A visit to the heart of Canada’s oil sands industry – Fort McMurray

Posted on May 28, 2015


Since 2007 when we published our article, ”A crash program scenario for the Canadian oil sands industry” a visit to Fort McMurray and the areas where oil sands are mined has always been high on my wish list. On my current trip I passed Calgary on the way to Toronto so I finally got an opportunity to visit the oil sands. The flight from Calgary became an interesting introduction to the industry. It was on a small aircraft with around 50 seats and about 40 of the passengers were presumably workers on their way back to Fort McMurray after a week’s leave. A three week session of work on the tar sands awaited them. This report is a description of my trip and does not take a position for or against the mining of oil sands.

During the weekends from May until and including autumn the Oil Sands Community Alliance (OSCA) in Fort McMurray organizes round trips to interesting places. I was able to put together my own trip with their help. Entry to any of the mining installations is impossible unless one is part of a parliamentary delegation or similar but there were opportunities to observe activities from various roads. I travelled from Fort McMurray to Fort McKay, a distance of 58 km. Along that route I passed near part of the heart of Canada’s oil sands industry including Suncore Mine, Syncrude Mine and Shell Mine. In the images below you can see a Google Maps image of the area and some of the photographs that I took.

Map McMurray McKay

Before the trip began I had the opportunity of meeting the head of the Wood Buffalo Environment Association (WBEA) and we discussed various aspects of oil production from oil sands. I hope that this meeting will be the first step towards some form of collaboration between WBEA and Uppsala University.

” The Wood Buffalo Environmental Association (WBEA) monitors the environment of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in north-eastern Alberta. Our environmental monitoring work is the most integrated and intensive focus on air and terrestrial monitoring in any one area, anywhere in Canada. WBEA is committed to reporting accurate and timely high quality data from our Air, Terrestrial and Human Exposure Monitoring Programs to ensure regional stakeholders have the information they need to make informed environmental decisions.”

From Fort McMurray I travelled north along Highway 63. The traffic was dominated by trucks carrying loads for the oil sands industry.

01 McMurray

The first stop that OSCA suggested was at Crane Lake Reclamation Area. This is an area rehabilitated by Suncor. Of course, the nature there now is not the same as before. The deep holes will most probably become lakes similar to Crane Lake. How the pollutants from an area like this spread into surrounding areas is an important future research topic. One can see how visually beautiful the area is in the next image.
08 McMurray
09 McMurray
Crane Lake
As I continued North I came to an area on the left where Syncrude had begun rehabilitation work. At the moment it is not so pretty but in 20-30 years it will look completely different. On the horizon one can glimpse Syncrude’s installations and maximum zoom on the camera shows these more clearly on the subsequent photograph.

07 McMurray
12 McMurray

Fort McKay is a First Nation (FN) with its lands in the middle of the area mined by the oil sands industry and with producible oil sands of its own. Around 700 people live within its area and they have mixed feelings regarding oil sands production. Some are positive towards it since the industry creates income-earning opportunities. Those against it are mainly the elderly who worry that their grandchildren will not follow the historical traditions. Unfortunately, there was no suitable contact person there when I visited them but I was given the name of some for future reference. This First Nation is bordered by the Athabasca River that runs through the oil sands production area. With the FN representatives I wanted to discuss pollution of the river and whether it had affected their way of life. (On the left of the image showing the river you can see some houses of the FN village.)

03 McMurray
06 McMurray

The companies Canadian Natural, Imperial Oil and Shell have their mines north of Fort McKay but nothing can be seen from the road. Google maps can show them.

14 McMurray

Before I arrived in Fort McMurray I had no real understanding of the size of the area from which oil sands are mined. If one draws a circle of 50 km radius then that will encompass the heart of the mining activity. A little less than I had imagined.

16 McMurray

From Fort McMay I travelled south and passed Syncrude’s installation. Immediately south of it was a viewing area named Wood Bison Viewpoint. If one is lucky one can see around 300 bison from there. I didn’t see any. I looked instead towards Syncrude’s installation where I could see some of their environmental rehabilitation work.

04 McMurray
11 McMurray

On the trip back to Fort McMurray I was able to see some of the original, undisturbed natural landscape.

02 McMurray
05 McMurray

Places where industrial activity is ongoing, especially where mining activity is occurring, are not pretty to look at. The oil sand mining along Highway 63 is a clear example of this. But they show also that it is possible to rehabilitate these areas. An important task to ensure environmental health in future is monitoring of the pollutants produced by the mining activities.

When I visited OSCA I was given a text, “The Facts on Oil Sands”. The text initially explains why the oil sands must be mined, “As long as we are using oil to power our lives and improve our quality of life, we must develop it in a way that benefits us economically and is environmentally responsible.” The oil production rate is currently 1.9 million barrels per day (Mb/d). The current lower oil price makes it uncertain whether this production rate will increase. In our 2007 publication we predicted maximal possible production from the oil sands in 2015 at 3.5 Mb/d so it is clear that current production is not following our “crash programme scenario”. According to Canada’s prognoses production in 2025 will be 4.5 Mb/d, a rate that seems far from possible.

In the OSCA text on the oil sands they give Canada’s producible oil reserves as 173 billion barrels, of which the oil sands represent 168 billion. If the production rate increases to 2.7 Mb/d then sufficient oil sands exist for over 150 years of oil production. Approximately 20% (a little over 30 billion barrels) can be mined though open cut techniques so this activity has a significantly shorter lifespan. Production of oil from oil sands requires long term investment compared to that needed for shale oil production. That means that there is less volatility in oil production from oil sands. Therefore, it is fairly certain that they will be producing oil from the oil sands for the next 50 years. Environmentally, this is an energy project that requires greater investment in environmental research.

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