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magazine / jun08

June 2008 issue

FEATURE: Alberta’s oil-sands

Scar sands
More than a million barrels of crude flow out of Alberta’s oil-sands plants every day. Environmentally, it’s a disaster zone. There’s no turning off the tap, but improvements in five areas could limit the staggering scale of the ecological damage.
By Curtis Gillespie with photography by Garth Lenz

“HARD TO BELIEVE, HEY?” says Scott Kinnee, the helicopter pilot flying me over the Athabasca oil sands north of Fort McMurray, Alta. “You don’t really get a sense of the scale of things unless you come up top.” Up top being 500 metres above ground level, high enough to see 70 to 80 kilometres in any direction; that is, until the sky closes over as we near the dozens upon dozens of emissions towers and flare stacks of the Suncor, Syncrude and Albian Sands plants. The limpid winter sunshine we’d had at the airport hangar 30 kilometres to the south is gone, and the sun is now a dull white bulb wobbling unsteadily behind a motionless sooty haze. “Yeah,” says Kinnee, nodding as I remark upon the sun’s enervation. “These plants are so huge, they basically create their own weather system.”



‘There are five major things that the oil sands companies need to do if they really truly do care about the environment and the amazing thing is that all five are achievable, not all that expensive, and all use already existing technology.’

1 Carbon capture and storage

2 Dry tailings instead of wet

3 Reducing the overall water usage of the plants

4 Clamping down on the level of acidifying emissions

5 Establishing large areas of boreal forest that are off limits

The beauty of the boreal forest that surrounds Fort McMurray and covers most of northern Alberta lies in its magnitude, but once you arrive at oil-sands central, what you see is a landscape erased, a terrain stretching in a radius of many hundreds of square kilometres that is not so much negatively impacted as forcibly stripped bare and excavated. Dominating this landscape are half a dozen giant extraction and refining plants with their stacks and smoke and fire, disorientingly wide and deep mines, and tailings ponds held in check by some of the world’s largest dams. As a panoramic vision, it’s all rather heartbreaking but, if one is forced to be honest, also awe-inspiring, such is the energy and the damage produced by human ambition.

Yet despite how important, and how environmentally divisive, the oil sands have become in today’s politically charged energy domain, the early and even fairly recent days of this resource were decidedly humble. In fact, although it’s been a century or so since people first began trying to exploit the resource, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the Athabasca oil sands were launched on today’s bitumen mega-arc, bitumen being the thick, tarlike hydrocarbon extracted from the sands and refined into synthetic crude oil.

Predictions vary slightly, but production is expected to at least quadruple to four or five million barrels of refined oil a day by 2020. From the start of the major expansions that kicked off in 1996 to the conclusion of current planned construction in 2011, close to $100 billion will be spent by industry on the Alberta oil sands. All of this is staggering given that in the early 1990s, not a single dollar of new investment was planned for the region and that oil was selling for less than $20 a barrel. As this issue went to press, it was going for $119 a barrel.

But in the early 1990s, Eric Newell, the former CEO of Syncrude and now Chancellor of the University of Alberta, saw a different future for the oil sands. It was Newell who spearheaded the formation of the National Oil Sands Task Force in 1995, which issued a report that year calling for a new vision and scope in exploiting the sands. Newell and his task force made the case, in Edmonton, Ottawa and Washington, D.C., that it was a resource in which it was worth investing. “We pulled together a vision of what we thought was possible,” says Newell. “And that was to triple production in 25 years and invest $21 billion to $25 billion.” He stops and chuckles. “I’d stand up and say that, and a lot of people thought I was smoking something funny. We were a bit off ! It took only eight years to triple production, and the industry spent $30 billion. And now another $70 billion of investment is on the books, with production projected for 10 times what it was then. None of us saw that happening, that’s for sure.”


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Comments on this articleView all comments (17) | Leave a comment

would anyone care to comment on the environmental impact of the cities of the world? let's be honest. their combined areas would be multiples of hundreds of times the oil sands. challenge point - when are the lands that they are constructed on going to be returned to nature? the land under Tokyo and New York and London and Toronto are pristine, or has that land permanently been lost to nature?

Submitted by Les on Sunday, November 1, 2015

In fairness a comparison to the coal mining by stripping the top off mountains. Comparison of the benefits and differences is an eye opener.

Submitted by Fred on Sunday, October 11, 2015

A lot of these comments are very naive. A law that requires the land to be returned to its original state is laughable. This area will take a long time to recover, if ever. Humans can't simply recreate nature as it once was. The process that achieved the ecosystems that were once where the oil sands were were complex and multifaceted, and as we can see with logging operations that "re-forest" clear cuts, what you end up with is a monoculture. The effects on the watershed are potentially disastrous if even a small percentage of the tailings reach the water table or the Athabasca River. The fact is that if we contaminate our water and soils and can no longer eat and drink, we won't be needing oil. Let's get our priorities sorted out and fund research in wind, tidal and solar power that, although not without their flaws, have less of an impact on the resources we truly cannot live without.

Submitted by Eleisha on Monday, December 9, 2013

@Rod (comment 9/25) Please realize that satelite images on google maps are often dated years ago. They're NOT a tool to see the current world around you.
Saw this area on my way into Calgary yesterday from 12 km height and was impressed by the size of the area affected.

Submitted by Peter on Thursday, October 17, 2013

nature reclaims the land after they are done and tailings ponds are not going to be there in a couple of years there will be no need. 90 percent of water is recycled. This is new territory for tech we will be better but it takes time stop crying about things that you have no solution for.other countrys population is so bad you could not even grow a flower they have more people in a couple miles then we have in canada as a whole and do they care about the fact that breathing may not be an option in a couple of years NO. all they want is us to pay and scrifice everything so they can get it cheap or rip the idea off like china does now. That is what this is about makeing canada and the united states the lamb to the slauther.

Submitted by clayton on Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I've used some common online resources to learn more about the oil sands. Sifting out the wide variations of estimates, I see that the costs in extracting bitumen is directly related to the energy used in the various technologies used to extract the oil.

So the more energy efficient the technology used, the higher the profits for Big Oil, and a lower the carbon footprint as a result. As the industry is really young and the technology relatively new, I see significant incentive for oil producers to continually develops cleaner, less costly (in terms of energy consumed) technology.

I'm not implying that this kind of mining is not polluting. It is. But these areas, by law, have to be returned to their original stat. For this more innovation has reduced the time in those toxic ponds to be cleaned up from years to weeks.

Although strip mining is not pretty and is a blight on the countryside, 90% of the oil sands cannot reached this way. Its to deep. Again there seems to be new, more efficient and less polluting technologies being developed.

An interesting quirk, one of the technologies being research to pull out the oil has resulted in the creation of equipment currently being used to clean up oil spills. This has been commercialized before its intend purpose has yet to be accomplished.

I don't see the apocalypse in this industry. I think over the long haul it will deliver cleaner energy overall. And I see corporations actually wanting to be green because of the higher profits associated with being green. I can't say I'm right this is what I determined by actually looking up what the oil sands are and how oil is being produced.

Submitted by llewellyn on Wednesday, September 25, 2013

I haven't read the entire article yet, but just before arriving on this page I was on Google Maps to see how these pit mines looked. Having visually looked at the size and scope to the actual mines, I found that the author's claim of "a landscape erased, a terrain stretching in a radius of many hundreds of square kilometres that is not so much negatively impacted as forcibly stripped bare and excavated" is just not true. See for yourself.

Submitted by Rod on Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Those 20,000 jobs will be what is needed when it comes to clean up time. These guys just won't let it go. It's a very bad idea to ship this toxic waste anywhere. It's time to invest in clean, sustainable, renewable energies now. Make that pipeline food grade and we can send our precious melting glacier water directly to where it's most needed - the midwest. That's what they're really going to need. I really find it offensive that they use the name of our beloved "transcanada" trail. If this is not trickery from our government and big oil, I don't know what is.

Submitted by janice cowley on Monday, July 29, 2013

What these people are forgetting is that eventually we will run out and then what?

Submitted by Alex on Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Oil, gas, coal and nuclear power are not the means to sustain our planet.
Research and technology for cleaner energy alternatives must be looked at.
Canadians and the American people need to unite and make a stand, to stop oil production and further exploration. It is wreaking havoc in our oceans and our land. And all for the greed of $$$$.

Submitted by Jacqueline Steffen on Saturday, March 16, 2013

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