The Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada

A couple of weeks ago I was in Fort McMurray, Alberta.  I was visiting two large oil sands operations, courtesy of Conoco Phillips, Syncrude Canada and the American Petroleum Institute, which sponsored the trip.  I’ve been all over the place, but never to a working oil sands operation.  This was a first for me, and quite an eye-opener.

What Are These Oil Sands?

Back in Pleistocene time, the glaciers covered much of northern Alberta.  In places, there was a mile of ice.  During some of the warmer periods, there was a lot of melting.  On occasion, and in some places, there were giant, glacial-dammed lakes.

Every now and again, these glacial dams would break, sending massive volumes of water downstream, wiping away pretty much everything along the way.  Well, it turns out that in this scoured-out area that included much of the rock covering some lower Cretaceous deposits of oil.  Or rather, it was “oil” that had long ago lost the volatile components.  The stuff is properly called bitumen.

Thus we have an area in northern Alberta that’s about the size of New York State.  That area holds near 1.4 trillion barrels of bitumen resource.  To be sure, not all of it is recoverable.  In terms of recoverable “reserves,” there are only (ahem…) about 175 billion barrels, or over eight times the total of U.S. oil reserves.

Of those 175 billion barrels, about 20% are near enough to the surface to strip mine.  That’s within about 250 feet or so.  Any deeper, and the cost-benefit calculation dictates that you have to recover it via a well-and-pumping process.  Still, that makes for about 35 billion barrels of bitumen that could be extracted by mining.  (About 1.5 times total U.S. oil reserves.)  The actual, mineable area is about the size of Rhode Island.

The Heart of Oil Sands Country

All of which gets me back to why I was in Fort McMurray.  This is the heart of oil sands country.

Near 200 years ago, early explorers noticed gooey oil seeping out of the banks along the Athabaska River.  On warm days, with direct sunshine, the stuff actually flows.  Mostly, it has the consistency of peanut butter.  Unless it’s cold up here – which happens a lot – and it’s hard as a rock.

Needless to say, people talked about these “oil sands” for a lot of years.  Then in the 1960s, some people within Canadian industry and the Alberta government began to do something about it.  They decided to develop them.  It’s a long, long story.

Here’s the Short Version

The short version of the story is that large-scale oil sands development began in the 1970s.  It took gigantic levels of capital investment, like tens of billions of dollars.  That’s not pocket change.  So a group of lease-owners got together and pooled their capital to form Syncrude Canada, a joint venture.  First mining started in 1978.

Thing is, the way Syncrude operates it’s not really “mining.”  It’s landscape architecture.  Under Alberta law, Syncrude could not turn over its first shovel of rock without a master plan for remediation and restoration at the end of the cycle.

So for much of the 1970s, Syncrude performed baseline environmental studies and data-gathering.  Then they started digging in 1978.  At first, the pit looked like a moonscape of open pit mining.

The process is fairly straightforward.  Big shovels (really big) scoop large volumes (really large) of oil-laden sand (API number 8, the “bitumen”) into gigantic loaders (and I mean gigantic.)  The loaders haul the rock to a crusher.  The crushed rock goes to a washing bin, kind of like your washing machine at home except it’s the size of a high-rise office building.

The Syncrude operation washes the bitumen off the sand using naphtha.  Then they separate the bitumen, recover the naphtha for reuse, take the clean sand (and it’s clean), and replace it in a previously-mined pit.

The process uses a lot of water, but not as much as the horror-stories you might hear about “draining the rivers” of northern Canada.  Each barrel of water is recycled about 18 times.

The process uses a large amount of natural gas, but not as much as you may have heard (like, “all the natural gas of northern Canada.”)  Pretty much everything about the operation is built with co-generation in mind, so they continuously recover the heat at each stage.  That natural gas goes a long way, from what I saw.

If it takes, say, five years to dig a pit, then it may take five or more years to fill it back up with sand during the restoration process.  Syncrude’s goal is to handle the rock as little as possible.

Eventually, Syncrude returns the land to original grade, although they have some artistic license with the contours.  They cover the land with the original topsoil, that’s been in cold storage (northern Alberta… it’s cold up here for 10 months of the year).  Then they replant trees, and that’s saying something because the growing season is under two months.  It takes 80 years for your basic spruce tree to reach maturity.

There’s even a new water table, despite the disturbance of the land.

Where Things Now Stand

So at this stage, after 30 years or so of mining (with about 80 years to go, at current rates of extraction), Syncrude has come to a point of delivering 350,000 barrels of synthetic crude oil per day.  They take the 8-API bitumen and upgrade it to oil that’s competitive with West Texas Light.  Then they deliver it to the JV members, for whatever use the owners want to make of it.

Along the way, the Syncrude process removes the sulfur, so it’s sulfur-free (refiners like that).  In fact, there’s a mass of sulfur up at Syncrude that’s about the size of the Step-Pyramid at Suqqhara, Egypt.  And along the way, Syncrude sells the sulfur to the chemical industry.

I visited a former Syncrude mine, about 3.5 miles square and formerly about 200 feet deep.  Now it’s restored to grade, with trees growing and a herd of 300 wood bison grazing.  For the cynics out there, I’d say that it’s not some environmental Potemkin Village because you can’t fake a replanted forest of 25-year old trees.  You can’t fake a 300-bison herd.  Not on a former mine site 3.5 miles square.

Bottom line is that this is an immense operation.  Syncrude employs 5,000 people, plus 2,000 contractors.  Paychecks are north of $100,000 per year.  Every oil sands job supports 3 local jobs, 6 provincial and 9 others across North America (especially at Caterpillar, where they build those giant, 400-ton loaders).

In the coming weeks I’m going to delve deep into North American oil sands operations and any companies that may be set to profit. Oil sands are nothing new, but now may be the perfect time to scoop up shares of a small player or two…

Byron W. King

August 19, 2009