Jon Lowenstein | Canada | In the Oil Sands – One of the Largest Producers of Petroleum in the World

Posted by admin | Consequences by NOOR Project, Jon Lowenstein | Monday 9 November 2009 4:19 am

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©2009 Jon Lowenstein/NOOR

The Oil Sands or Tar Sands region in Alberta, Canada is now one of the largest producers of petroleum in the world. The Athabasca Oil Sands (also known colloquially as the Athabasca Tar Sands although there is no actual tar) are large deposits of bitumen, or extremely heavy crude oil, located in northeastern Alberta, Canada – roughly centered around the boomtown of Fort McMurray. These oil sands, hosted in the McMurray Formation, consist of a mixture of crude bitumen (a semi-solid form of crude oil), silica sand, clay minerals, and water. The Athabasca deposit is the largest reservoir of crude bitumen in the world and the largest of three major oil sands deposits in Alberta, along with the nearby Peace River and Cold Lake deposits. Together, these oil sand deposits lie under 141,000 square kilometres (54,000 sq mi) of sparsely populated boreal forest and muskeg (peat bogs) and contain about 1.7 trillion barrels of bitumen in-place, comparable in magnitude to the world’s total proven reserves of conventional petroleum.

With modern unconventional oil production technology, at least 10% of these deposits, or about 170 billion barrels were considered to be economically recoverable at 2006 prices, making Canada’s total oil reserves the second largest in the world, after Saudi Arabia’s. The Athabasca deposit is the only large oil sands reservoir in the world which is suitable for large-scale surface mining, although most of it can only be produced using more recently developed in-situ technology.

Steve Gaudet is Syncrude’s manager of environmental services and land reclamation. The company hails their reclamation effort as groundbreaking and claim that they can bring the impacted area back to close to the natural habitat. Periodically Gaudet and the Syncrude public relations offer tours of their reclamation efforts and their operations. In the background is a tailings pond and the plume of steam and smoke from the Syncrude Upgrader that processes and separates the sand from the oil. The tailings ponds are quite toxic and last year in one incident more than 1500 ducks that landed on the oily water died. Tailings ponds hold a mix of clay, water, sand, hydrocarbons and heavy metals that is left over after water washes oil out of sand in the oil sands extraction process.

As proof of the success of the reclamation effort they have a herd of 300 Wood Bison that live on reclaimed land. They also say they have spent 100 million Canadian dollars on land reclamation since 2003. In comparison to the 18 billion annual operating budget of the company the amount spent on land reclamation seems small to the observer.

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