The Canadian Oil Boom
Scraping bottom, once considered too expensive, as well as too damaging to the land, exploitation of Albertas’s oil sands is now a gamble worth billions.
Squeezing sand for oil. oil sands surface mining operates on extreme scales, with crews working arond the clock through hot summers and subzero winters to feed heavy demand. At the bottom of a mine, a giant shovel (below) devours sand and delivers it to trucks like this three-story, four-million-dollar Catepillar, which muscle up to 400 tons at a time to extraction plants.
The bitumen is separated from sand in a hot-water wash. As the bitumen rises to the top of the wash, Suncor employee skims off wood, leaves, and other debris before the sticky load is sent to an upgrading facility that converts it to synthetic crude oil. Sand, water, and bitumen residues are finally piped to a taillings pond., where the water is extracted, cleaned, and reused in the mines.
One day in 1963, when Jim Boucher was seven, he was not working the trapline with his grandfather a few miles south of the Fort McKay First Nation reserve on the Athabasca River in northern Albarta. The country there is wet, rolling fen, dotted with lakes, dissected by streams, and draped in a cover of skinny, stunted trees — it’s part of the boreal forest that sweeps rightacross Canad, covering more than a third of the country. In 1963 that forest was stille mostly untouch. The Goverment had not yet bulit a gravel road into Fort McKay, you got there by boat or in the winter by dogsled. The Chipewyan and Cree Indians there — Boucher is a Chipewyan — were largely cut off from the outside world. For food they hunted moose and bison; they fished the athabasca for walleye and whitefish; they gathered cranberries and blueberries. For income they trapped beaver and mink. Fort McKay was a small fur trading post. It had no gas, electricity, telephone, or running water. Those didn’t come until the 1970s and 1980s.
In Boucher’s memory, though, the change begins that day in 1963, on the long trail his grandfather used to set his traps, near a place called Mildred Lake. Generations of his ancestors had worked that trapline. “These trails had been here thousands of years.” Boucher said one day last summer, sitting in his spacious and tasteful corner office in Fort McKay. His golf putter stood in one corner; Mozart played softly on the stereo. “And that day, all of a sudden, we came upon this clearing. A huge clearing. There had been no notice. In the 1970s they went in and tore down my granfather’s cabin.” That was Boucher’s first encounter with the oil sand industry. It’s an industry that has utterly transformed this part of notrheastern Alberta in ust the past few years, with astonishing speed. Boucher is surrounded by it now and immersed in it himself.
Where the trapline and the cabin once were, and the forest, there is now a large open-pit mine. Here Syncrude, Canada’s largest oil producer, digs btumen-laced sand from the ground with electric shovels five stories high, then washes the bitumen off the sand with hot water and sometimes caustic soda. Next to the mine, flames flare from the stacks of an “upgrader,” which cracks the tarry bitumen and converts it into Syncrude Sweet Blen, a synthetic crude that travels down a pipeline to refineries in Edmonton, Alberta; Ontario, and the United States. Mildred Lake, meanwhile, is now dwarfed by its neighbor, the Mildred Lake settling basin, a four-square-mile lake of toxic mine tailings. The sand dike that contains it is by volume one of the largest dams in the world.