Last Wednesday’s readers know I went up last week to Fort McMurray Alberta (expenses covered by the API, now disclosed again) to tour Syncrude’s oil mining facility and ConocoPhillips Surmount oil extraction that’s done in place under the ground.  So before we start here is a photo from along the Athabasca River where you can see the natural oil sands along the riverbank where they have been leaking oil into the environment for tens of thousands of years:

Oil Sands Natural Leakage to Athabasca River. Click image for the largest view.

Oil Sands Natural Leakage to Athabasca River. Click image for the largest view.

Also keep in mind; these oil deposits have been scraped by glaciers with each glaciation period.  So oil sands have been polluting great swaths of the North America continent, repeatedly, for hundreds of thousands of years.  How much has gotten away is one of the imponderable, incalculable things.  It is a huge amount for certain that’s already out there spread about somewhere.

It became quite clear on the first day that the point of the tour wasn’t the technology, but to get eyes on site to see what the environmentalists have screamed into a scandal so serious that the U.S. Congress is making big trouble for consumers and taxpayers.  I’ll admit to a failing – I don’t give enough attention to the pseudo science from the environmental extremists.  What’s at risk is nearly 20% of the U.S. oil supply or about half of what the U.S. manages to produce for itself.  The extremists pose a serious economic security risk when preying on the un and misinformed.  I should have taken my own camera.  Duh, as the kids would say.

You can check not just the extremists’ sites but lots of the media has picked up on the “issue” as if this is all a great surprise.  Which of course its not, the oil sands have been steady suppliers to the Canadian and U.S. economies for decades. What’s new is the attention of extremists playing pied piper with the press and media doing the musical backup and production of the show.  P.T. Barnham would be impressed as well as con artists of every stripe.

In Syncrude Canada’s operation what’s happening is they are quarrying the oil, much like a stone, gravel or sand quarry that can be found in thousands of places around the world.  They harvest the trees, save back the topsoil, remove the covering earth that is clay soil and simply shovel the oil sand into trucks and haul it off to separate out the oil.  When the current hole is all loaded out the sand is put back, some of the clay is used to dam it up so it doesn’t all run into the next hole, then put the topsoil back and replant the trees.  From an objective point of view, it’s just that simple with a lot of operational things left out.  This isn’t hard to do; they do it over and over and over again.

It’s so effective that much more than 99% of the oil goes to market.  The sand, a smooth version of the stuff used to make abrasives and sandpaper is a beautiful near white tan color, that as you first see it makes one wonder why they are not skipping a clay-soil-tree effort just once and making a white sand beach lake for the joy of having a marvelous recreational retreat in the brief summer for what from September to May is a awful cold place.

Athabasca White Sands.  Click image for more info.

Athabasca White Sands. Click image for more info.

As you tour around one is shown the buffalo herd that the environmentalists said couldn’t be done, and are used to preserve the genetic code as anthrax and tuberculosis are decimating the wild herd.  They are definitely wild buffalo too.  We entered their meadow as some got up from their chewing to watch, considering a charge at us,  but relaxed as we stayed well away.  Yet after a while the lead male and female decided the invasion was to oppressive so they sauntered over to call it off.  For a tour group that managed to run way behind the schedule they really cheered up the frustrated guide.  But the scramble to get back into the vehicles was comical to see.  2500 pounds of hairy muscle and bone topped with nasty black horns will do that effectively.

We also came to learn that the local aboriginal inhabitants have a voice; they run the buffalo herd, advise on the aesthetics of the land reclamation where the straight lines of industrial scale are broken up and actively participate in the flora and fauna restoration.  They seem to like it wild.  When you see the early reclamation areas the trees do look to be growing in an organized layout on land features that admittedly are straight and true.  The later work, with time, say a century as trees there will complete a life cycle, will be indistinguishable from the original land, without the oil.

On the technical side, the bitumen oil at the Athabasca area is when first exposed much like sand filled children’s play dough or thick sandy cookie dough and black as coal.  It’s heavier than water, breaks up easily when thawed out and is about one sixth to one eighth oil in volume.  Syncrude uses water to transport it from the machine used to break it up where the sand, which was wet when the oil first saturated it, begins to separate.  With the oil sand is clay that has precipitated into the oil over time.  As you stand in the excavation looking up at the formation you’ll see small layers where the clay has started to become shale.  It’s the clay that is the problem, not the sand.  The oil separates out neatly and cleanly.  It takes a lot of water, charging up the whole system must be a huge amount, but what is lost is a little blow over steam and evaporation.  The consumed water is quite low in contrast to the media’s numbers, which seems so high, the water used for extracting a barrel of oil is a multiple, the consumed water a small fraction of a barrel.

When the sand is freed, the oil is still full of clay, or fine dirt.  This is where it gets complex, when the wet sand leaves, its back in an essentially near pristine state.  What is left over is really dirty oil.  Using several steps using water, solvents and physical manipulation the clay is cleared away, too.

The scandal comes from the activity of the solvents, which mix into the oil and clean it up.  Part of the solvents, mainly a  naphtha, reacts making lighter oils.  The sand tailing ponds at Syncrude are so oil free that no oil sheen can be seen, but the clay “tailings ponds” are actually settling pools where the clay, which takes a long time to settle and the lighter solvent made oil can separate.

Oil Sands Clay Settling Pool. Click image for more.

Oil Sands Clay Settling Pool. Click image for more.

Syncrude is recycling the naphtha and harvesting the bulk of the lighter oils, but settling is the current technology art for getting the last bit of oil out.  Those ponds, which are skimmed for the oil to be sold and the clay excavated to be used in reclamation, are the concern.  Those are the ponds with the oil sheen and black edging, and you can see the machinery to skim in many of the extremists’ photos.  Can’t fool everyone.  Those ponds have been filled skimmed and excavated in repeating cycles for years.  Its not like they will cover the whole area.  Environmentalists might pay attention and get some practical science before jumping to conclusions.  But that requires intellectual honesty.  This is plain to see, even in their own aerial photographs.

Intellectual honesty works this way, too.  Not all the firms licensed to mine or quarry the oil sand have the Syncrude level of technology in place.  The government of Alberta has people there making sure the less technologically effective companies make the requirements.  The government of Canada also has an environmental code to meet, by no means are they “raping the landscape” rather they are cleaning the geological mess up to great civilized benefit.  The other point is it’s embarrassing for an American to be there while the Canadians are doing what is in their best interest.  The participants begin with the native Canadians and ends with the whole people of Canada with the national government.

I admire their results, their attitude and their tolerance of Americans getting in their business.  Extreme environmentalists are a great embarrassment to honest Americans and the policy makers of the U.S. sticking their noses in our neighbors business is a humiliation for those of us who respect our neighbors.

So, I humbly apologize to Canada, the citizens of Fort McMurray in particular for the behavior of the environmentalists, their followers, donors and the press and media and will comment that its no business of ours, I’m glad of your technological prowess and success.

Moreover, thank you to the API, Jane Van Ryan, her staff and the numerous people at Syncrude Canada who tried very hard to help us see the facts on the ground with our own eyes.  More appreciation can be forwarded on, as the residents, hotel and travel staff, and the minor interfaces with people was gracious, friendly and genuine.  I hope this post gives back a small measure of the respect given to all of us on the tour.

The problem at the Athabasca oil sands isn’t technology, oil or the environment, its simply intellectual honesty.


10 Comments so far

  1. David Martin on August 10, 2009 3:32 AM

    Thanks for the on the spot info.
    I must admit that the shouting had me convinced that there is no smoke without fire before reading this.
    It is just a pity that the environuts have managed to stymie using nuclear energy instead of gas to extract the oil.
    I would be interested on your take on the Appalachian mountain top removals if you get the opportunity – I have been taught to think that ‘this is a very bad thing’ but looking at Google Earth it is perhaps less clear that most of the mountains are under threat.
    I don’t think I would like it close to me though.

  2. Matt on August 10, 2009 8:33 AM

    Thanks for you clarification on the water usage statistics. The numbers had me concerned because I did not realize it was being reused.

  3. Al Fin on August 11, 2009 8:09 AM

    Nice overview, thanks Brian.

    Imagine an industry that reuses its process water! What will they think of next?

    Trillions of barrels of oil equivalent in Canadian bitumen is a stern rebuke to peak oil catastrophists and a big threat to climate catastrophists. They have to shut oil sands down no matter what it takes.

    You see the same level of fanaticism and dishonesty in the Salazar / Pelosi / Boxer attacks against development of trillions of barrels of oil equivalent in oil shale, and against arctic oil drilling, and offshore drilling — not to mention vital pipelines that are being obstructed.

    You are quite right that intellectual honesty is in short supply among the enviro lobbyists and their congressional cronies and cats’ paws.

  4. LenGould on August 26, 2009 11:10 AM

    Again, thanks Brian for the article. And don’t worry much about the enviro’s yelling from there, we have nearly as many of our own here, and others from the UK etc. are nearly as bad. The one issue where I think the sands (and petroleum in general) are still exposed is CO2 emissions. Hopefully the operators can find their way to using water-shift with coke to genrate the hydrogen needed for upgrading and local energy needs, and can then find suitable locations to sequester the CO2. If the Cdn govt. were really smart it would finance the research needed, then collect funds from taxes on all CO2-emitting fuels production sufficient to finance the sequestration systems.

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