A student’s perspective on the oil sands in Alberta

We visited the oil sands, also known as tar sands, near Ft McMurray in Alberta last week. Here’s the perspective of Samora Garling on this trip. Samora is a sophomore at Stanford and my, in his words, personal research assistant for the summer. We took him along. I suppose a bit as a reward for his summer long suffering under my supervision.

Samora’s oil sands reflection

Location of bitumen depoits (

Image via Wikipedia

My trip to the Alberta Oil Sands served as one of those times in life when we’re reminded that nothing is black and white, but rather complex shades of gray. After a week spent researching the activities of oil companies in the Oil Sands, I was convinced that I would confront a dying earth. I steeled myself for what I thought would be clear signs of devastation, but I soon realized that nothing could prepare me for what I would encounter.

During our first day in Fort McMurray, we toured SynCrude’s open pit mining operations. SynCrude is the largest producer of bitumen in the Oil Sands and the only company utilizing open pit mining. These pits were deep, and they were so large that their full scale could not be assessed from the ground. Despite the size of the operation, it was immensely well ordered and seemingly immaculate. I was even lulled into thinking that it was not so bad. This lull was partially due to the fact that SynCrude’s reclamation efforts were substantial, with 20% of the mined land in some stage of reclamation. I learned that reclamation takes place almost synchronously with the mining, and most components of the mined earth are saved for reuse when the pits are refilled for reclamation. I was also lulled because all the people working in the mine were quite friendly, even the drivers of the 400-ton dump trucks waved as they drove by. The dump trucks that are used there are the largest in the world and cost roughly $6 million. However, throughout the tour, I tried to look for that grain of salt, and I found it later that night when we got an aerial view of the mines by helicopter.

This is a picture of Syncrude's base mine. The...

Image via Wikipedia

The aerial tour shattered all of the illusions I had formed earlier in the day about open pit mining. The sheer scale of the mines was only comprehensible from the air, and it was in the helicopter that I realized that open pit mining was truly a blight on the land. First, there was the stark contrast between the endless boreal forests and the vast pits that had been hewn into the ground. Second, there were the toxic tailings ponds, some of which appeared larger than the mines themselves. The word “pond” in this case is a complete misnomer because they were easily the size of lakes. As the flight continued, my disdain for open mining only grew. Reclamation efforts aside, I wondered how anyone could justify environmental destruction on this scale.

The next day, we toured Surmont’s in-situ facility, which is located to the south of SynCrude’s mines. Surmont uses the most common in-situ technique: Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD). With a physical footprint much like that of conventional oil and gas operations, it was immediately more palatable than the open mines. In-situ extraction is slightly more energy intensive than open pit mining, and it releases a bit more in terms of greenhouse gases. But, in-situ extraction is better than open mining in that it causes less physical damage to the environment and utilizes much less space.

After completing both tours, I began to wonder if any of these specialized facilities were even necessary. However just looking around Fort McMurray, I was reminded of the fact that we live in a society that has chosen to rely heavily on oil. Almost everyone in Fort McMurray drives either a truck or an SUV. It seemed like these people would fit right into the Midwest, and really Fort McMurray seemed more Texas than Texas. But do people in the states and in Alberta even realize the costs of this dependence, much less care? When one considers the fact that the lowest starting wage in the Oil Sands is roughly $100,000 a year, it’s hard to look past the economic opportunity. However do we even need to be reliant on oil? I say this because since 2000, over 200 billion dollars have been invested into development in the Oil Sands, that’s a little larger than one fourth of the $787 billion stimulus passed earlier this year, which only allocated $43 billion towards energy. Why was some of this $200 billion not invested in renewables? It’s hard to argue that windmills are more of an eyesore than massive holes in the ground. Furthermore even with 1.7 trillion proven barrels of oil reserves in the Oil Sands, oil remains a finite source as opposed to renewables.

However that argument is too simple. What I realized while interacting with people from API and the oil industry is that there is a prevailing mindset that says that oil is the way to go. All the people I met were good people yet it was clear that we disagreed when it came to energy use and production. I was then able to step outside myself and examine my own biases. I’m from the West Coast, a place that has largely been on the cutting edge in regard to adoption of new energy technology and sustainable practices, whereas many of the people on the tour were from Rust Belt states, heavily dependent on fossil fuels for power. I had always assumed that renewables were the logical step but for these people the idea is that technology will improve so that we can continue to use oil and other fossil fuels. This is part of why it will be so hard to make the widespread adoption of renewables a reality; yet it is a cause worth fighting for.

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