Transforming the landscape: Tar-sands field, Alberta, Canada

Excerpts from Esquire Magazine’s excellent article by John H. Richardson on the Oil Sands of Alberta, Canada.   Addiction is everyone’s problem, both the supplier and the user.  Canada is currently the United States’ largest foreign supplier of oil, but they have a national tax on carbon which encourages conservation.  Not only does the US not tax carbon, but low oil prices seem to be considered a God given right… or at least that’s what some politicians want us to believe.

“. . . discovery of rapidly increasing levels of thirteen toxic chemicals in the river — arsenic and lead up fourfold near oil-sands development, mercury up eightfold downstream of tailings ponds, etc. At first, the government said those chemicals must be naturally occurring, since the Athabasca River flows right through the tar sands. Then doctors from the University of Alberta found leukemia and lymphoma at rates four times the average and bile-duct cancer six times higher.”

Read more:

When I think of western Canada, this isn’t what I expect it to look like

Photograph by Edward Burtynsky, courtesy of Nicholas Metivier, Toronto, and Howard Greenberg and Bryce Wolkowitz, New York.

Tar-sands field, Alberta: Only about 20 percent of the deposits are within seventy-five meters of the surface, so the extraction process utterly transforms the landscape. Here, the massive tailings pond is in the foreground, with the upgrader facilities of Syncrude and Suncor in the background.

In its natural form, bitumen is hard as a hockey puck. It sticks to sand, it sticks to clothes, it sticks to boots, but it does not flow. That’s why they called it “tar sand” until the industry launched a rebranding campaign to name it “oil sand.” So the problem facing Fort McMurray’s pioneers was how to suck a billion hockey pucks through the solid earth.

They came up with an audacious process they called “huff and puff.” Basically, that meant driving a pipe hundreds of feet into the ground and pumping superheated steam through the earth for a few months, then reversing the pumps and sucking the softened bitumen up like malted milk through a straw.

Now picture doing that when the temperature is 50 below.

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