Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Oil Sands and the Post-Apocalyptic Wonderland

Updated April 2019

Many of my readers will have heard of the Alberta oil sands but are not familiar with this massive reserve that is located in the northeastern corner of Alberta, Canada's petro-province.  As a suggestion, if you are not particularly interested in the background information that I am providing in this posting and want to get right to the video showing the ecological impact of the mining operations, that section of this posting starts near the bottom. 

Let's open with a map from the Alberta Government's Oil Sands Information Portal showing the extent of the oil sands, the current mineable area, the current projects and operating boundaries (in blue) for both in situ and mining operations and the location of upgraders:

Notice that Fort McMurray is in the lower centre of the map and the scale is 0.75 inches equals 10 miles. 

Here is a screen capture from Google Earth showing the extent of the current main oil sands projects:

For scale, the highway between Fort MccMurray and the southernmost oil sands mines is a four lane highway.

Before we look at the ecological impact of oil sands mining, I want to provide you with some background regarding the mines that are currently operating, their current and historical production data and plans for future expansion.  

In this screen capture from Google Earth, I have focussed on the mining projects in the southern part of the currently mined area; Syncrude's Mildred Lake and Suncor's Millennium and North Steepbank Mines, the oldest mines in the area:

In 2018, Syncrude's production capacity was 440,000 BOPD with cumulative lifetime production of over 2.8 billion barrels of oil.  Suncor's oil sands mining capabilities are located at Voyager South, Fort Hills and Joslyn.  In addition, Suncor owns a 58.74 percent interest in the Syncrude operation.  One of Syncrude's partners has projected that production could ramp up by 71 percent, from 350,000 BOPD to 600,000 BOPD by 2020, however, ongoing production problems have led partners to decide to increase production through increased reliability.

Here is a graph showing the ramping up of production by Syncrude's Mildred Lake operations since 1978:

Here is a graph showing the dramatic ramping up of production by Suncor since 1967:

Now, let's move to the northern operations.  Here is a screen capture from Google Earth showing the mining operations at CNRL's Horizon, Imperial Oil's Kearl, Shell's Muskeg North and Jackpine and Syncrude's Aurora North:

In 2012, CNRL produced 31.8 million barrels of synthetic crude, Syncrude produced 67.3 million barrels from Aurora North, Shell produced 46.9 million barrels from Muskeg North and an additional 35.5 million from Jackpine.  Imperial's Kearl project began production in April 2013 and is expected to produce around 110,000 BOPD of synthetic crude per day by late 2015, increasing to 345,000 BOPD by 2020 which works out to over 100 million barrels annually over 300 annual operating days.

Here is a graph showing how CNRL's production has looked since mining and upgrading began in 2009:

Note that CNRL has approvals for Phases 2A, 2B and 3 which will increase production by 137,000 BOPD from its current level of 110,000 BOPD.  Here is a closeup of what the CNRL mine site looks like after just five years of operation:

Note the already massive size of the settling pond.  For scale, the road coming in from the south side of the photo is a two lane highway.  This shows us how quickly the scale of mining operations can ramp up, a situation that will get even worse as CNRL builds Phases 2A, 2B and 3. 

Here is a graph showing the production history for Syncrude's Aurora North mine which began operation in 2001:

Here is a screen capture from Google Earth showing the size of the Aurora North mine, noting the two lane highway entering the mine from the lower left corner of the map for scale:

Here is a graph showing the production history for Shell's Muskeg North mine which began production in 2002:

Here is a graph showing the production history for Shell's Jackpine mine which began production in 2010:

Note that both Shell mines have been given approvals to expand production.

Four additional mines have already received approval; Syncrude's Aurora South, Total's North Joslyn (100,00 BOPD),  Suncor's Fort Hills (180,000 BOPD) and Shell Canada's Jackpine Expansion (100,000 BOPD).

Now for the damage and the key point of this posting.  Here is an excerpt from the Petropolis video which provides viewers with startling aerial views of a portion of Canada's oil sands mining operation:

That most certainly is not the "squirrel running up a tree", pastoral image that the oil industry likes to promote, is it?

As my regular readers know, I have 25 years of experience in Canada's oil industry as a geoscientist in conventional exploration.  I know that some of my actions led to environmental issues, both over the short- and long-term.  That said, when I watched the full version of Petropolis, the first thought that went through my mind was "post-apocalyptic wonderland".  I had no idea of the scale of the environmental damage done and how little had actually been accomplished to reclaim the mined areas and the tailings ponds and how much work would be required to make even a small dent in the ecological nightmare created by oil sands mining. 

In the interest of balance, here is the oil industry perspective provided by Suncor:

In 2010, Suncor claimed to be the first oil sands company to complete surface reclamation of a tailings pond, covering an area of 220 hectares or 543 acres.  Incidentally, the tailings pond was first used in 1967 and was in use for nearly 40 years.  While that is somewhat admirable, according to the Pembina Institute, in 2010, tailings ponds alone occupied 176 square kilometres or 17,600 hectares and is expected to grow to 250 square kilometres or 25,000 hectares by 2020.  Note that this does not include the size of the mined areas; in January 2013, the current area of boreal forest disturbed by oil sands mining operations was 715 square kilometres or 71500 hectares, the same size as the urbanized area of the entire City of Calgary or the entirety of New York City including all five boroughs.  In 2020, it is expected that the size of the area mined for oil sands will increase by an average of 18.6 hectares or the size of 34.5 football fields daily.

Post-apocalyptic wonderland indeed.


  1. Sadly many people do not care or have very little respect for our planet. Conservation is a low priority to these people.

    1. just stop breeding like roaches and the world will be fine, regardless of individual choices.

      seems everyone forgot the lessons of the 60s and 70s.

    2. The fertility rate has gone down in most country including India. The exception is Africa.

    3. The rate is not as important as the absolute numbers of births per day. That number continues to increase.

  2. I had no idea the scale of this industrialization. We are on a treadmill to detroy the earth to find that last barrel of oil, or last barrel of profitable oil.

    Reclamation, however small, is a happy event bankrolled by profitable industry in a growth cycle. As soon as conditions change, there won't be any money for reclamation.
    I am curious about this "polymer" they inject into the tailings with a huge pipeline. It ends up in the 'soil' or in the water, either way it doesn't sound healthy.

  3. OPEC applauds this websites brave efforts! The cheque is in the mail.

  4. Talk about cherry picking and making it look worse than it is. Although I wouldn't expect any less. Yes, compared to a 2 lane highway it looks big. What also looks big is the vast amounts of forest everywhere. I worked on CNRL Horizon and stayed off site. It was a 30 minute drive in and there was tons of trees and open field. Also even on site the air quality seemed pretty good if you ask me. It's what you should expect from a modern plant. Flying in there is nothing but trees with patches of these sites mixed in. It is literally in the middle of nowhere. Oh and keep in mind the footprint and pollution of a major city like Toronto is probably more than all of these sites combined. Keep in mind Kearl, Horizon, Syncrude, Suncor sites are open pit mines and the worst case scenario. In-site barely even has a footprint. And I have also seen reclaimed areas. You would never have known anyone was there. Not a big fan of people constantly attacking an industry that supports many Canadian families and actually spend billions on some of these projects just to meet ever increasing environmental regulations.

    1. I can understand the desire for an income and that seems to be the key to your response. However, if we killer apes are to survive -- and quite possibly it is too late to make a correction -- as a species, we have to get away from our fossil fuel addiction. Your footprint references do not recognize that it is the user of the petroleum product -- wherever they are -- that is creating the largest footprint. I know from 25 years of experience that it is possible to live without owning a vehicle. We just need to use our imagination in the transition away from fossil fuels.

  5. I notice that you mentioned nothing about the carbon footprint of the operations.

  6. Keep your nasty tar sand oil.None if it is for U.S. comsumption.Find another way to transport your filthy shit,which the majority of Canadians oppose.

  7. Question
    What is the total production cost of oil sands per barrel ?

  8. Thanks for overview. In a global scope thid will all be reclaimed by nature in well under 60 years. The horrible toxic byproducts in mamufacturing thin film solar panels has horrible environmental impacts that last thousands of years.
    There is a complete lack of metrics but no limit to opinions.
    A chart on urban sprawl would be much worse, but homes are beautiful, LOL

    1. Sorry, but this is utter BS. While not beeing a fanboy for solar where do you get your informations from? If you mean the Cd inside thin film CdTe solar cells just think about how much heavy metals are actually inside crude oil/ coal/ tar sands and then think again. Especially about the humongous amounts of fossil fuels extracted as compared to some thin film solar cells produced. And there one can take easily care of the Cd waste...

    2. Solar is a disaster for the planet and for the economies of every nation that gets in too deep.

      Ditch the solar and wind scams. Use hydrocarbons as bridge fuels to clean safe advanced nuclear reactors.

      Good intentions are okay, but they pave the road to hell. Get them under control before they kill us all.