The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

The Canadian Oil Sands Tourist - Part 1

Sabrina Fang

Sabrina Fang
Posted August 4, 2011

I am writing to you from Fort McMurray, Alberta, where back in the 1700's the Aboriginals discovered the region's bitumen deposit and used it to seal their canoes. Today, bituminous sands, a.k.a. oil sands, are a vital energy resource. And that's why I'm here. API put together a two-day location tour of the Alberta oil sands to give reporters and bloggers an up close and personal look at how Canada and the U.S. can continue their energy partnership.

Canadian energy company Suncor Energy, Inc. hosted the first day of the tour. The day started early when we hopped on a coach bus bound for Suncor's mining site. It was a beautiful morning. The sun was shining, but unlike August in Washington, D.C., August in Alberta means 70 degrees and little humidity!

Once on site we were taken to the heart of the mining field to learn about mining oil sands. Caterpillar trucks the size of a two-story house rolled along the range gathering bitumen. The trucks, which operate year-round, were being loaded at a feverous pace. Two hundred of these monster vehicles work the field daily. Each truck can transport up to 4,000 400 tons of bitumen and cost $6.5 million without the tires. And each of the truck's six tires is $60,000 apiece.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the drivers are women, earning more than $150,000 a year. One of our tour guides works alongside his two daughters who drive the Caterpillars. He has been on the job for 12 years and plans to retire from Suncor someday.

After the mine field we went to a processing plant where the extracted bitumen is broken down using hot water. Inside the plant our group climbed seven flights of stairs to get to the top of the processing tanks. For those of us afraid of heights (and I mean me), the climb was a little challenging. At the top we could see the large clouds of bitumen being rendered into a frothy slurry that eventually will become crude oil then refined into the finished products we use every day. It was truly amazing. The water used for separating the bitumen is later recycled and reused to process more bitumen.

Once the bitumen is separated from the sand it goes through an upgrading process before it is pumped through pipelines to refineries to be made into gasoline and other products.

The final part of the tour was perhaps the most interesting. We saw what used to be a tailings pond, an area that is used to store leftover sediment after the bitumen is separated from the sand. The water used throughout the process is then reused in the bitumen separation process. After a mine has been exhausted, it and the tailings ponds are restored to their previous states. The restoration is truly a sight to see. You would never know it was anything but a field filled with 600,000 little trees, grass, and barley. The 550 acres also had some furry inhabitants. We saw a fox, a black bear, deer and birds. It had the feel of a national park and, as the vegetation grows, so will the animal population. A win-win for all involved!

We wrapped up the day with a great dinner featuring Alberta's Minister of Energy, The Honourable Ron Liepert, and representatives of TransCanada, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Suncor and ConocoPhillips, who are hosting day two of the tour. The reporters and bloggers were able to eat and chat with these oil sands stakeholders to get real sense of what Canadian oil sands mean to the United States. Oil from our neighbors to the north means jobs. The minister put best - Alberta alone created more than 20,000 jobs last month - in contrast only 18,000 new jobs were created in the entire United States. Those are numbers that put things in perspective. Canadian oil is good for America!

Stayed tuned for part two of 'The Tourist' tomorrow when I'll tell you about our tour of the ConocoPhillips Surmont facility and how oil sands are extracted through steam assisted gravity drainage, also known as SAGD.


Sabrina Fang is an API media relations representative. Before joining API she worked for the Washington Humane Society and was a reporter for Tribune Broadcasting and covered the White House for seven years. Fang studied broadcast journalism at Syracuse University before starting her career. She enjoys reading, watching movies and spending time with family.