The Man-Made Miracle of Oil from Sand

A dispatch from Alberta's oil sands


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.

Handling leftover sand is relatively easy; it can be dredged and used safely as fill to reclaim old mine pits. But the problem of mature fine tailings implied the construction of and maintaining for at least three decades each ever more ponds as production expands. However, Suncor researchers have developed a new tailings reduction operation (TRO) that enables the company to solidify and recycle the fine tailings in just a few years.

To demonstrate the new technology, Suncor lab director Adrian Revington took a beaker of mature fine tailings and added a tiny amount of a polyacrylamide flocculant [PDF] commonly used in water treatment that then precipitated out the suspended clay particles. At the industrial scale, the mature fine particles are dredged, treated with flocculant, and piped to 220 acres of sloped drying beaches where the water drains away to be recycled at the mine. This process takes three weeks or so and leaves behind rock hard clay that is used as fill for reclaiming old mine pits and tailings ponds, or to build dikes and roads. Because of this new TRO process, Suncor has cancelled plans to build five additional tailings ponds. The company believes that it will now need only one tailings pond in the future, enabling it to close and reclaim all of its current ponds. 

Next, the bus took us over to the upgrading plant, which produces 310,000 barrels of synthetic oil per day. The oil is piped to the Athabasca Tank Terminal for further pipeline distribution to refineries in Canada and the United States. Bitumen is a mixture of very heavy hydrocarbons such as asphaltene that contains not only carbon and hydrogen, but also nitrogen and sulfur. The upgrading plant removes these substances and transforms the bitumen into lighter hydrocarbons. The sulfur is sold to fertilizer plants. Suncor plans to add capacity for upgrading 200,000 more barrels per day.

Our Suncor tour ended with a visit to what is now called Wapisiw Lookout, formerly known as Pond #1. Reclamation specialist Lelaynia Cox joined us on the bus as we circumnavigated the site. She explained that Wapisiw is the first tailings pond in the history of oil sands mining to be reclaimed. The process started in 2007 and was completed in 2010. In this case, the mature fine tailings were dredged out and the pond was filled with leftover sand from which the bitumen had been removed. The landscape was contoured with hummocks and swales and covered with the muskeg topsoil that had been removed and stored years ago. The site was then planted with 600,000 trees, including jack pine, aspen, white birch, and white spruce, all grown from local seeds. In northern Alberta's cold climate it takes it takes trees seven to ten years to grow to the height of an average person. The pond site reclaimed measures just over a square mile. As we drove around, we saw a fox, several white-tailed deer, and spooked a couple of coveys of sharp-tailed grouse. Some of my more sharp-sighted compatriots claimed to have seen a black bear in the distance.

The bus brought us back to our motel for a buffet dinner with some Canadian oil sheikhs. More on that and a visit to ConocoPhillips' SAGD facility in my next dispatch tomorrow.

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.