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Oil and Water
As we toured Surmont, it became apparent that the vast majority of the facilities and the piping are used for handling water. The hot water is recovered and cleaned so that its heat can be recycled. “This plant is primarily a freshwater handling facility,” declared Berkenpas. Deploying what must be a well worn industry adage, he further quipped, “To be a good oil company, you’ve got to be a great water company.”
After the plant tour, we hop back on the bus to visit one of the well pads where 18 well pairs are located. Thanks to horizontal drilling, the wells occupy about 13 acres and drain bitumen from the surrounding 250 acres. The wells will operate for between and 8 and 15 years. The Surmont facility currently produces 23,000 barrels of bitumen per day, but ConocoPhillips plans to up that production to 136,000 barrels by 2015. The company estimates that it could produce as much as 500,000 barrels per day by 2040.
One of my compatriot journalists who had previously toured many other oil production sites expressed amazement at how clean and orderly the facility was—not even stray bits of paper or oil smudges anywhere. A clearly proud Berkenpas responded that seeing oil would mean that something is wrong; it’s supposed to stay in the tanks and the pipelines.
Interestingly, anti-oil sands activists who eagerly highlight photos of the vast oils sands mining pits, don’t tend to show photos of SAGD facilities. Likely this is because such pictures would not do much to scare target audiences—the footprint of SAGD operations typically occupies only 5 percent of the land from which oil is being recovered, leaving most of the forests undisturbed.
As our tour group heads back to our motel, the questions posed by TransCanada’s Robert Jones reverberate: Why would the U.S. want to depend on “conflict oil” imported from countries run by unsavory regimes like those of Venezuela, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia? And whose oil is really dirtier?
Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.
Disclosure: My travel expenses to visit Alberta’s oil sands were covered by the American Petroleum Institute. The API did not ask for nor does it have any editorial control over my reporting of this trip