by: Jim Strickland Updated:
ALBERTA, Canada - Channel 2 Action News consumer investigator Jim Strickland recently traveled to a sometimes brutal wilderness in Alberta, Canada, where vast oil reserves will help fuel Georgia's future.
Strickland received rare access inside Canada's oil sands, including inside the gates of Suncor Energy.
Twenty-five kilometers outside of the oil town of Fort McMurray, Strickland watched as a caravan of $6 million dump trucks hauled pay dirt from an oil sand mine. The trucks are the largest in the world. The tires alone cost $50,000 each.
"So this guy here has about 400 tons,” explained mine director Lynn Gould as a truck came into view. "For each ton you're going to get about .7 of a barrel so there's about 280 barrels of oil in this load."
Gould's 1072 employees work shifts that never stop. The sand contains a thick, nearly solid oil called bitumen. It floats to the top after being soaked in hot water in a giant processor called a separation cell.
"It's like toffee," said supervisor Jason Johnston as he scooped the thick oil with a shovel.
Canada has 170 billion barrels within reach, but the total reserve is estimated at 1.7 trillion barrels. Saudi Arabia's known reserve is 260 billion barrels.
Of his bitumen Johnston said, "It's better. It's from Canada.”
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers makes the point consistently.
"We're a stable democracy," said spokesman Travis Davies. “We're friends. We have the largest energy trading relationship in the world. We're currently your no. 1 supplier of oil."
Only 20 percent of the reserve is close enough to the surface to dig out. Miners will remove a layer of earth up to a football field thick to reach the sand. The earth, called overburden, is stored for use when the mine is reclaimed.
Strickland also gained access to Cenovus Energy, known as an insitu producer. The term means "in place."
To reach oil beyond the capability of traditional mining, insitu producers use a relatively new technology to inject steam deep into the sand. Strickland watched a drill crew bore down one quarter mile. A pair of wells extends out from the rig 800 yards. Steam blasted into the top well melts the oil, which then drains into a second well below to be pumped out.
"You can feel how hot it is," said Cenovus Senior Vice President Alan Reid.
Puddles around the pipes were boiling from intense heat. The steam measures about 650 degrees.
"Each of these wells will do roughly 1,500 barrels a day, so the eight wells on this pad are probably doing about 12,000 barrels a day of oil production right now," said Reid.
Oil sands producers put out 1.8 million barrels per day. More than half is exported to the United States. In 10 years, production is expected to double, but not without environmental challengers.
"The pace and scale of oil sands development is our primary concern," said Jennifer Grant of Canada's Pembina Institute. The group, which has been monitoring the oil sands for 18 years, seeks not to stop development but to more staunchly regulate it.
Grant said the industry is not doing enough to heal scared forestland, or deal with the ponds of toxic sludge left behind from rinsing the oil sand.
"We are going to need some strong regulations to help manage and guide the impact of the industry."
Strickland spoke to mine director Lynn Gould about what he saw as trucks rumbled over what had been forest. Gould said the industry continually reforests disturbed areas. The government does not certify land as reclaimed, until it is turned back over to public use.
Because much of the reclaimed land is still inside Suncor's secured facility, it cannot be certified because the public still has no access to it. Suncor showed Strickland the first of their toxic ponds, to be converted into a meadow. The ponds contain water and sludge known as tailings.
New technology to dry up the tailings will mean needing only one pond instead of seven. Suncor said it will build no more ponds and will share environmental developments with competitors.
Cenovus is now using butane to dissolve the oil so they don't burn so much gas creating steam. The creation of greenhouse gases during the extraction process is a key issue for environmentalists.
Reid said the industry has to respond to environmental debate to keep the oil flowing smoothly.
"We produce something that everyone needs. And it's something that people are going to continue to need for the next several decades," he said.