High Stakes in Canada's Vast Oil-Sands Fields

By George Tombs Contributor of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

High Stakes in Canada's Vast Oil-Sands Fields


George Tombs Contributor of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The relentless search for oil has led explorers to the boreal forest of northeastern Alberta, among the jack pines and black spruce trees an hour's drive from the boom town of Fort McMurray. Kelly Hansen, operations manager at ConocoPhillips's $1 billion Surmont oil-sands plant, holds up the prize: a beaker of sticky black "synbit," a 50-50 blend of bitumen (a viscous, tarlike petroleum) and synthetic oil.

"The Athabasca oil sands contain the equivalent of 1.7 trillion barrels of oil," Mr. Hansen says. "About 20 percent of that total can be produced, using current technology" - namely, surface mining and steam extraction underground. Surmont, a facility of gleaming silver-colored steam generators, process pipes, and holding tanks, is jointly owned with French oil company Total. Its initial pilot phase has ended, and the company estimates it will produce 2.5 billion barrels of oil at Surmont.

Thanks largely to the prodigious AthaA-basA-ca oil sands, Canada ranks second only to Saudi Arabia in terms of total oil reserves. At a time of roller-coaster crude prices and concerns over the security of energy supplies, these oil-sand deposits have attracted more than $100 billion of investment from just about every major oil company in the world.

According to Matt Fox, vice president of oil sands at ConocoPhillips, "Canada represented 20 percent last year of US oil imports. By 2020, it could easily represent 40 percent."

Athabasca's oil sands produce a heavy oil. "Upgraders" in the province convert it into a blend of lighter oil so it can enter pipelines and reach markets across Canada and the United States for refining.

Fort McMurray is experienA-cing a gold rush, even if the gold is black. The two-lane highway into town is often jammed with full- size pickup trucks and prefabricated process plants on wide-load trailers. Life in town is a frenzy of skyrocketing house prices, inadequate municipal infrastructure, mountains of freshly earned cash with little for workers to spend it on, and a huge transient population, much of it in temporary work camps. There's a severe shortage of skilled labor. Mine workers are being recruited from as far away as South Africa and Venezuela.

Huge environmental footprintBut the biggest concern is the environmental footprint being created by oil-sands development. Extracting AthaA-basA-ca's oil is costly not only in terms of infrastructure, but also in water, energy used to produce steam, and the enormous amount of greenhouse gas that results. Some question whether the scale of new projects is wise. At today's prices, tens of trillions of dollars' worth of oil are at stake.

The oil sands exist in two formations: Surface deposits account for 20 percent of total recoverable reserves. The rest are at various depths underground.

At Syncrude's Mildred Lake plant, north of Fort McMurray, giant excavators have scarred the landscape. Like giant otherworldly beetles roaming the moon, 400-ton trucks haul the ore to the extraction plant. Two tons of loose rock and soil and two tons of ore have to be moved to produce a single barrel of oil. Surface mining also uses from 2 to 4-1/2 barrels of water per barrel of oil. The water is pumped from the nearby Athabasca River to produce steam, which helps separate sand and bitumen. Much of the water is recycled, but some is left to settle in highly toxic tailings ponds.

At the same time, Syncrude - a joint venture that includes Canadian Oil Sands Ltd., Imperial Oil (an ExxonMobil subsidiary), Petro-Canada, Nexen, ConocoA-Phillips, and others - is Canada's largest single emitter of greenhouse gas, since it must burn 750 cubic feet of natural gas to generate the steam needed to produce a barrel of bitumen. That's the equivalent of burning one barrel of oil for every eight barrels produced.

According to Steve Gaudet, Syncrude's manager of environmental services, gradual progress is being made to reclaim land at mined sites by replacing topsoil and replanting shrubs and boreal forest trees. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

High Stakes in Canada's Vast Oil-Sands Fields
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.