Oil sands up close

I recently got the chance to tag along with a group of journalism fellows on a tour of some oil sands production sites in Alberta, which is home to almost all of Canada’s oil sands reserves.

The Canadian oil sands are one of the biggest energy stories of our time. The good news is that this is a huge North American resource. Because of the oil sands, Canada now has the third largest oil reserves in the world, estimated at 175 billion barrels. The bad news is that extracting this oil can seriously harm the environment. Because of these environmental risks, many oppose the Keystone pipeline, proposed to expand the already significant imports of this oil from Alberta to the United States.

Although we must move to low-carbon energy sources to protect the global climate, with world energy demand expected to soar in the next two decades, we can assume that oil will continue to be part of the energy mix for some time. My visit to see some of the best industry performers who are taking action to lessen environmental harm makes me believe that, with proper corporate responsibility and government oversight, oil sands can potentially be no worse than other oil.

Oil sands look more like coal than conventional oil. They are a mix of naturally occurring bitumen, sticky oil and abrasive sand. Each sand grain is coated by a layer of water and a layer of heavy oil. Using oil sands for energy raises a host of environmental issues, including land and ecosystem disturbance, deforestation, air and water pollution, interference with migratory animals, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Extracting underground or “in situ” oil sands is especially energy intensive, making the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands extracted in this manner higher than those from conventional oil unless efficiency measures are taken.

I wanted to see this huge and controversial resource extraction industry for myself. I took a 6 a.m. flight from Calgary, where I was speaking at a meeting of the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, to Fort McMurray for a tour organized by the government of Alberta. Our first stop was to see an example of one of the two main extraction techniques – surface mining. Syncrude’s operations at Mildred Lake and Aurora have produced more than two billion barrels of oil since they started in 1978. 

It is hard to describe the scale of these operations; they extended as far as the eye could see in every direction. Vast amounts of vegetation had been removed to get at the oil sands, leaving a huge, black scar on the earth. There were acres and acres of “tailings” ponds – the mixture or water, sand, clay, and other materials left at the “tail end” of the extraction process. These ponds are a hazard to migratory birds and other species.

Syncrude is clearly making a huge mess, but the company highlighted examples of how it is cleaning up after itself, both in compliance with Albertan regulations and on its own initiative. Syncrude says it is committed to reclaiming the land it has disturbed and returning it to forests, wetlands, lakes, and streams. It has already reclaimed thousands of acres. The company received the first reclamation certification in the oil sands industry from the Alberta government for Gateway Hill, a 104-hectare area planted in the early 1980s. Syncrude also has a pilot project supporting the reintroduction of Wood Bison. Going back to nature is surprisingly high-tech, involving teams of vegetation specialists, reclamation scientists, biologists and engineers.

After a morning with Syncrude, our tour group flew to Conklin to see Cenovus Energy’s underground or “in situ” operations at Christina Lake. In this part of the province, the oil sands lie deep beneath the surface. In contrast to the operations at Mildred Lake, there was very little surface disturbance. In fact we didn’t see any oil sands or oil at all. What we saw mostly looked like a power plant, water treatment facility and pipeline system.

Unlike conventional oil, underground oil sands are so viscous that they must be heated to make them flow to the surface. Cenovus drills for this deep oil using steam-assisted gravity draining (SAGD).  This is a very energy- and water-intensive process, which is why the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands tend to be higher than those from conventional oil. But Cenovus has one the most efficient processes in the industry, and claims that its lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions are same as the global average for conventional oil.

Alberta is the Canadian province with the largest greenhouse gas emissions because it supplies, and depends on, carbon-intensive energy. The province has put a number of climate policies in place, although there is a range of views as to their effectiveness. Alberta is regulating and reducing emissions from large industrial emitters, has put a price on carbon dioxide emissions, and has a regulated carbon offset market. Alberta is also making significant investments in low-carbon technology, such as carbon capture and storage.  

Of course we should get off oil, and dramatically reduce global carbon emissions. Steps like the new vehicle fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards are of utmost importance in achieving that goal. But while we do continue to use oil, it is important to be realistic – not to just say no to a huge North American oil resource, but rather to demand the best possible environmental performance in its extraction.

We need a much more aggressive and comprehensive energy and climate policy, such as pricing carbon through a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program. Emission standards for oil production and a low-carbon fuel standard are other important policy options. Environmental advocates in both Canada and the United States have effectively put pressure on the oil sands industry to improve its performance. The operations I saw were among the best performers. Until we stop using oil, it is imperative that the best get better, and that the rest of the industry be held to the highest possible standards.