The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Harvesting Oil Sands

Jane Van Ryan

Jane Van Ryan
Posted August 10, 2009

Day one of the oil sands tour, Aug. 6 - We're standing in a quarry where a steady stream of 380-ton to 400-ton, multi-story vehicles roll in and out, accepting loads of oil sands. As soon as one vehicle is loaded, another one takes its place next to the huge shovel that scrapes the oil sands from the black, sandy quarry wall.

These carefully coordinated activities are repeated hundreds of times a day by the workers who are mining and processing Canadian oil sands at this Syncrude facility. As soon as the trucks are loaded, they roll toward the processing facility where the oil sands are used to produce about 350,000 barrels of light, sweet crude oil every day.

This type of efficiency, precision and planning is the hallmark of Syncrude's development of the Athabascan oil sands deposits in Alberta, Canada. Consider this:

The processing facility uses water to separate the oil and other naturally-occurring components-- including sulfur--from the sands. The sulfur is formed into large yellow blocks and sold on the market where it's used in medicines and other products. Most of the clay is captured and used in reclamation, but fine particles remain in the water. This water is pumped into tailings ponds (so-named because they represent the "tail end" of the process), where the clay settles to the bottom.

The tailings ponds are the primary source of water for oil sands processing. About 2 barrels of water are required to produce each barrel of crude oil. Syncrude recycles 85 percent of its water, and as one spokesman said, "Every molecule of water is recycled 18 times."

Syncrude's planning extends to its 50-year closure plan. When a quarry closes, the land is returned to its natural state. The sand, which becomes white after the oil is removed, is put back in its proper location; the collected clay is returned; and the topsoil is placed on the surface. Even the leaf litter and seeds from the forest floor are used in the reclamation process. Syncrude also works with the First Nations of Alberta on the planting of indigenous trees, shrubs and grasses. Often the reclamation effort begins even before a quarry is closed and as a result, some operating quarries are bordered by land in the process of being reclaimed. The Albertan government closely monitors and regulates reclamation activities, and last year Syncrude received the government's first certification for a fully reclaimed site.

During the tour, we walked through a reclaimed area consisting of grasses, red clover and young trees. At the top of a hill, we looked down on a wetlands area named for a university professor who had studied Syncrude's reclamation effort program and its impact on the environment. At the water's edge, cattails grew tall. Behind us in a fenced pasture, Wood Bison swatted at flies with their tales. In all, 10 universities from Canada and the United States conduct research on Syncrude's environmental program.

Oil sands development is beneficial to Americans. It provides a ready source of crude oil, and it provides American jobs. Many of the heavy trucks, costing about $5.8 million each, are built by Americans in West Virginia. The road-grading equipment comes from Illinois. The oversized tires, costing $50,000-70,000 each, also come from America. And about one million barrels of oil sands-derived oil is transported by pipeline to the United States every day where it is refined into products for American consumers.

Only about 20 percent of the Canadian oil sands are close to the surface and can be developed using the mining technique. The remaining 80 percent must be produced using the in-situ method, in which the steam injection and heat are used to coax the oil from the sand without mining.

More on the in-situ method tomorrow.


Update on August 11, 2009: For more on my trip to Alberta, watch these videos on the YouTube Energy channel to see oil sands production and operations from my eyes.