The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

On the Road in Alberta

Jane Van Ryan

Jane Van Ryan
Posted August 7, 2009

6:35 a.m., Ft. McMurray, Alberta -- In just a few minutes, I'll leave this hotel room to join today's tour to ConocoPhillips' Surmont oil sands facility. But before I go, here are a few observations about the oil sands deposits here in Alberta.

This part of Alberta consists of low rolling hills and a deep green boreal forest, studded here and there by meadows and lakes. From the air, the forest appears to stretch into the infinity in all directions, interrupted only by long strands of electric lines that cut across the expanse of fir and birch trees.

The oil sands lie a few feet beneath the surface in thick layers. Where they have been exposed along the shores of the Athabasca River, they ooze with black bitumen in the hot summer sun.

The oil sands have the consistency of gritty cookie dough--pliable and slightly wet in your hand. Squeeze a small handful and they can be shaped into a ball; run a finger over the clump of sand and it easily breaks apart and falls through your fingers, leaving bitumen residue behind.

In Alberta, two different methods are used to extract the bitumen from the sands. The oldest method involves surface mining in which huge shovels scrape the oil sands from the sides of a large quarry, load them into 380-ton trucks that are several stories tall, and take them to a facility similar to a refinery where the sand and other components are removed, the bitumen is turned into high-grade oil and transported by pipeline to refineries.

The other extraction system involves heating the oil sands in place without mining. Steam is injected into the oil sands formation, gravity pulls the oil from the sands, and it is pumped to the surface for processing. About 80 percent of the oil sands will be captured using this technology; only 20 percent lend themselves to mining. Watch the video below for more on this technology.

In the coming days, I'll share more about my visit to Alberta, including the successful reclamation efforts which are returning the mines to their natural state. I'll also give you a glimpse of the bison ranch where award-winning bison are being raised on a portion of the reclaimed land. While we were in the pasture yesterday, a very large bull approached us forcing us to make a rather hasty.

More on Monday.