The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Energy Tomorrow Radio: Episode 88 - A Tour of Canadian Oil Sands

Jane Van Ryan

Jane Van Ryan
Posted August 18, 2009

This week's episode focuses on the recent tour of oil sands operations in Alberta, Canada that I've been posting about frequently. As I've mentioned, oil sands are a critically important resource, providing crude oil to the United States. Of the more than 2 million barrels of Canadian crude oil that are imported to the U.S. every day, about half is derived from Canada's abundant oil sands.

Use the audio player below to listen to information on oil sands and follow along with the show notes. I hope you find the podcast informative.

Show Notes:

00:30 Of the more than two million barrels of Canadian crude oil that are imported to the U.S. every day, about half is derived from Canada's abundant oil sands.

00:43 The sound you're hearing is a 380-ton vehicle rolling into a quarry to pick up a load of oil sands and carry it to the processing facility. As soon as one vehicle is loaded, another one takes its place next to the huge shovel that scrapes the oil sands from the black sandy quarry wall.

01:01 At this oil sands mine operated by Syncrude, 350,000 barrels of light sweet crude oil are produced every day.

01:11 Peter Read: We mine the oil sand, we haul it to crushers, put it from the crushers into the stock pile and then conveyors pull it from there to be mixed in the hydro-transport process. Hydro-transport is one of the technologies developed at Syncrude that changed the industry, lessened the environmental requirements and brought down costs.

01:50 The oil sands at Syncrude's location have the consistency of gritty cookie dough. Squeeze a handful and it sticks to itself, forming a ball. Run your finger over it and it crumbles and falls to the ground, leaving a bitumen residue on your fingers. Bitumen is a form of petroleum, highly prized for its energy content that requires processing before it can be refined into useful oil products.

02:34 Eighty-five percent of the water in the bitumen processing is recycled--every molecule of water is recycled 18 times, according to Syncrude.

02:44 Syncrude is proud of their environmental programs, especially reclamation. They have reclaimed 4,600 hectares of land, certified by the government.

03:01 By law, all disturbed land must be restored. The sand, which is white once the oil is removed, is put back into its proper location, the collected clay is returned and topsoil is placed on the surface. Even the leaf litter and seeds from the forest floor are used in the reclamation process. Syncrude also works with the First Nations of Alberta on the planting of indigenous trees, shrubs and grasses.

05:35 One of Syncrude's reclamation sites has become a bison ranch, home to 300 wood bison. In the wild, bison are threatened by tuberculosis and anthrax; at the ranch, where they are attended to by Syncrude employees and members of the First Nation of Fort McKay, they are disease free and winning awards.

06:14 Only about 20 percent of the oil sands are close enough to the surface to be mined. The remaining 80 percent must be produced through the in-situ method, in which the bitumen must be heated in the ground and brought to the surface. Oil sands are currently produced like this at the Surmont oil sands site, a joint project between Conoco Phillips and France's Total Oil Company.

06:49 At the Surmont site, where the oil sands exist below layers of soil and shale, petroleum workers use horizontal drilling and steam to produce the bitumen. Unlike the soft, pliable sands at the Syncrude mine, this bitumen is locked in the pores of sandstone.

07:37 Pat Lamont: Lift gas is used to bring the bitumen to the surface. Steam is also used because the consistency, or viscosity, of the fluid is solid like a hockey puck and needs to be heated in order to bring it to the surface.

07:56 After the bitumen is heated and coaxed up the wellbore, the water is removed and the bitumen is diluted with synthetic oil. The water is treated to take out any residual oil and hardness, then sent back to the steam generators to raise more bitumen from the ground--a closed loop system.

09:09 In-situ operations have a smaller footprint than mining. The well pads and buildings are constructed on gravel so the land can be reclaimed relatively quickly. The Surmont facility is expected to produce oil from the sandstone for the next 30 to 40 years, and then be dismantled and removed so the land can be returned to a natural state.

09:29 Under Alberta's standards, companies must remediate and reclaim land so it can be productive again. In the mean time, the 1 percent of Alberta's Royal Forest, where oil sands are being developed, is providing 2 percent of the world's oil supply and generating thousands of high-paying jobs for Canadians and Americans.

09:51 For more information on Canada's oil sands, visit