August 12, 2009

[Photo Essay] The Bitumen Trail

At long last, a friend and I recently made a trip to the tar sands of Northern Alberta. We both had an interest in seeing first hand what this massive energy project - the largest in the world - actually looks like. We also wanted to talk to people along the way in order to get a more nuanced understanding of what is actually going on in this province in terms of resource extraction. Dan is a fantastic photographer (see his website at, so I've selected some of his most telling photographs from our trip and provided some annotations.

The bitumen trail
The "tar sands gigaproject" includes far more than the multiple open-pit mines located North of Fort McMurray. 80% of the "oil sand" deposits are located at lower depths and thus need to be extracted using in place - or "in situ" - steam injection wells. Altogether the resource covers 140,800 square kilometers of forest and muskeg in Northeastern Alberta! The oilsand itself is not what humans are after, however: First the sand and other natural components (clays, metals, etc.) need to be removed in order to yield a heavy hydrocarbon called "bitumen". But even the bitumen, which is almost identical to the man made substance we call "tar" (hence the term "tar sands") needs to be upgraded into synthetic crude oil, after which it is sent to various refineries throughout North America to be converted into products such as gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and other petrochemicals like butane, methane, ethane, ethylene and polyethylene. Only three oil sands companies (Suncor, Syncrude, and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd) upgrade bitumen at their respective mine sites. The rest of the companies ship bitumen from their mines and various in situ projects, by pipeline and rail, down to "upgraders" in the Edmonton region, the United States, and Ontario. Hence the whole tar sands gigaproject includes an entire network of mines, in situ projects, pipelines, railway lines, upgraders, refineries and petrochemical plants that literally span across the continent, working together in a constant whirl to satiate Canada's and America's oil addictions. Our trip from Edmonton to Fort McMurray and back followed the first leg of this bitumen trail. We went to the heart of this project - the "surface mineable area" - a place where bitumen has been known to literally ooze out of the Earth, and where First Nations peoples used to go to get bitumen to patch their canoes. And on the way back from the mines, we followed the bitumen trail Southbound to Alberta's Industrial Heartland, where Shell and BA Energy's upgraders and Dow's petrochemical plants are located, through to Petro Canada's (now Suncor's) Strathcona upgrader and refinery on the East side of Edmonton.

Avoiding the "Highway to Hell/Heaven"
It seems that just about anyone who has driven up to Fort McMurray will offer the following advice: "Don't take Highway 63". Two authors have written about the dangers of this highway in their respective accounts of the tar sands. William Marsden's first chapter in Stupid to the Last Drop is titled "Highway to Heaven", sarcastially referring to Alberta's "blessed" position as one of the world's largest oil reserves and the way many people have died in collisions en route to Fort McMurray while trying to pass convoys of slow-moving oversized machinery. Andrew Nikiforuk titles his fourth chapter in Tar Sands "Highway to Hell", also pointing to the high death toll (there were 1000 collisions on Highway 63 between 2001 and 2005) and the wretched aspects of living in boom town Fort McMurray. So Dan and I opt for the safer route: Highway 881. This secondary highway had much less traffic and was much more comfortable overall. Nevertheless, at one point on the return trip we did get a taste of the highway's inherent dangers when we came upon this wide load. Eventually we were given the indication to pass, while going uphill on a solid line. Driving in a small Hyundai sedan, we were clearly outsiders on this highway to heaven/hell: Although the vast majority of drivers were like us (young, white, male), the vehicle of choice in this part of Alberta is a truck with a "buggy whip", a high flying orange flag that is intended to remind the drivers of the giant oilsands dump trucks to avoid running over the one ton trucks (incidentally, last year the buggy whip on one truck at Shell's Albian mine went unnoticed by one heavy dump truck. The worker in the smaller truck was crushed to death, and the driver in the big dump truck didn't even know she had run over another vehicle!).

Fort McMoney

After 6 hours of driving we arrive at Fort McMurray. Along with a general trait of "bigness", another characteristic of the town is testosterone. The local Earls restaurant franchise in Fort McMurray is called "Fuel", a name that better suits its location and the majority of its patrons: white male oilsands workers. I get the impression that this parking job (seen above in the photograph of a truck parked across two spaces) is not necessarily an uncommon site in this town. A lot of money is showcased and spent in Fort McMurray, and high prices are merely a way of life (the cheapest hotel room I could find in town came to $160 for one night!). Many people like to flaunt their wealth with new trucks and other toys for grown ups, and the town has earned the nickname "Fort McMoney". But not everyone in town can afford to live like a high roller. The homeless rate in Fort McMurray is the highest in the province, and while walking through the streets one sees many people who are likely in need of shelter and drug addiction support. And despite the preponderance of people who are paid high hourly wages, the city is severely lacking in social services (as the local Mayor often laments). Finally, Fort McMurray is noticeably multicultural, and the service sector employees seem to encompass a large number of Arab, African and French Canadians. After grabbing a Shawarma at a local Lebanese restaurant, Dan and I head back to the hotel and get ready for our trip North to the mines the next day.

Behind the trees
It's a sunny day and we get off to good start with a full complimentary breakfast at Ace Inn. By 11am we're driving North from Fort McMurray on the famed Highway 63, heading towards the belly of the beast. Some 20 km later we spot what looks like a long hillside of dirt in the distance. It is hard to see from the highway, as a row of trees blocks the view. Determined to get a better view of the horizon, we turn onto a side road and find a hill to climb. According to a great project map made by Petr Cizek ( we know that this long dirt hill that stretches a number of kilometers across the horizon is part of the Suncor Millenium and Steepbank mine. The scale of the entire project becomes evident when we realize that the small yellow trucks moving in the distance are the giant heavy-haulers that are three stories high and can carry 400 tons of dirt (The photo here only captures one small segment of the panoramic view). There is only so much that one can see from the highway. The real way to view the oilsands is from the sky (but unfortunately our budget can not cover the $1300 required for a 1 hour helicopter ride!). Oilsands operations have literally reshaped the landscape of this region. Hillsides and lakes now exist where there were none before, and gigantic craters up to 70 meters deep have been unearthed in the search for black gold. This must be an archealogist's nightmare: In 1976 woolly mammoth bones were uncovered and luckily handed over to a museum, but I wonder how many ancient fossils, middens and points of archealogical interest have been disturbed in the process of digging up all of this soil.

Reclaimed forests?
As we drive further North we see a haze of smog trailing across the horizon. From the trailhead of Crane Lake Reclamation Area we see the source of this air pollution: A smokestack at Syncrude's Mildred Lake mine. The Crane Lake trail leads us through a synthetically engineered forest to a man-made lake that Suncor began building in the 1970s. I have to admit that I never would have imagined that this used to be an open pit mine. But despite the presence of ducks and native plant species, there is a strange feeling to this place: Perhaps it is the smoke trailing across the sky, or the "no trespassing" signs that block our entry to (and view of) the industrial wastelands that neighbour Crane Lake, or perhaps it is the overwhelming feeling of doubt - doubt that the miles and miles of open-pit mines will someday be fully reclaimed and restored to their "natural state" - a goal that industry claims it intends to meet and government claims is a requirement. When the boreal forest is clear cut and the natural muskeg is removed, the organic layer of mineral soil is destroyed. According to a reclamation expert at the University of Alberta, this disturbs the "vital interactions between root systems and symbiotic fungi, bacteria and algae and other micro-organisms that co-exist underground." One gets the impression that industry and government are playing God in asserting that we can rebuild hundreds of square kilometers of ancient Boreal forest. Dan reads my mind as we gaze over the mines in the distance when he says "There's no way they'll be able to reclaim all of that".

"Mordor Corridor"

We continue North. Now we are driving by one of Syncrude's tailings ponds (where the infamous "duck incident" occurred last year). The white sand is one of the final derivatives after everything "of value" is removed through separation, upgrading and pond settling. The Syncrude Tailings Dam is considered by the US Department of Interior to be the largest damn in the world by volume of construction material. It spans across 14 miles and holds 19 billion cubic feet of waste. And as Dan and I both now know, it stinks! Highway 63 makes a sharp turn and cuts right, and here one enters what I would call the "Mordor Corridor" (as there is nothing but open pit mines, asphalt, and tailings ponds in all directions). Here we are directly downwind of the Syncrude smokestack, and the stench is awful (and who knows how toxic?). The sandbank to our left is blowing across the highway, making me feel like I am in the middle of the desert. The idea of full reclamation seems even more absurd.

Sound blasts and "bitu men"
The tar sands actually have a distinct sound. One can always hear the hum of large trucks whirring down Highway 63, and the background is punctuated by the propane-fired air canons that dot the tailing lakes (which supposedly scare away wildlife). And in my case I heard a little chuckle from Dan every time we saw one of the "bitu men" - the orange clad, hard-hatted scarecrows which give the impression of a big joke: "Someone must have had a lot of fun putting those guys together", Dan says. The air canons and bitu men appear to be doing their job, as there is no wildlife in sight... but then again, if I were a duck this is about the last place on Earth I'd want to hang out!

A really sad place

Finally, we come to what one might call the beginning of the bitumen trail, about 50 km North of Fort McMurray. Here Highway 63 becomes a gravel road, leading to some of the more Northerly mines like CNRL's Horizon mine. But we're hungry, and we've had enough mine spotting. We turn and begin to head back South, planning to stop in the Fort McKay First Nation for lunch. We luck out when we spot a barbeque set up across from the Band Office building. After some inquiries we learn that Alberta Environment is hosting a free BBQ lunch picnic, but for what purpose no one around seems to know. The government employees are not there to fill us in (they appeared to remain inside their government trailer while we were there). So we eat our free burgers and set back on the road after an interesting conversation with two Fort McKay elders.

Despite signs of being uncharacteristically wealthy for a reserve (new paved blacktop, fancy buildings and new parks, etc.), it is evident that this town is a symbol of a dying community - and not just figuratively! Later on in the day we have the opportunity to meet with Fort McKay elder Celina Harpe. From her, we learn about an entire way of life and culture that has been mined away over the last thirty years along with the bitumen. Celina was born on the trap line back when there were no big mines surrounding her people's land. She tells us about the great whitefish they used to catch in the Athabasca River and surrounding lakes. When she was a child, the ecosystem was clearly thriving. There was a bounty of fresh fruit and game and Celina tells us about a trick she learned from her mother when she found herself thirsty out on the trap line - she would dig a hole in the muskeg and let the water pool and settle, and then drink straight from the Earth! Now Celina and her fellow community members know to stay clear of any fish and water in the area; The berry carrying fruit trees and bushes seem to have dissipated in direct correlation with the emergence of various noxious gases floating downstream from neighbouring oilsands mines. Celina had to fight with the oilsands companies to get fresh drinking water into her community, and she foresees - with a noticeable sigh in her throat - that the day will soon come when they can no longer hunt moose in the area. Kids in the community have developed asthma (something Celina had never heard about when she was growing up); We hear about the stench of nearby oil plants that permeates in the neighbourhood, at times lingering inside people's homes, and the incidences of toxic gases like ammonia finding their way into the townsite, causing the schoolkids to pass out! We hear about the great divide between new community leaders who see opportunity in the oilsands, and those elders who pine for a traditional way of life that is now lost.

Is this really what a union town looks like?

When we return to Fort McMurray we pass by a billboard that reads "This is what a union town looks like. Welcome to Fort McMurray". Despite the image of unions dominating the show in the oilsands industry, the Alberta Federation of Labour has highlighted a host of attacks on Alberta's unions. The Alberta Government's Bill 26 of 2008 particularly targeted the construction sector which is very heavily involved in the oil sands industry. As the pace of development in 2007 and 2008 saw construction costs soar to unprecedented levels, the Stelmach government reacted by trying to reduce the amount of unionized construction workers in the province which - in theory - would bring construction costs down. But the effect has been to make union organizing almost impossible in some sectors, causing some labour activists to question whether the human right to unionize has been taken away from some workers.

Throughout our journey we have passed many work camps, where a large number of oilsands workers live. As the photo above attests, the camps tend to look like long rectangular boxes and they seem to exist in their own isolation. We hear a little bit about life in the camps from an acquaintance who meets us for dinner (whose name I will not share in order to protect his identity). He's worked in the oilsands and related industries for nearly three decades, and has a lot of experience and stories to share. Life at the camps wasn't all bad - there was plenty of comraderie and a workout and entertainment room, but nevertheless he doesn't plan on ever living in camp again - "I've done my time!" In animated form, our dinner guest tells us about a number of ways that oilsands could be more efficient, less wasteful. We get a sense from him just how many good ideas are out there floating inside the heads of the workers in the patch. But none of these ideas ever seem to come to fruition, and why not? The bottom line, he repeatedly reminds us signalling with the motion of his hands, is it's all about the money. If it's not profitable, it's not happening in the oilsands!

Back to Upgrader Alley
Our drive back to Edmonton is blessed by stereotypical prairie beauty - the contrast of light blue skies, fluffly white clouds, and the hues of greens, yellows and browns of the crops, fields and wooded areas that dot this province. But where this would have been the case some decades ago, four counties Northeast of Edmonton now have their prairie beauty marred by new industrial developments. It's called the "Alberta Industrial Heartland". The politicians and business associations of Fort Saskatchewan, Lamont, Strathcona, and Sturgeon county have come together to rebrand a 533 square kilometer area of prime agricultural land as an "industrial" corridor. To some, the AIH sounds like an extremely lucrative business opportunity, and in the frenzy of record oil prices in the summer of 2008 there were plans to build up to ten distinct bitumen upgrader plants within this industrial park (along the North Saskatchewan River) - which conjured up the nickname "Upgrader Alley". But to many Albertans it just sounds plain crazy - crazy to visualize the paving over and poisoning of the air, water and soil that has the reproductive capacity to feed the citizens of the Greater Edmonton Region.

Unwelcoming flares
As we approach Edmonton we see very dark smoke billowing across the horizon. Getting nearer it becomes evident that the dark smoke filling our field of view is originating at the Petro Canada (now owned by Suncor) refinery and upgrader. Living in Edmonton, I have come to know these flares, but rarely do they pour out such dark black smoke. The bright orange fires must have been at least 20 feet high each. As we would later find out, the black smoke was a result of a small "incident" at the refinery. Suncor's supply of hydrogen ran dry, and so the plant went into partial shut down mode (the entire process of upgrading is very hydrogen intensive). These types of incidents seem to occur all the time - it's part of the business of being immersed in a large project and trying to balance all of the inputs and outputs with timelines. Suncor claims that the black smoke that filled the skies above Edmonton is not harmful to humans. Again, I am filled with a sense of doubt. In "unrelated" news, a new report has found that large amounts of toxic gases being released in the oilsands are leading to the acidification of rain downwind in Saskatchewan. The tar sands rain has the acidity of black coffee.

Unsettling conclusions...
In the end, Dan and I are left with some unsettling questions and conclusions. The first one arises from something that we didn't see very much of along the bitumen trail - government intervention, involvement and ownership. If the people of Alberta own the resource you wouldn't know it, because the caretaker of this publicly owned treasure is camouflaged amidst the plethora of private companies profiting from Alberta bitumen. The Alberta government works far too closely with industry in the oilsands, to the extent that there is no body playing the role of protecting the public from the negative economic, social, and environmental impacts of out-of-control resource extraction. The Alberta government is deeply entrenched in the business of oil. Despite claiming to be regulating the oilsands resource with "the public interest" in mind, the Energy Resources Conservation Board appears to be an advocacy group for the oilsands developers. Much has been written about this, but two telling facts are that the government has never turned down an application from a major oil company to exploit the resource, and that the Alberta government has hired lobbyists to work on behalf of big oil in Washington D.C.
there appears to exist a blind, messianic culture of living in the moment here in Alberta. This culture is marred by an overwhelming presence of "cognitive dissonance" - one in which people continually rationalize and justify their behaviour and involvement in the tar sands gigaproject in order to avoid changing their actions. But the long term costs of this cognitive dissonance (socially, economically, and ecologically) are likely to be enormous and perhaps even too much to handle. We are already seeing signs of the social preasures on communities - from families being split apart while the breadwinner spends weeks working long shifts, to lacking social and health services trying to keep up with the pace of Alberta's boom and bust cycle. It is impossible to put a monetary value on the social and environmental externalities of Alberta's super heavy oil industry, but whatever its value, every indication suggests it is too much.

One of my favourite professors once explained that being a pessimist doesn't bar you from having hope. That is, you can see the glass as being half empty, but it doesn't necessarily mean you can't hope that it will be refilled. The story of the oilsands as I know it and as I have relayed it above is a sad one. But let's hope that between the actions of people like Celina, our dinner guest, and all the other critics, workers, insiders and outsiders in the oilsands we can work our way towards some solutions to this mess of a bitumen trail.

1 comment:

  1. I know some guys who work there