EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: Here's The Hot New Way They're Extracting Oil From Canada's Massive Oil Sands


Photo: Robert Johnson — Business Insider

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.

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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.

But how do you get oil of of sand, anyway?

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

The ride to the site was bumpy and took about 45 minutes

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

Which is why everyone is required to remove their footwear when they enter

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

This screening room with a projector and Klipsch surround sound is very popular on game day

After seeing how the workforce lived and ate we headed back out into the mud in our tour gear

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

These pipes are filled with water and steam coming from the steam generator

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

And nothing I've seen so far has prepared me for what I find when I get there

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