of spills like the one this week, the project’s steep environmental costs also include the potential industrialization of 54,000 square miles of Alberta wilderness.

“The scale and severity of what’s happening in Alberta will make your spine tingle,” Robert Johnson, a former Business Insider correspondent, wrote after flying over the Canadian oil sands in May 2012.

Keep scrolling to see an updated version of Johnson’s photo essay, which shows the effects of Canadian oil mining — a process in which oil-laden sand is dug from the ground, the fuel separated out, and the land converted back into use for wild plants and animals. Today that process makes up about 50% of the Keystone XL pipeline’s oil, while less-visible “in situ” pumping generates the rest.

This story was originally published on March 24, 2017. It has been updated with new information.

To get a look at the oil sand mines, we rented this Cessna 172, which the pilot was allowed to bring down to 1,000 feet. Through the open window we could see what really goes on in one of the most controversial places on the planet.

To get a look at the oil sand mines, we rented this Cessna 172, which the pilot was allowed to bring down to 1,000 feet. Through the open window we could see what really goes on in one of the most controversial places on the planet.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

The Alberta oil sands are spread across more than 54,000 square miles, but we’re taking a look at just a small part of it. The red line is an approximate outline of the entire deposit — the green is where we were flying.

The Alberta oil sands are spread across more than 54,000 square miles, but we're taking a look at just a small part of it. The red line is an approximate outline of the entire deposit — the green is where we were flying.
Google Maps

Thousands flock here to make real money in the oil sands, where creating synthetic crude begins in the strip mine. This is how the oil sands have been harvested since 1967.

Thousands flock here to make real money in the oil sands, where creating synthetic crude begins in the strip mine. This is how the oil sands have been harvested since 1967.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Only two companies worked the sands in 1998. In May 2012 there were more than 10 times that number.

Only two companies worked the sands in 1998. In May 2012 there were more than 10 times that number.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

That’s because in the late ’90s, oil prices rose, the Canadian government restructured its royalty system, and new technology caused a huge boom.

That's because in the late '90s, oil prices rose, the Canadian government restructured its royalty system, and new technology caused a huge boom.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

From small companies to conglomerates like Shell, each outfit starts off the same way.

From small companies to conglomerates like Shell, each outfit starts off the same way.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

First they cut down all the trees.

First they cut down all the trees.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Then they scrape away the shallow layer of leafy, peaty topsoil called muskeg.

Then they scrape away the shallow layer of leafy, peaty topsoil called muskeg.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Trucks and shovels move in to scoop up the oil sand. This shovel is electric and scoops up 90 tons in one load. It takes about 2.5 tons of sand to produce one barrel of oil.

Trucks and shovels move in to scoop up the oil sand. This shovel is electric and scoops up 90 tons in one load. It takes about 2.5 tons of sand to produce one barrel of oil.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

The Cat 797 dump trucks are the largest in the world and can haul 1 million pounds in a single load — more weight than a fully loaded Boeing 747 airplane.

The Cat 797 dump trucks are the largest in the world and can haul 1 million pounds in a single load — more weight than a fully loaded Boeing 747 airplane.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

They’re so large people say they can drive over a Ford F-150 like it’s a ‘speed bump.’ This shot of one inside a mechanic’s shop shows what they mean.

They're so large people say they can drive over a Ford F-150 like it's a 'speed bump.' This shot of one inside a mechanic's shop shows what they mean.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

The dump trucks are everywhere out here, carrying chunks of compacted oil sand…

The dump trucks are everywhere out here, carrying chunks of compacted oil sand...
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

… Often across bridges like these, which are supposed to be the strongest in the world.

... Often across bridges like these, which are supposed to be the strongest in the world.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Crushing plants like this break up the chunks into a fine mixture that can be transported along the conveyor belts below.

Crushing plants like this break up the chunks into a fine mixture that can be transported along the conveyor belts below.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

The conveyors take the sand to be conditioned — the first step in separating it from the oil.

The conveyors take the sand to be conditioned — the first step in separating it from the oil.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Conditioning mixes the oil sand with water to create a slurry, in which oil begins to separate from the sand.

Conditioning mixes the oil sand with water to create a slurry, in which oil begins to separate from the sand.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

The slurry is then piped to containers where it separates into three parts: Oil froth on top; sand on the bottom; and oil, sand, clay, and water in the middle.

The slurry is then piped to containers where it separates into three parts: Oil froth on top; sand on the bottom; and oil, sand, clay, and water in the middle.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

The sand and water mixture in the middle is pumped to open storage areas called tailings ponds.

The sand and water mixture in the middle is pumped to open storage areas called tailings ponds.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

The ponds are vast and some look more like lakes.

The ponds are vast and some look more like lakes.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Most ponds are coated in a sheen of oil that can be deadly to waterfowl, like ducks and geese, that land on its surface.

Most ponds are coated in a sheen of oil that can be deadly to waterfowl, like ducks and geese, that land on its surface.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Scarecrows like this are all over the ponds to help keep birds away.

Scarecrows like this are all over the ponds to help keep birds away.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

The ponds are used to clarify the oil-water slurry. Solids slowly sink to the bottom, chemicals and oil float to the top.

The ponds are used to clarify the oil-water slurry. Solids slowly sink to the bottom, chemicals and oil float to the top.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

The surface chemicals are skimmed off with floating lines like those used in oil spills.

The surface chemicals are skimmed off with floating lines like those used in oil spills.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

To give an idea of the size: That dump truck passing the pond is 50 feet long.

To give an idea of the size: That dump truck passing the pond is 50 feet long.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

This is what one pond looks like on the ground.

This is what one pond looks like on the ground.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

And this is what the surface material looks like up-close.

And this is what the surface material looks like up-close.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

After the surface water is skimmed, it’s relatively free of sediment and chemicals, and is pumped from one pond to another. This clarified water is supposed to provide 90 percent of what the oil companies need to start all over again.

After the surface water is skimmed, it's relatively free of sediment and chemicals, and is pumped from one pond to another. This clarified water is supposed to provide 90 percent of what the oil companies need to start all over again.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

The solids left behind will be used to reclaim the land as the operation moves on.

The solids left behind will be used to reclaim the land as the operation moves on.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

As the sand finally dries, it turns white. Sound cannons boom in these areas to scare birds away, especially after a 2010 incident where hundreds of ducks landed on a roadside pond and died.

As the sand finally dries, it turns white. Sound cannons boom in these areas to scare birds away, especially after a 2010 incident where hundreds of ducks landed on a roadside pond and died.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Oil companies are required to return the land to its original condition and this reclaimed section, populated with Wood Bison, is not far from the pond.

Oil companies are required to return the land to its original condition and this reclaimed section, populated with Wood Bison, is not far from the pond.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

It looks a lot different on this side.

It looks a lot different on this side.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

The petroleum industry is also working to limit surface mining and increase its share of “in situ” production of oil, which drills wells into hard-to-reach deposits, blasts them with steam, and pumps oil products to the surface.

The petroleum industry is also working to limit surface mining and increase its share of "in situ" production of oil, which drills wells into hard-to-reach deposits, blasts them with steam, and pumps oil products to the surface.
Courtesy of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers

About 20% of Alberta’s oil sand deposits can be reached with surface mining. The other 80% is ripe for the in situ method, which has a less visible footprint compared to mining. The split in method of production today is about 50/50.

About 20% of Alberta's oil sand deposits can be reached with surface mining. The other 80% is ripe for the in situ method, which has a less visible footprint compared to mining. The split in method of production today is about 50/50.
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Pembina Institute, Oil Sands Magazine

So far, only a small portion of Alberta’s oil sands are developed. And Canada requires any mining operation to reclaim the area. But there are costs to expanding in situ production.

So far, only a small portion of Alberta's oil sands are developed. And Canada requires any mining operation to reclaim the area. But there are costs to expanding in situ production.
A map of Canada that shows the potential for mining versus in situ methods of extracting oil from the region. Natural Resources Canada

In situ extraction still impacts wildlife, such as caribou herds, and it takes more energy — and generates more greenhouse gases — to extract oil compared to mining.

In situ extraction still impacts wildlife, such as caribou herds, and it takes more energy — and generates more greenhouse gases — to extract oil compared to mining.
Pembina Insitute

Critics also say restoring a piece of developed land to its native boreal forest condition, like this, is not realistic.

Critics also say restoring a piece of developed land to its native boreal forest condition, like this, is not realistic.
Alberta Oil Sands/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

With the mining method, the crude oil is pulled from the sand and shuttled to an ‘upgrader’ like Suncor’s here on the Athabasca River — one of the sites where the oil from the sands is converted into synthetic crude.

With the mining method, the crude oil is pulled from the sand and shuttled to an 'upgrader' like Suncor's here on the Athabasca River — one of the sites where the oil from the sands is converted into synthetic crude.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

This is done by heating the raw oil, called bitumen, in a process called coking. Smoke from the process hovers about the whole area and a smell that fills the cockpit of the plane.

This is done by heating the raw oil, called bitumen, in a process called coking. Smoke from the process hovers about the whole area and a smell that fills the cockpit of the plane.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Here are some small piles of coke.

Here are some small piles of coke.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

And here’s one very immense pile of coke waiting to be used or sold as fuel for smelting iron.

And here's one very immense pile of coke waiting to be used or sold as fuel for smelting iron.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider
After it’s coked, the oil is “cracked” to break the heavy parts down into lighter, more desirable petroleum products. What’s left after cracking gets sent to towers like this. Inside they’re hotter at the top than the bottom, forcing dense material down and lighter petroleum products up.
After it's coked, the oil is "cracked" to break the heavy parts down into lighter, more desirable petroleum products. What's left after cracking gets sent to towers like this. Inside they're hotter at the top than the bottom, forcing dense material down and lighter petroleum products up.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Then everything is exposed to hot, high-pressure gas that removes even more impurities like sulfur.

Then everything is exposed to hot, high-pressure gas that removes even more impurities like sulfur.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

The sulfur would normally then be sold. But a glut in the sulfur market in May 2012 kept prices low, so mountains of it grew.

The sulfur would normally then be sold. But a glut in the sulfur market in May 2012 kept prices low, so mountains of it grew.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Once the oil is “upgraded” it goes to a storage tank, like this one that was under construction.

Once the oil is "upgraded" it goes to a storage tank, like this one that was under construction.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

This is Syncrude’s Mildred Lake plant along Route 63.

This is Syncrude's Mildred Lake plant along Route 63.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Route 63 is a deadly stretch of road. A family of seven died the day I arrived in Alberta, and their memorial is right across from Syncrude by the side of the road. After taking this photo, Syncrude security arrived and told me to leave.

Route 63 is a deadly stretch of road. A family of seven died the day I arrived in Alberta, and their memorial is right across from Syncrude by the side of the road. After taking this photo, Syncrude security arrived and told me to leave.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Just north of the memorial sit these two machines, which some companies used in mining until 2006. A dragline is on the left, and a gray bucketwheel on the right.

Just north of the memorial sit these two machines, which some companies used in mining until 2006. A dragline is on the left, and a gray bucketwheel on the right.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Spectacularly immense, this bucketwheel is the largest crawling machine in existence.

Spectacularly immense, this bucketwheel is the largest crawling machine in existence.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

That fence post in front of the wheel is about six-feet-tall. The bucket teeth that dug into the sand were very effective, but when the bucketwheel broke down, mining stopped — so they were phased out in favor of the shovels and trucks.

That fence post in front of the wheel is about six-feet-tall. The bucket teeth that dug into the sand were very effective, but when the bucketwheel broke down, mining stopped — so they were phased out in favor of the shovels and trucks.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Fleets of trucks work the sands. That way, if one breaks down another can simply takes its place. But at $5 to $6 million apiece, they are not cheap.

Fleets of trucks work the sands. That way, if one breaks down another can simply takes its place. But at $5 to $6 million apiece, they are not cheap.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

And they go through tires pretty quickly. The ones for the big dump trucks run about $45,000 apiece.

And they go through tires pretty quickly. The ones for the big dump trucks run about $45,000 apiece.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

At 13 feet wide and 12,000 pounds each, 797 tires are a burden to dispose of — so they’re put to use wherever they can be. Here they make a security fence.

At 13 feet wide and 12,000 pounds each, 797 tires are a burden to dispose of — so they're put to use wherever they can be. Here they make a security fence.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

To keep vehicles from getting bogged down in the mud, these wooden boards are often laid down.

To keep vehicles from getting bogged down in the mud, these wooden boards are often laid down.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

But they’re not always practical, so a nearby gravel mine pumps out stone to layer the roads.

But they're not always practical, so a nearby gravel mine pumps out stone to layer the roads.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

The gravel mine produces its own uniquely colored pools of water.

The gravel mine produces its own uniquely colored pools of water.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

But they don’t compare to the deep orange of this oil sand pit we passed in the plane moments later.

But they don't compare to the deep orange of this oil sand pit we passed in the plane moments later.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

The companies out here all have their own landfills, even though city officials are building a state-of-the-art incinerator as part of their modernization effort.

The companies out here all have their own landfills, even though city officials are building a state-of-the-art incinerator as part of their modernization effort.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Most oil workers live in housing like this and are bused in to the compound from their homes in Fort McMurray.

Most oil workers live in housing like this and are bused in to the compound from their homes in Fort McMurray.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

The average dump truck driver working the mines makes about $55 an hour plus overtime. The average family income here is around $190,000 a year.

The average dump truck driver working the mines makes about $55 an hour plus overtime. The average family income here is around $190,000 a year.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

That kind of money prompts many people to settle down and stay far longer than they planned. (This is where the pilot lives with his parents.)

That kind of money prompts many people to settle down and stay far longer than they planned. (This is where the pilot lives with his parents.)
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

But locals said they’d like to see more transparency and updates on what is being found and what to watch out for. As you can imagine, the people who live here are very concerned about pollution — this site was fined $275,000 for contaminating the Athabasca River in 2011.

But locals said they'd like to see more transparency and updates on what is being found and what to watch out for. As you can imagine, the people who live here are very concerned about pollution — this site was fined $275,000 for contaminating the Athabasca River in 2011.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

The provincial government tests the area waters constantly.

The provincial government tests the area waters constantly.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Overall, the oil sands, with up to 2 trillion barrels of oil in the ground, is a complex place.

Overall, the oil sands, with up to 2 trillion barrels of oil in the ground, is a complex place.
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

And despite how you feel about the environmental impact oil companies may have on the world…

And despite how you feel about the environmental impact oil companies may have on the world...
Robert Johnson — Business Insider

… They’re not likely to go anywhere while there is still oil left to collect — with or without the Keystone XL pipeline.

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