Alberta Oil Sands

When I was studying hemp in Alberta, Canada I took the liberty to drive up to the infamous Alberta Oil Sands so that I could see with my own eyes what the fuss was about, and then make an informed decision on the matter. Overall, it is still a tough decision because there are pros and cons related to both supporting the Keystone XL and not supporting the Keystone XL.

Most of the drive to Fort McMurray, Alberta was on two lane highways but eventually I got off the highway and onto a seemingly dangerous two lane road. I was told beforehand to be very careful on this road– trucks barrel down it with no regard for the tiny vehicles and I would imagine even less regard for tiny vehicles with Sierra Club and ‘Grow Hemp for a Greener Planet’ stickers. While I was there, the government of Alberta was constructing another two lane road parallel to the one I shared with oncoming traffic, but it wasn’t ready yet. I was told several of the oil giants invested in the Alberta Oil Sands got tired of waiting on the road and fronted the bill to get it finished in a timely manner. It must be nice to work in an industry with that kind of leverage and influence- I wouldn’t know.

BUT that road construction was one of the first pros that caught my eye– JOB CREATION. But on a negative note– lots of ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION AND EROSION of which in the grand scheme of the Alberta Oil Sands operations was a penny of environmental degradation.

When I arrived to Fort McMurray I checked into my hotel. There were several in the area and almost all hotels had rooms for longer-term stays, complete with kitchenettes and living areas. The city itself was pretty gross. No real industry existed except the oil industry and the hospitality industry to feed and shelter the oil industry employees and executives. Litter was everywhere.

Oil Sands Discovery Centre

My first stop was a visit to the Oil Sands Discovery Centre- an educational experience where I learned about the geology of the grounds, location of the oil, extraction methods, refining and upgrading processes, mining remediation techniques, end-products, and how the industry dealt with environmental concerns.

Bitumen Oil And Sand

Oil And Sand

The oil sand is low-grade bitumen that is mixed with sand, silt, and clay making it difficult to extract the bitumen from unwanted sediments. Once the oil sands are extracted from the ground, the material is pumped through pipelines and mixed with water and a caustic additive to start the separation process. The material consists of approximately 83% sand, 4% water, 3% clay and 10% bitumen.

In addition, Bitumen is the lowest grade of oil. Once separated the bitumen is refined and upgraded to various forms, mostly to synthetic crude oil. It is easy to upgrade bitumen to asphalt or tar (hence the name Tar Sands, but please don’t call it that), but it takes A LOT of energy to upgrade low-grade bitumen to high-grade synthetic crude oil. Unfortunately, these company’s want synthetic crude oil for the largest return on investments. “While the richness of the oil sand makes a difference, on average about one cubic metre– or two metric tons– of oil sand have to be mixed and processed to yield 1.25 barrels of bitumen. This bitumen can then be processed into one barrel of synthetic crude oil” (Discovery Centre, 2014).

Upgrading the bitumen to synthetic crude oil creates by-products as well, with one unit of upgraded bitumen consisting of approximately 72% synthetic crude oil, 25% coke, and 3% sulphur. The low-grade bitumen coupled with high energy extraction methods plus long refining processes causes a very low Return on Energy (ROE). I have read that oil sands have an ROE of around 2 whereas petroleum has an ROE of approximately 25 (hint: more is better).

Given the variation in geological formation, over time water from glaciers and rivers caused oil to migrate, so the layers of oil sand are rarely uniform. Varying qualities of oil sand, rock and clay may exist within one deposit. These qualities and the depth of the resource, impacts whether the oil sand is surface mined or extracted through in situ production. If it is surface mined, digging can occur between 60-100 meters in depth.

10% of Alberta’s Oil Sands in the Fort McMurray area, aka The Athabasca Area, is surface mined, whereas, the remaining 90% is extracted through in situ methods

Surface Mining at Alberta Oil Sands

Surface Mining

In situ mining site

In situ mining site

using steam-assisted gravity to bring the oil to the surface. In total the Athabasca Area is 40,000 km2, the largest of the three mining areas in Alberta ad contains the most bitumen. In considering the damage between surface mining and in situ methods, in situ methods appear to be far less damaging because the earth’s surface is not deforested and dug up to quite the extent as surface mining. Don’t get me wrong, lots of land is still cleared for the facility and each material input into the massive facility has its own damaging life cycle, but it is seemingly a far less dirty method.


Highway 63 Loop

After the Discovery Centre I headed north, up highway 63 to see tailing ponds, Syncrude’s facility and hopefully a mine. On my way north I crossed over the bridge above the Athabasca River, I had to stop and see. It was late April so the ice on the river was breaking up and beginning to move downstream, which gave me the opportunity to see all the erosion damage in the river– the ice and snow on top were sprinkled in black and grey dust, the WATER WAS MURKY BROWN, and branches and limbs laid on top of the ice, all caused by mining erosion. I began to question my decision of filling my water bottle with faucet water. Although, I’m sure it is more acceptable than some of the water I have drunk while abroad.

I kept moving, noticing more positives in terms of ECONOMIC IMPACT. Mining the area has created secondary industries– asphalt and timber companies. There were also bus loads of field workers trucked from the employee housing to the fields. Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Although I can’t imagine the quality of life for those employees is very good. High paying work but risky business with unfavorable living conditions.

Tailing Pond with Boom

Tailing Pond with Boom

My next stop on the 63 loop was seeing the infamous tailing ponds– previously mined grounds built up to hold the residual matter after separation. The ponds consist of water, clay, silt, some remaining bitumen, probably leftover caustic matter and added gypsum to harden the soils. The ponds allow the sediments to settle back to the bottom and eventually fill the mined grounds. Water collects towards the top and eventually as the tailings become more dense, water is released and collects in one area. This water is then piped back to the facility and reused in the operations. While at the Discovery Centre, I was told 95% of the water used in the operations was recycled and reused. The ponds also are equipped with several “booms” that sound every 10 seconds or so. This prevents birds and other wildlife from landing in the potentially harmful ponds.

I continued driving down the road and found a pull off to view mining equipment commonly used in the fields. Absolutely MASSIVE EQUIPMENT.

Mining Equipment

Mining Equipment. Notice the people in the bottom left corner for scale.

I felt like an ant next to the equipment. Seeing how large this equipment actually was up close gave me a new perspective of the expansiveness of the surface mines when I saw the area from a bird’s eye view the following day.


Stop three on the loop was at a reclaimed mine site that was replanted in the 1970s. Technically, the oil companies rent the land from the Alberta Government so when the company is done with the land, the company is supposed to return the land to its original state. This was probably one of the more depressing points in the drive because 40+ years later the trees were still quite small, cattails sat along the bank of a pond which held murky, black water and more litter.  The site didn’t seem very remediated and I felt like I was standing in Kentucky rather than Canada’s old growth Boreal Forest.

After that depressing experience, I called it a day. Far more excitement was to come tomorrow.

Athabasca from a Bird’s Eye

The next day I made my way to Wood Buffalo for a helicopter tour of the region. Oh boy! I had never been on a helicopter before! #bucketlist! I always imagined the first time I rode in a helicopter would be over a volcano, the great barrier reef or someplace beautiful and unique. This place was definitely unique, but far from beautiful.

We choppered into the air passing over Fort McMurray and the Athabasca River. The sides of the hills along the river were speckled with what appeared to be black sand, but in reality it was bitumen. We continued north and along the horizon I began to see the devastation. The grounds were completely decimated– deep holes of black mined earth. The massive equipment I saw the day before now looked tiny in comparison to the mined earth. Tailing ponds surrounded the mines. Suncor, Syncrude and Shell’s enormous facilities rested nearby the mines with the flame always burning.

Surface Mining with Tailing Ponds

Surface Mining with Tailing Ponds

I saw ants of people below, working to clear the land beneath them for future mining.

Bitumen Testing Areas

Bitumen Testing Areas

Areas of uncleared land had diamond-cut clearings with small roads leading to them, which were sites cleared for testing the bitumen content.

Jagged Cuts before Clearing Land

Jagged Cuts before Clearing Land

If the tests showed positive results, the land was first cut in a jagged checkerboard pattern and then cleared. Environmental groups found that jagged cuts were better than straight cuts because animals hunting prey were less disrupted. How nice of the industry to consider the animals hunting techniques while they still have the area to hunt.


Decision Time

Overall, the environmental devastation in the Boreal Forest is without question, irreversible. The carbon emissions from clearing the land of old growth forests, drilling and digging into the soils and extracting, separating, transporting and upgrading the bitumen into synthetic crude oil are seemingly insurmountable, especially given the low ROE (return on energy) AND since the process continues to feed our world’s addiction to carbon intensive oil.

Facility with Surface Mining and Old Tailing Pond

Facility with Surface Mining and Old Tailing Pond

BUT, at the time Calgary and Edmonton were BOOMING ECONOMICALLY. New people, new businesses, new money! With oil prices high, rapid extraction made economic sense because of high returns, but now that prices are lower, returns are lower. Extraction has slowed and the industry laid off employees. Alberta and Canada want to take advantage of their resource wealth, so extraction will happen, but the rates of extraction will vary. The only real matter is do I want Alberta to transport it to the US, reducing our dependence on foreign oil but offering very dirty and inefficient energy or do I want Alberta to transport it to British Columbia then across the vulnerable Pacific Ocean to China.

In addition, if the Keystone XL pipeline is not built, will the oil come to the US anyways via rail or truck? These two forms are far more susceptible to continuous human error (and carbon emissions) than a permanent pipeline.

Either way, I think it is lucky that the oil sands are in Canada where the country has established environmental regulations that company’s must follow. AND… hopefully oil prices will remain low… Both for the good of my (and your) wallet and to slow the extraction of the Alberta Oil Sands until the province can find a alternative, cost-effective, energy-efficent and lucrative (energy) industry. 🙂

Pollution from Factory

Up in Smoke


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