The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

The Canadian Oil Sands Tourist - Part 2

Sabrina Fang

Sabrina Fang
Posted August 5, 2011

Yesterday, our oil sands tour took us an hour south of Fort McMurray to ConocoPhillips' (COP) Surmont facility where we viewed the oil extraction process called steam assisted gravity drainage, or SAGD. The bitumen, or oil and sand mixture, is well below ground at this site. To give you an idea on how deep it's buried, you'd have to take an elevator 90 floors beneath the earth to get to it. The bitumen in its virgin state is very hard--like a chunk of honey. Our Canadian guides like to compare it to a hockey puck.

The SAGD process uses steam to soften the bitumen underground so that it can be extracted, processed and transported through a pipeline for further processing. Two parallel wells are drilled on each well pad: One for steam injection to heat the bitumen-rich sand, and another running parallel underneath the first to collect the bitumen. COP produces 23,000 barrels of oil a day at this facility alone.

The high-tech technique spurred a lot of great questions from the reporters and bloggers on the tour who were fascinated by SAGD. What they marveled at the most was the recycling process of the steam and water used to extract the bitumen. A COP official put it best when he said "a good oil company is a good water company." In fact, most of the facility looked like a water treatment plant. The site was amazingly clean and each pipe was meticulously labeled. Almost all of the water used in the process is recycled and used over and over again.

The tour was an eye-opening experience and gave me a true appreciation for the ingenuity behind the production of Canadian oil sands. Until this week, the reporters who came along on the tour only had read about oil sands, but now they can say they've touched it and have seen what it takes to bring it to market. Yesterday's Surmont visit wrapped up our two-day media tour. The tour was fun and educational and the staff at Suncor and COP did a great job at making us all feel at home during our visit.


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.