The Miracle of Oil From Sand

A visit to Alberta's energy future


Fort McMurray, AlbertaStanding on the edge of the immense and spectacular pit of an oil sands mine for the first time, 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.

So how did I happen to be standing at the edge of the Millennium oil sands mine in Alberta, Canada, this summer? I was on a propaganda trip with other journalists and bloggers paid for by the American Petroleum Institute, the largest oil and natural gas lobby in Washington, D.C. 

The goal of the trip was to sell us on the importance of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport synthetic oil produced from Canadian oil sands to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. When completed, the pipeline could transport 1.3 million barrels of oil per day. Environmentalist groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) not only oppose the oil sands production because of the greenhouse gas emissions, but also assert "the oil industry is transforming one of the world's last remaining intact ecosystems into America's gas tank." 

A 2010 well-to-wheels study by the consultancy IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates calculated that with regard to greenhouse gas emissions, the "average oil sands import is about 6 percent higher than that of the average crude oil consumed in the United States." A 2010 report from the Royal Society of Canada notes that other studies have found that producing oil from oil sands results in greenhouse gas emissions that average 10 to 20 percent higher than conventional oil. Oil sands emissions currently account for 6.5 percent of Canada's emissions and 0.15 percent of global emissions. However, recent reports suggest that these emissions will triple by 2020. This is something to take into account when considering trade-offs between energy security and climate change.

The pipeline would almost certainly be a major economic boon, however. Studies project the creation of as many as 600,000 jobs and a $775 billion boost to the U.S. gross national product by 2035 as a result of importing Canadian oil. 

The Keystone XL project has already been delayed for three years. The U.S. State Department now says that a final decision will be reached on the pipeline by the end of the year. TransCanada Pipeline Vice President Robert Jones declared that the pipeline is "shovel ready" and construction would involve hiring as many as 10,000 Americans immediately, with up to 34,000 by 2014. Alberta's Minister of Energy Ronald Liepert, who was present on my tour, dryly commented that in June Alberta (population 3.7 million) created 22,000 new jobs, compared to just 18,000 for the entire U.S.

The NRDC and other environmental lobbyists are right that mining oil sands does mean ripping up some boreal forest. Let's put that in context: Canada's boreal forest covers 2.2 million square miles, an area that is about 60 percent of the size of the entire United States. So far oil sands production has disturbed about 410 square miles of that territory. For comparison, the Chicago metropolitan area covers about 10,000 square miles.

Only 20 percent of Alberta's oil sands are shallow enough to mine, which means that the other 80 percent must be recovered by other technologies. Just 50 miles from the open Millennium oil sands pit is another facility, this one a joint project of Conoco-Phillips and Total, which extracts oil using steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). Horizontal drilling creates two parallel wells, one on top of the other exactly three meters apart. The well pairs can extend to about a kilometer. Once completed, operators inject high-pressure 500 degree Fahrenheit steam produced by four enormous natural gas-fired steam generators into the top wells. This melts the bitumen causing a mixture of bitumen and water to drain into the bottom pipe from which it is then pumped to the plant. The SAGD process recovers about 60 percent of the resource in the ground.

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 facility I visited 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.

In contrast with the magnificent roiling mine, the SAGD facility was clean and orderly, almost shockingly so—not even stray bits of paper or oil smudges anywhere. Asked about the lack of visible oil, a clearly proud ConocoPhillips employee responded that seeing oil would mean that something is wrong; it's supposed to stay in the tanks and the pipelines.

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. Perhaps for this reason, anti–oil sands activists who eagerly highlight photos of vast oil sands mining pits like the one I found so striking don't tend to show photos of SAGD facilities. The tidy, compact facilities are unlikely to provoke the horror—or the exultation—inspired by the open mine pits. 

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is 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.