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
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