The Canadian Oil Sand Mines Refused Us Access, So We Rented This Plane To See What They Were Up To

Oil Sands

Photo: Robert Johnson — Business Insider

When reaching out to Alberta oil sands companies before a trip to Canada last month, I thought all of them mined oil the same way — they don’t.The open mining most people think of when they picture the oil sands is just one way of extracting crude from the ground, but it is without a doubt the most dramatic. And we had to see it.

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After being refused a mine tour and any type of access to a mining site or equipment, Business Insider rented a plane that I used to see everything I could of the mines on my own.

Restricted to flying no lower than 1,000 feet above the ground, I spent nearly two hours leaning out the window of a small Cessna 172 with a long lens, snapping pictures and trying to keep warm.

The oil sands hold up to two trillion barrels of oil spread over more than 54,000 square miles, making it the second largest oil deposit in the world after Saudi Arabia.

The amount of energy spent recovering that oil and the pollution created in refining it is immense and the impact on the environment profound. 

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Limiting that impact is important as oil companies are required by law to return the land to its original condition when they’re done mining, but the amount of time required to do that has long been criticised.

Today’s environmental focus at the mining companies is figuring out how to get the land back to its original state more quickly and efficiently.

And that is something that everyone who lives and works near the oil sands would be happy to see.

It used to be that people would come to work the mines for a couple of years and go back where they came from, but that is changing as people put down roots and raise their children and grandchildren.

About 140,000 people are involved in working the oil sands, with 100,000 more jobs expected in the next five years.

So, no matter how you feel about the oil sands or the burning of all that oil, you can be sure that as long as there’s a market for it and people need jobs, the oil companies aren’t going anywhere.

A sincere thanks to former oil sands worker Mike Pearson whose experience and insight proved invaluable on this assignment. Thanks Mike, I’d have never known where to buy that hard hat and reflective vest without you.

Still coming up in our Alberta oil sands series will be an inside look at the local lumber mill and timber industry, an interview with Greenpeace who shut a mine down in 2009, and a tour of the Syncrude research facility in Edmonton, and a tour of Fort McMurray.

More pictures of our oil sands trip can be found here on Flickr.

Watch this video for a 2-minute explainer on how oil is extracted from the sands:


To get a look at the oil sand mines we rented this Cessna 172 which the pilot was allowed to bring down to 1,000 feet — from there, through the open window and with a long lens we were able to see what really goes on in one of the most controversial places on the planet

The Alberta oil sands are spread across more than 54,000 square miles but we're taking a look at just a small part of that — the red line is an approximate outline of the entire deposit — the green is where we'll be flying

Most of the Athabasca oil sands lie just north of Fort McMurray — the small city is bordered on the east by Rt 63 — the Clearwater River to the west and the south— and the Athabasca River to the north

A lot of the oil money stops here first — this is Suncor Oil's recently remodeled $180 million Community Leisure centre — it's set to receive another $117 million expansion in September 2012

The community centre is a real focal point of Fort McMurray — but that will be in another slideshow — living here is not necessarily the easiest place to raise a family

Housing is tough to find, and expensive, averaging over $700,000 for a decent place — the newly built apartments at the top were abruptly condemned forcing police to evict tenants without their belongings one night last winter

And it gets cold here — down to -50 F in the dead of winter with just a few hours of real daylight — this spot costs $1,400 a month to rent without the insulated camper

But thousands flock here to make real money in the oil sands — where creating synthetic crude begins in the strip mine

This is how the oil sands have been harvested since 1967

There were only two companies working the sands in 1998 and local officials were concerned even those would be forced to close — there are more than 10 times that number here now

That's because in the late '90s oil prices rose, the Canadian government restructured its royalty system, and new technology caused a huge boom

From small companies to conglomerates like Shell — each outfit starts off the same way

First they clear the trees from the land

Then they scrape away the shallow layer of leafy, peaty topsoil called muskeg

Then the trucks and shovels come in to scoop up the oil sand— that shovel is electric, runs on 15,000 volts — and scoops up 90 tons in one load — it takes about 2.5 tons of sand to produce one barrel of oil

The Cat 797 dump trucks are the largest in the world and and can haul 1 million pounds in a single load — more weight than a fully loaded Boeing 747

They're so large people say they can drive over a Ford F-150 like it's a 'speed bump' — with this shot from outside a mechanic's shop it's easy to see what they mean

And the dump trucks are everywhere out here

Carrying the chunks of oil sand

Often across bridges like these, which are supposed to be the strongest in the world

To crushing plants like this, which break up the chunks into a fine mixture that can be transported along the conveyor belts below

The conveyors take the sand to be conditioned — the first step in separating it from the oil

Conditioning is just mixing the oil sand with water — creating what's called a slurry — where the oil begins to part from the sand

The slurry is then piped to containers where it separates into three parts: Oil froth on top — sand on the bottom — oil, sand, clay, and water in the middle

The sand and water mixture in the middle is pumped to open storage areas called tailings ponds

The ponds are vast and some look more like lakes

Most ponds are coated in a sheen of oil that can be deadly to waterfowl, like ducks and geese, that land on its surface

To help keep birds away scarecrows like this are all over the ponds

The ponds are used to settle out the solids in the oil-water mix as they slowly fall to the bottom — the chemicals and oil float to the top

The surface chemicals are skimmed across the surface using floating lines like those used in oil spills

To give an idea of the size — that dump truck passing the pond is 50-feet-long

This is what one pond looks like on the ground

And this is what the surface material looks like up close

After it's skimmed and the surface water is relatively sediment and chemical free — it's pumped from one pond to another

This clarified water is supposed to provide 90 per cent of what the oil companies need to start all over again

The solids left behind will be used to reclaim the land as the operation moves on

As the sand finally dries it turns white — sound cannons still boom to scare birds away though — especially after a 2010 incident where hundreds of ducks landed on a roadside pond and died

Oil companies are required to return the land to its original condition and this reclaimed section, populated with Wood Bison, is not far from the pond

It looks a whole lot different on this side

Once the rough oil is pulled from the sand it will get sent to an 'upgrader' like Suncor's here on the Athabasca River— this is one of the sites where the oil from the oil sands is converted into synthetic crude

This is done by heating the raw oil, called bitumen, in a process called coking and produces the smoke that hovers about the whole area and a smell that fills the cockpit of the plane

Here are some small piles of coke

And here is one very immense pile of coke waiting to be used or sold as fuel for smelting iron

After it's coked, the oil is 'cracked' to break the heavy parts down into lighter more desirable petroleum products

Cracked, coked and lighter, what's left gets sent to a tower like this, where inside it's hotter at the top than the bottom, forcing dense material down and lighter petroleum products up

Then everything is exposed to hot, high pressure gas that removes even more impurities like sulfur

The sulfur would normally then be sold

But a glut in the sulfur market is keeping prices low, and in the meantime mountains of it continue to grow

This is Syncrude's Mildred Lake plant along Route 63

Route 63 is deadly, and a family of 7 was killed driving it the day I got there — this memorial is right across from Syncrude by the side of the road — after taking this photo Syncrude security was dispatched and told me to go

Just north of that tribute sit these two machines some companies used in mining up until 2006 — a dragline on the left — and a grey bucketwheel to the right

Spectacularly immense, this bucketwheel is the largest crawling machine in existence

For scale, that fence post is about six-feet-tall

These bucket teeth that dug into the sand were very effective, but when the bucketwheel broke down, mining stopped — so they were phased out in favour of the shovels and trucks

There are fleets of trucks and if one breaks down another one simply takes its place, but at $5 to $6 million apiece they are not cheap

And they go through tires pretty quickly — the ones for the big dump trucks run about $45,000 apiece

At 13-feet — and 12,000 pounds each — the 797 tires are a burden to dispose of and they're put to use wherever they can be

To keep vehicles from getting bogged down in the mud, these wooden boards will often be put down

But they're not always practical, so a nearby gravel mine pumps out stone to layer the roads

The gravel mine produces its own uniquely coloured pools of water

But they don't compare to the deep orange of this oil sand pit we pass in the plane moments later

The companies out here all have their own landfills

Though city officials are building a state-of-the-art incinerator as part of their modernization effort

Most oil workers live in housing like this and are bussed in to the compound from their homes and families in Fort McMurray

There are no public gas stations up by the camps and sadly even this store was closed at noon on a Sunday

Which may have been just as well because the bootie dispenser outside the door was empty

The average dump truck driver makes about $55 an hour plus overtime working the mines and the average family income here is around $190,000

That kind of money prompts many people to settle down and stay far longer than they planned — this is where the pilot lives with his parents — he asked for a photo

And just as you would imagine, the people that live here are very concerned about pollution — this site was fined $275,000 for contaminating the Athabasca River just a year ago

The provincial government tests the area waters constantly

But the locals I talked to all said they'd like to see more transparency and updates on what exactly is being found and what they should watch out for

The oil sands, with its up to 2 trillion barrels of oil sitting in the ground, is a complex place

And despite how you may feel about the immense environmental impact the oil companies may have on the world

You can be sure they're not going anywhere while there is still oil left to collect

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