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This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
With the Keystone decision pending, and the kerfuffle over the potential environmental impact of the pipeline on American soil, I wanted to give my readers some idea of what it looked like where the oil that the pipeline will transport is sourced from. Most of you know that the oil will come from Canada's oil sands, 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 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 2012, Syncrude produced 106.4 million barrels of synthetic crude and Suncor produced 103.3 million barrels of synthetic crude. One of Syncrude's partners had 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.
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.