Most of the oil enjoyed during the 20th century was pulled up from big underground pools.
Drills went down, tapped into the pool, and the oil came bubbling up. With demand on the rise and traditional deposits like this already drilled, however, oil companies are digging into “unconventional” deposits. This is the crude mixed in with shale and sand that until now has been economically and physically out of reach. That’s where the Alberta oil sands come in.
The Athabasca oil sands are at the centre of a huge fight between environmentalists and oil companies. Oil companies want to mine the sands to make money and help wean North America off its addiction to Middle Eastern oil. Environmentalists say burning the oil in the sands, will be a “death sentence” for the planet.
In early May, an oil company called Cenovus Energy took us on a tour of their Christina Lake drilling site to show us the future of the oil sands…
Cenovus picked us up in this King Air 350 in Edmonton at 7 a.m.to take us to their state-of-the-art oil sands drilling site — the technology that is changing the face of the Canadian economy
Christina Lake's drilling creates a much smaller environmental footprint than traditional oil sand mining
From where we land it is hard to believe that what goes on nearby is causing such a controversy — it's as quiet as it is desolate
This well has two pipes running into the ground — one pumping steam that softens the oil so that it falls into the second, which pulls it to the surface
A mass of dials, gauges, and computer screens fill the rig's control room where a small team of guys look out on the platform...
Where another pair of workers fit and guide the 1,200-meters of pipe down 400-meters, and over another 800 to run parallel to the surface
A mass of oil, sand, and water keep surfaces slick, so the team spreads this sawdust about frequently to help them get a grip. The oil the wells pull up is called bitumen, the thickest type in the world.
This is a cross section of the pipe being inserted into the ground — it's slotted to allow steam out, and oil in
Once it leaves the well, the oil is pumped to this distribution centre where it's directed across the compound by internal sensors built-in to every part of the network
Those sensors collect 25,000 pieces of information every second that gets sent to this bank of servers deep inside the site's control centre
From there it gets sent to interface designers who translate the raw data into schematics like this when information is requested for a particular section
Those pieces of information then get routed to this immense room with its four banks of monitors and 70-inch displays mounted to the wall
Workers here may be more comfortable than those out on the rig, but their attention is fixed to the screens before them all day long
They're looking for anything out of the ordinary across the entire distribution and processing network, and while most fixes can be performed from this room, sometimes they have to run to the field
And there is no telling what exactly they'll find when they get there — so this self-contained breathing gear lines the wall in front of them — to be used when they head to the field for an emergency
At noon our guides brought us to one of the dining and lodging facilities at Christina Lake — that mud is just from the snow — when the spring rains come it'll be deeper still
Apparently a small cup of fresh ground coffee helps with any lingering odor caused by such a collection of sweaty shoes
Workers are offered three meals a day and the choice of food is as good as it is extensive — dishes are made to order at dinner — and one hot lunch is served each week
The quality of camp life is a major factor in drawing and keeping a good workforce and this game room is available to everyone in their off time
These wooden pallets are laid down to offer some relief from the mud and are what Cenovus uses when it lays pipelines through the delicate countryside
And that is where we head next, into one of these buildings beneath a 150-foot-tall chimney. Each generator produces 250 million BTUs of energy.
It's hot inside and I'm told not to use my camera's flash — no problem, but I have to know why — the sudden burst of light is interpreted by the sensors here as an explosion and it will shut down the entire building
This window in the end of the broiler offers a glimpse inside the super-heated vessel that creates the steam, which heats the oil underground and allows it to be pulled up
The separator pulls the bitumen apart from the water it comes up with. Inside this building is where we'll finally see the product of all this work.
This is where the bitumen comes free of the sand it has clung to for more than 100-million-years and the water that brought it here
This sampling station receives fresh hot bitumen that one of our guides puts in a plastic cup for us to see
And this is what it looks like — it smells a bit like tar and is closer to its thick consistency than to oil — I rub some between my fingers and it holds them together it's so sticky
This is the last batch of water pulled from the mix — it will be refined further so as much as possible can be reused and folded back into the process to start all over again
The steam going into the ground must be at least 390 degrees and the water that doesn't reach that point escapes here into a pool to be used over again
Following a drive by the medical centre and a brief explanation of how to handle emergencies this far north and removed — it is back on the bus for the drive back to the air strip
Some in-situ critics are concerned with what will become of the ground below once the oil is removed — on the way to the plane we are shown this box with two samples taken in 2000 before drilling and in 2010 when the oil was removed — according to our guide there is no difference
The first one back on the plane, I buckle in and wait for the short flight southeast to Fort McMurray where Cenovus will drop me off for my self-guided tour of the epicentre of the oil sands community and the vast open mines
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