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By Robert Rapier on Nov 1, 2013 with 19 responses

Soliciting Reader Questions for Oil Sands Tour

On Sunday, November 3rd, I am heading to Fort McMurray, Alberta for a tour of the oil sands operations. Here are the details from the initial email that I received inviting me on the trip:

Each year, the Consulate General partners with other U.S. Canadian missions to organize a tour of Canada’s oil sands for American media, mainly from the East Coast – for reporters/writers/editors from traditional publications, as well as those from other, more specialized publications, such as Energy Trends Insider.

The trip will go through Edmonton and Fort McMurray, including visits of mining/in situ/refining operations, as well as the chance to meet federal/provincial/local government officials, business and private sector contacts, environmental groups, possibly First Nations representatives, etc. We will look at the full range of topics related to the oil sands and their place in the Canada/U.S. energy partnership, including economic growth/job creation/competitiveness, environment and climate change concerns, innovation and technological development, and energy security.

Among other things, we will tour in situ operations at Cenovus and mining operations at Canadian Natural Resources Limited. But we are also meeting with Pembina Institute (the major environmental NGO in Alberta) as well as Alberta Environment and Sustainable Development (covering air, land, and water regulations; as well as climate change and GHG issues).

So while this is obviously a tour designed to present the oil sands in a good light, they are also allowing us some access to environmental groups that I presume will present their finding and concerns.

I have a list of questions around water consumption, waste disposal, energy balance, land restoration, etc. But I wanted to open it up to readers as well. Are there particular questions you would like me to pose? Are there particular things you would like me to photograph or video? I will check the comments through early next week for incorporation into my visit.

I should have an article up with my observations late next week.

Link to Original Article: Soliciting Reader Questions for Oil Sands Tour

By Robert Rapier. You can find me on TwitterLinkedIn, or Facebook.

  1. By TFox17 on November 1, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    Transportation of energy is a hot subject. It’s one thing to get the resource out of the ground, and another to get it to the consumer. With the various pipelines tied up in political molasses, and what seems like an increasing number of accidents in rail transport, what impact are transport issues going to have on oil sands development.

    It’d also be nice to have a conversation around nuclear. It seems insane to me to take pure natural gas, perhaps the cleanest and least carbon intensive fossil resource, and burn its carbon just to heat up an underground formation. Why the fuck haven’t we been using nuclear to generate SAGD steam for, I don’t know, the past five decades?

    Economics is another good subject. The Saudis had the spare production capacity to moderate oil prices for many decades. If prices started to rise, they’d open the taps, kind of like a central bank for oil. The oil sands are a big resource, but production is limited and not easily turned on and off. Is there any hope that the oil sands can someday have the spare production capacity that the Saudis had, to serve a similar role in reducing energy price volatility?

    Have fun!

  2. By Tom G. on November 1, 2013 at 5:59 pm


    1. I would ask which environmental quality standard[s] are they committed to. For example, ISO 1400/01.

    2. I would followup with: “who is in charge of the environmental protection program and can you speak with that individual.

    3. I would then identify their position in the management structure and ask to see any records of Corrective Actions [CA] or a few examples of how environmental problems were documented and corrected.

    4. If there were CA documents [records] issued I would then ask to speak with 2 or 3 of the individuals identified in the requests to determine how effective the program has been.

    Have a good boondoggle; oops, I mean management study. It should be a very interesting and fun trip. Lots of opportunities for lessons learned.

    If the above line of questioning ends up going nowhere then maybe the second line of questioning should be: How do they measure CO2 output? By actual measurement or by calculation or by both methods depending on the energy system[s] involved.

  3. By Andrew Walker on November 2, 2013 at 3:36 am


    Western Canadian tar sands projects place huge demands on local water supplies. I’d like to know:

    1. Where the limits lie; will water supply be limiting in terms of existing and/or future projects?

    2. The water streams discharged from these facilities are typically polluted with heavy metals, tar and complex aromatic hydrocarbons. How are these toxic water streams treated and isolated from the environment? And in the case of plants with tailings ponds (some of the tailings ponds are enormous i.e. 10 sq. miles) how will they be cleaned up and safely discharged when the plants are decommissioned?

    Also, as a matter of interest, what do the tar sands companies understand their EROI to be? This should be disclosed on an open book basis so the numbers can be scrutinised and understood.

    Hope you enjoy your trip.



    • By Tom G. on November 2, 2013 at 10:47 am

      Excellent idea Andrew. Water in Arizona where I live is a BIG deal. Even Las Vegas which draws water from behind the Hoover Dam is putting in a new water line at a lower water level. The once mighty Colorado River is not so mighty anymore.

  4. By Russ Finley on November 2, 2013 at 11:46 am

    Maybe tape record your discussions so you can fact check what you’re told? You are going to get a very slanted story …which would be true regardless of what industry offered a tour.

    Seems to me that tar sands are essentially a mining operation. We mine for all kinds of things, ore, rare earth, silicon, salt, and on and on.

    How well they protect and restore the area after mining is important but in the case of tar sands, you end up with a product that eventually becomes GHG.

    On the other hand, something like iron ore or silicon (for solar) is similar in that it takes a huge amount of energy (producing GHG) to turn the raw material into a finished product.

    Electrification of transport, greatly improved gas mileage rules, and better mass transit are the only options I see to reduce the demand for oil without putting more strain on the biosphere via more agriculture (biofuels and biomass).

  5. By Edward Kerr on November 2, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    “water consumption, waste disposal, energy balance, land restoration, etc.” just about covers it all. However, there are the moral questions concerning the violation of indigenous peoples rights as they seem to be getting the end of the rope with the manure on it.
    I can’t think of better eyes and ears to report back (and ask the right questions) than yours

  6. By Tom G. on November 2, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    Lets see; we have covered environmental regulations, CO2, water, salt mining, restoration just about everything I can think of. But how about natural gas? I understand they use a whole bunch of that.

    Does it come from Canada or does some of it come from the U.S.? You know; some from the recovered flare gas in North Dakota?

  7. By Steve Funk on November 2, 2013 at 10:49 pm

    Will you be able to get any information on the northern gateway pipeline? How many first nation individuals would be eligible for Right of Way payments? Could the corporations simply buy off any native opposition?

    • By Robert Rapier on November 4, 2013 at 7:20 pm

      Pretty much everyone thinks Northern Gateway is dead, but there are several more pipelines that even the environmental groups think will get a green light. Total capacity was over a million bpd to both the east and west coasts.

  8. By energyecon on November 3, 2013 at 10:51 am

    What improvements in productivity are under investigation in current pilots, particularly in solvent assisted SAGD which may increase recovery efficiency, reducing the SOR and unit costs in general?

  9. By Robert Rapier on November 3, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    Sitting at the airport about to head out. I have recorded all the questions below to supplement my own questions. I see that it is snowing up there; that may obscure some of the things I wanted to see.

    I will be asking the tough questions though.

    • By Tom G. on November 3, 2013 at 1:19 pm

      Make sure you keep enough antifreeze in your bloodstream so you can tolerate the colder climate. Have a great trip to our friendly neighbors to the North. Did I mention they have GREAT beer in Canada.

  10. By Robert Rapier on November 4, 2013 at 9:07 am

    Attended a presentation last night. Lots of questions and discussion about land reclamation. Today is a day full of presentations, and tomorrow we will be out in the oil sands around Fort McMurray.

  11. By Eric on November 4, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    1. How many btu’s of natural gas (or other) are required to extract a btu of bitumen? How many extra btu’s of input are required versus WTI crude to make the bitumen ready for refining?

    2. How are they handling the waste water? What measures are in place for ground and surface water measurement to ensure that contaminants are not migrating? Are these measurements publicly available?

    3. What types of contaminants are left with the tailings? How will these be managed to prevent contaminant migration? How have those efforts worked thus far?

    4. What has been the impact on migratory bird populations with regards to high metals concentrations in holding ponds and tailings piles – swans in particular? I know they use sound canons – but are they successful in keeping the birds away?

    Photos: Aerial!! Not only of the pits, but the extensive in-situ operations. I have only seen it from Google earth.

    • By Robert Rapier on November 4, 2013 at 5:58 pm

      I have gotten a lot of answers to these questions today. Some of the answers I got are a bit unsettling though. I will have a full report next week.

      • By Eric on November 4, 2013 at 7:06 pm

        Thanks Robert. And thanks for heading up there to check it out. That’s quite an opportunity.

        Maybe a future thought experiment/article would be to compare the costs of bitumen extraction from tar sands with the costs of investing in to CNG and LNG transportation conversions and infrastructure. This is an opportunity where a well-crafted government incentive / tax plan could eliminate a wasteful intermediary step.

      • By ben on November 7, 2013 at 1:36 am

        Years ago, I had a remarkable exchange with a pioneering Canadian who was the first woman of the west elected to the parliament in Ottawa. She was originally from Manitoba and was very intimate with the pivotal role that energy development was playing, and would continue to play, in Canadian economic and political affairs. She
        was a friend of Trudeau and she offered that they both held the opinion that “tar sands might eventually become the most divisive issue separating the regional interests of the prairie with those of the eastern provinces and even that of British Columbia” (from where she represented her riding).
        As foreign investment continues to seep into Alberta and the importance of exporting the production of these energy resources becomes more acute, it will be fascinating to watch how the other provinces respond to calls for their support at home and in Ottawa.
        It is certainly among the most important issues bearing on not only future ties between the US and Canada, but impacting the strategic dynamics in the Western Hemisphere.
        Time in Ft. McMurray is well spent. We welcome the unvarnished facts coming out of this time spent on the ground. Thanks!

  12. By ben on November 4, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    Tar sand operations are so incredibly (EROEI) inefficient–and, yes, ugly–little wonder they fail to inspire almost everywhere but where they may offer a few scarce jobs for rural communities and tax revenue to ever-hungry politicians seeking resources to meet their agendas. The striking contrast between the raw beauty of northern Alberta and the patchwork of open mining sores will never make for a bed-of-roses narrative. No, the story line is much more likely to be one of opportunity costs for failing to find a more enlightened path to fueling a consumerism that dictates how fast and far we go to sustain a lifestyle that reflects the appetites of our current generation.

    I suspect the First Nation members take the long view of things notwithstanding any temptations (and creative strategies) to work out a “legacy” plan that aims to safeguard the unspoiled regions of the Canadian forests and open spaces. So, I guess I’d be chomping about the reinvestment strategy that moves beyond this brief moment
    of fad and fancy to an era of wiser resource management where the discipline is much more akin to indigenous sensibilities.
    Thanks, RR, for drilling down on this for all of us. Stay warm and keep safe.

  13. By Forrest on November 5, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    Open pit mining is mature technology as well as the land reclamation phase. Very environmental, when complete. The petro recovery rate is impressive as well as the fluid recovery. Unfortunately, only 20% of geological formation shallow enough to process this way. The drilling and steam process suffers a much lower recovery, however nice to process underground. The energy in/out 7-8x. My thoughts…Canada and would think Alberta, at least or more environmental as compared to U.S.. The country is modern and comparable to U.S. and has in place many regulations and safeguards. Were fortunate tar sands are not located in Russia, China, or India. Transportation costs and efficiency good per pipeline. Reserves good for a century and located within our friendliest nearest neighbor, were very fortunate. North America will benefit immensely from tar sands, shale oil, and drilling technology. We are shifting from oil economy and as a result it is best to utilize this natural resource within a current time frame to maximize revenue. Do this and maintain the infrastructure for alternative energy and technology for better efficiency. Ask them, if it’s possible to cut through the environmental mindset apparatus to improve tar sands oil production image. Remind them nuclear energy even with the obvious benefit to global warming failed. What can be done, when opponents are so vicious and steadfast unwilling to keep an open mind?

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