Fort McMurray, Alberta—Standing on the edge of the immense and spectacular pit of an oil sands mine for the first time last week, I was surprised by a sense of exhilaration. Later, seven stories up, equipped with earplugs, and clad in bright blue overalls, I marveled at the cascades of black bitumen froth bubbling over the sides of a separation cell like a giant witch’s cauldron. The scale of the enterprise and the sheer ingenuity involved in wresting value and sustenance from the hands of a stingy Mother Nature provoked in me a feeling close to glory.
Yet as I stood at the edge of the mine, I understood that lots of people viewing the same sight would be horrified by it and outraged by my enthusiasm for it. They would, instead, see the pit as a deep wound in the earth, amounting almost to a desecration.
Can I explain myself to those who see mining oil sands as a moral offense? I plead humanism. Modern capitalism and the technology it engenders has lifted a significant proportion of humanity out of our natural state of abject poverty for the first time in history. Even now, depending on the cycles of nature to renew supplies of fuel (in the form of wood and manure) means poverty, disease, and early death for millions.
I, too, am moved by the beauty of nature and awed by its intricate complexities. I have experienced the Zen of the sheer physicality of hiking or snorkeling over the psychedelic reefs of the Maldives. But human technology can be awesomely beautiful as well. So it was for me at the oil sands in Alberta.
So how did I happen to be standing at the edge of the Millennium oil sands mine? I was on a propaganda trip with other journalists and bloggers paid for by the American Petroleum Institute (API), the largest oil and natural gas lobby in Washington, D.C. The API and Canadian oil companies are anxious about the massive Dirty Oil Sands campaign launched by leading environmentalist lobby groups. So they invite journalists that they hope might be sympathetic to their concerns to see for themselves what is going on.
The anti-oil sands activists specifically want to stop the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport synthetic oil produced from oil sands to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. They allege that producing oil sands synthetic crude releases far more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than does conventional oil. They also claim that the pipeline could burst, endangering surface water and aquifers.
Oil sands yield up fuel using two different processes, mining and steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). Oil sands can only be mined if they are no more than 350 feet below the surface. If the sands are deeper than that in situ SAGD is used to exploit the resource.
The trip included site visits to Suncor’s Millennium Mine and ConocoPhillips’ Surmont SAGD facility outside of the boomtown of Fort McMurray. The oil sands underlay some 55,000 square miles of Alberta and contain about 1.7 trillion barrels of oil, of which 170 billion or so are commercially exploitable using current technologies. Of the 9 million barrels of crude oil per day that the U.S. imports, 2 million come from Canada. Alberta oil sands yield 1.5 million barrels per day, of which 60 percent is exported to the U.S. Production is projected to reach 3.5 million barrel per day by 2025.
Day One: The Millennium Oil Sands Mine
Our crew of flacks and hacks hop on a bus at 8 a.m. from our motel to travel to the Suncor mining facilities about 20 miles north of Fort McMurray. The highway is crammed with pickup trucks flying red warning flags and diesel trucks carrying all manner of equipment and material to the mine and extraction facilities. Each of us is provided personal protective equipment consisting of bright blue overalls, boots, gloves, goggles, and green hard hats. As it turns out, whenever our group went indoors anywhere during the next two days, we were treated to an extensive safety lecture and told at which well-marked locations we were to muster in case of an emergency.
Dressed in our protective finery, the bus takes our group past vast piles of gray sand to an overlook above the Millennium mine pit. As we watch enormous Cat 797B and Komatsu 930e trucks scurry around the pit, our tour guide Anne Marie Toutant, the vice president of mine operations at the Millennium mine, tells us we that it takes 2 tons of oil sands to produce about one barrel of synthetic oil. Toutant brings out a plastic bucket of sticky oil sands for us to handle. I grabbed a sample and wrapped it in a plastic bag to take home. It's sitting on my desk now.
To open the mine, the operators first remove and dry the muskeg, the pervasive waterlogged acidic deposits of decayed vegetation which are typically 6 to 30 feet deep throughout Canada’s boreal forest region. The muskeg is set aside for later use in reclaiming the mine site. Next the overburden is removed so that gigantic shovels can get access to the oil sands deposits that are about 150 feet deep themselves. The mine operates 24/7 with colossal trucks carrying 1,600 loads at about 400 tons each to the extraction facilities. At the same time, some 2,000 loads of overburden are being returned to the worked out portions of the mine as part of the ongoing reclamation process.
The oil sands are delivered at a rate of one 400 ton truck load per minute to the hoppers at crushing facilities which remove any rocks or other debris over 2 inches in diameter. The process must remain continuous so the plant maintains a backup supply of oil sands that would last 15 minutes in the event that the constant stream of truck deliveries is somehow interrupted. The oil sands, mixed with water heated to 180 degrees Fahrenheit and air, flow to the separation cells at the extraction plant where bitumen froth floats to the top and sand and fine tailings drop to the bottom. Peering in a small window in the side of the separation cells clearly shows the sharp demarcation line between the black bitumen and the light tan tailings. The bitumen, which is too thick to flow by itself, is mixed with naphtha as a diluent and piped over to the refinery across the Athabasca River where it is upgraded into synthetic crude oil. The separation processing from beginning to end takes just 12 minutes and eventually recovers 96 percent of the bitumen in the oil sands. It costs about $38 to make a barrel of synthetic crude. The costs for producing a barrel out of a new oil sands mine would be nearer to $70.
The tailings, which consist of sand and what are called mature fine tailings, have been traditionally deposited into tailings ponds where they settle out. Mature fine tailings are the big problem for oil sands extraction. They consist of a gel-like suspension of very fine clay, which for chemical reasons refuses to solidify in less than 30 years. Consequently, oil sands mines are surrounded by vast tailings ponds. In the case of the Suncor facility, until recently, there were seven tailings ponds.
The ponds shimmer with a oily sheen since not all bitumen can be extracted from the sands. This poses a hazard to waterfowl that alight on the ponds. The companies erect blaze orange scarecrows in the ponds and fire random blasts from propane cannons to frighten birds away. One Suncor reclamation biologist, Lelaynia Cox later said that the company is planning to install radar that would trigger propane cannon blasts to startle birds when it detected them near the ponds.