NR Digital

The Quiet Gold Rush

by Charles C. W. Cooke

On the many splendors of Canada’s tar sands.

Alberta, Canada – While we are sitting on the tarmac waiting interminably for Newark’s permission to take off, the man in the seat to my right turns and asks me if I call Calgary “home.” I explain mildly apologetically that I don’t, that this will in fact be my first trip across the 49th parallel, and that — alas — I am stopping there only in order to connect with another flight. From the city’s sprawling international airport I will continue on up to Fort McMurray, the boomtown gateway to Canada’s tar sands.

“Ah,” he says, his interest piqued. “Actually, I’m in the oil business myself. I’ve been in New York for meetings.” Then he leans in. “Fort McMurray, eh? That’s a real gold-rush sort of place.”

My second flight of the day, this time on a noisy little turbo-prop puddle-jumper that sounds like a bomber from a World War II movie, gives me no reason to doubt his description. Unlike the large jet that took me from Newark, this aircraft is packed full of sturdy men wearing jeans, baseball caps, and steel-toed boots. There are no women — not a single pair of X chromosomes on board — and nobody speaks a word; they because they are discernibly weary of the journey, I because I am stunned into silence by what I can see outside. The 400 miles of Alberta we cross are just spectacular: Endless white fields sweep up toward the horizon for miles until they are broken by a line of snow-capped mountains. The sky is a dazzlingly clear blue, and the moon is visible. After 90 minutes or so of this, we land at a tiny airport and I drag my eyes from the window and look out into the snow. Regimentally, the men troop off. They have been here before.

The tar sands are a hot political issue in the U.S., the ultimate target of opposition to the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline. When environmentalists speak of “Keystone,” they are really speaking of Canadian tar-sands oil, for it is this that the pipeline would carry from the mines in Alberta down to the refineries along America’s Gulf Coast. The State Department’s repeated findings that the pipeline would have “limited adverse environmental impacts” have fallen on deaf ears. Environmental groups remain implacably opposed, claiming that the process by which tar-sands oil is extracted leads to unacceptable greenhouse-gas emissions and the irrevocable destruction of the local environment and wildlife. 

The usual suspects have come out in force. NASA scientist James Hansen was arrested in February after he chained himself to a gate in front of the White House in protest of the pipeline. Hansen has warned against America’s feeding the “tar-sands monster,” describing Keystone as the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” It would be “game over,” Hansen believes, if the United States elected to borrow “the dirtiest needle from a fellow addict.” President Obama’s base is sufficiently riled up about the issue that he feels secure in delaying the project despite the wishes of the public (about 65 percent are in favor of it), the Democratic-controlled Senate (62–37 in favor), the House of Representatives (237–187 in favor), and a majority of the states. As Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper noted in February, “for environmentalists especially, Keystone has become a symbol; it’s not just another ‘old’ energy project, it’s a test of the President’s promises to take serious steps on climate change.”

In the evening, I meet with Travis Davies in the bar at my hotel. Davies works in the media department at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an organization whose primary role is to push back against the idea that there is something wrong with a technology that can turn dirty sand into cheap, plentiful oil. Davies is slightly nervous. An NBC crew will be accompanying us, filming the area as part of a feature on oil-sands exploration. People in the news media, he gripes over chicken wings and beers, have a tendency to focus disproportionately on the grotesque “holes in the ground” or on the smokestacks.

The next morning we all get up before it is light and make our way out into the cold. It is minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit, and the air is so cold that it hurts the back of my throat when I breathe. On the way to our first stop of the day we see endless buses running to and from Fort McMurray — 40, 50, 60, 100 of them pass us in the first few minutes, ferrying workers to and from sites around the area. (The oil companies provided my transportation to and from their facilities.) The buses are filthy. During the long winter, vehicles become caked with the ugly combination of melted snow and dirty sand within minutes of hitting the roads and there is no point in washing them until the summer comes. Summer, however, is a long way off, and the water in the Athabasca River is frozen solid — four or five feet deep — providing a sheet of ice so thick that cars can safely drive on it. Around us, always, are trees; miles and miles and miles of trees.

After half an hour’s drive, the incessant stretch of virgin land comes to an end and, over the shallow hills, we see white smoke billowing into the sky. A few more miles and an industrial plant comes into view. Against the green-and-white landscape, it is a shock. I recognize it immediately as belonging to heavy-oil giant Syncrude, and as the favorite subject of the myriad anti-oil-sands photographs that are currently circulating around the Web. It is without doubt an ugly thing to see amid so much beauty, and the Tolkienesque distaste for the “scouring” of the countryside that informs the “green” zeitgeist is born of a noble instinct. Yet not all is what it seems. To a layman, the seven sets of white clouds look baleful, but, I learn, six of these chimneys are emitting just harmless steam. Our host, Cheryl Robb, jokes that she prefers conducting summer tours because then “the steam is invisible.” She gives us the details of an ongoing $1.6 billion project that will reduce the emissions from the one offending chimney by 60 percent.

What about the land? “We can almost restore the area to how it was when we found it,” she tells us. Environmentalists grimly call the development the “scar sands” and a score of other unflattering names. Large surface mines such as Syncrude’s are indisputably the most physically intrusive in the region. But, contrary to popular claims, they have left no hellscape in their wakes. What the oil sands’ antagonists routinely fail to mention is that the region’s surface mines are temporary, and that they are not so much growing as they are moving. An area of roughly fixed size is slowly crossing the landscape. Yes, Syncrude’s mine turns an area of beauty into an ugly open wound, but it is an extraordinarily small part of that area — and then they turn it back.

“We are reclaiming as we go,” Robb tells me. “And this is the largest reclamation project in the world.” The company has planted more than 7 million trees, all native species that are painstakingly replaced in accordance with notes taken prior to the start of production. At an overlook point a mile or so from the main production facility, a photograph of scarred mining lands is displayed on a bluff. “This is how it was,” Robb says, pointing to the display. Then she waves at the land in front of us. “And now . . .”

It is astonishing. The land is flat and pristine. Bison graze in the distance. “It took 20 years to mine out,” Robb smiles, “and then almost twelve to fill back in.” Now, it is a flawless, snow-covered field, and the only sign of disturbance in the area is the pop-pop of propane cannons, triggered by radar to keep the birds away until the reclamation work is finished and the engineers are ready to welcome them back.

Our attention is drawn behind us, to “Gateway Hill,” a former mine that was reclaimed in 1983. The Province of Alberta has monitored the land for over 25 years, as part of a $50 million scheme that is paid for by the industry and administered by the government, and it has certified the land as “sustainable.” I ask what that means. “The ecosystem is now on a strong enough footing,” Robb informs us, that “it can regenerate itself if there is a forest fire.”

In the afternoon, we head to Royal Dutch Shell’s Albian Sands facility, another surface mine, where we put on hard hats, gloves, sturdy boots, ear protectors, and safety glasses, and then head into the noise of a mechanics’ shop, which is, in truth, less a shop than a hangar. Towering over us is a gargantuan Caterpillar 797 dump truck — a beast at four stories high, 3,440 horsepower, and possessed of a container that can hold 400 tons of bitumen, which will turn into around 200 barrels of oil once it is processed. Each vehicle costs around $5 million to buy, which is good news for the American economy as the engines are built in Indiana, the cab in Illinois, the frame in Louisiana, and the tires in South Carolina. Just one wheel will set you back $65,000.

A few of the mechanics physically recoil when told that their visitors are journalists from New York City. One audibly mutters to another that their activities are “never well covered by those guys.” Consequently, they slightly oversell the safety concerns that are a genuine part of their day, and at times during our presentation they descend into security theater, making a song and dance of having special work orders signed so that the truck can reverse in our presence.

At Albian Sands, oil is being dug out of the ground at a record pace. The crew works around the clock every day of the year and production never stops — not even for Christmas. It is quite the sight to behold. We stand 150 feet down, at the bottom of the mine, and watch as the razor-sharp blade on the end of a seven-story-tall electric power-shovel effortlessly scrapes a bucketload of sand from the quarry’s wall and drops it into a waiting truck. This is repeated until the shovel’s operator is satisfied that no more sand can be safely loaded, at which point he honks a horn and the truck leaves — with profits dependent upon the efficiency of the process, the trucks travel at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour.

Sometimes, multiple trucks await payloads on either side of the shovel, so, to avoid traffic jams — or worse, for there are 13,000-volt power cables lying nearby — the trucks’ paths are planned in real time by a centralized computer system that our hosts described as being “like air-traffic control.”

On the other side of the mine, the trucks deposit their loads into an open pipe 35 feet wide — this looks like a water slide at an amusement park — which in turn leads into a group of swirling steel teeth that crush the larger pieces into smaller, more manageable ones before dropping them onto the world’s largest conveyor belt. This belt shuffles the bitumen out of the mine, spilling it into a storage silo. On the other side of the facility, warm water is added to the bitumen. Next, an array of chemical treatments detach the bitumen from other solids. After the bitumen has been separated out, a solvent is added to it. This ensures that the bitumen remains in liquid form for its southward journey down the 300-mile pipe to the refinery at Scotford, near Edmonton, where it is upgraded into petroleum and sent out for sale to consumers.

Albian has its own airport, which can “handle planes all the way up to big Airbus jets.” Boeing 737s, we’re told, “are the norm.” From Monday to Thursday each and every week, Shell flies in contractors from Calgary and beyond. Albian Village, where the workers sleep, has 2,700 rooms, a 1,000-person cafeteria, a running track, and an auditorium. Rudimentary “man camps” these are not. Such investment is easy to justify. The area’s proven reserves are vast, and the returns are already impressive: In 2007, Shell reported profits of $21.75 per barrel from the oil sands. Its average worldwide profit from crude-oilproduction was $12.41 per barrel.

Because they are so visually impressive, surface mines receive the most attention. But this process has a limited future. Accounting for 50 percent of current output and 80 percent of all potential production, a newer technique known as “in situ” is where the growth is. The most common in situ technique is a deep-extraction process known as “steam-assisted gravity drainage,” or “SAGD” (“Sag-Dee” to the experts).

At Cenovus’s Christina Lake SAGD facility, most of the action is underground. We watch from a small pad as workers on a 15-story rig bolt a series of pipes together. Very slowly, the piping is bent at three joints on each piece and pushed into the ground until a huge underground arc has been formed. The end of the pipe will eventually be 650 feet down and a half a mile away. This procedure is performed twice, with the parallel wells being kept 16 feet apart by a magnetic-ranging system.

When the piping has arrived at its destination, steam is pumped down through the upper well, creating a “steam chamber.” As more steam is pumped in and the chamber grows, the heat reduces the viscosity of the bitumen — which starts at a molasses-like texture — causing it to flow down into the lower well for collection. Any water that condenses is also collected and then recycled — “with 95 percent efficiency,” I am proudly told. I remark that the process is more like manufacturing than like oil drilling. “That’s exactly how we see ourselves,” says Travis Davies. Effectively, we have “big water plants that happen to produce oil.”

The question of the environmental impact comes up. “We will have an impact,” Reg Curren of Cenovus’s media-relations office tells us. “But not a big one. The great thing about SAGD is that its footprint is tiny. Imagine a postage stamp on an envelope. That’s what we’re looking at here.” I note that, flying into the area earlier, I was hard pressed to see what all the fuss was about. “I just saw endless wilderness with very occasional patches of activity,” I offer. Reg agrees: “Compare and contrast. Calgary is 730 square kilometers. Cenovus’s entire facility is six square kilometers.” This includes “everything”: the land for the plant site, the wells, the roads, the pipelines, the camps. Reg’s colleague Rhona DelFrari adds that “the wells themselves are a small portion of that disturbance. If we talk only about the land disturbance of the well pads, each one is about 0.06 square kilometers. But the wells under that pad access about 75 hectares of oil resource. So the pad is about 8 percent versus the amount of resource accessed.” Those six hectares at Christina Lake are extraordinarily efficient. Cenovus is producing 98,000 barrels of oil per day; when the current expansion is finished, in 2020, the company will have brought this up to 300,000. To put that number in perspective, the entire oil-sands region currently pumps out 1.3 million barrels per day.

This is not your father’s oil field. The control room at Christina Lake makes a Space Shuttle cockpit look old-hat. It collects 17,000 pieces of data every second, from all around the site, and sends them for instant analysis to a server farm. Nothing is left unmonitored. Back in the van, we talk about the threat to local animals. The area in which Cenovus operates is full of moose, bears, lynx, coyotes, wolves, waterfowl, cranes, caribou, cougars, deer, and other species, Reg tells me, and they are kept out of the facility by a network of border fences and radar-controlled propane cannons. Simultaneously, a video-monitoring system allows workers in the facility to watch animals along its perimeterand to share the findings with regulators.

In a sketch by the British comedy duo Mitchell and Webb, a man walks in amazement around a farm. Speaking as if he were letting the viewer in on a well-kept secret, he whispers that all a farmer needs to do to in order to make money is to pull things out of the ground. “You know sheep?” he asks. “They’re woolly! It’s wool! Pull it off, sell it — it f***ing grows back again!” He points to a chicken: “See that? It’s made of chicken. It’s actually made of chicken.” Food? “Comes out of the f***ing ground! Couldn’t believe it.” He pauses and touches the side of his nose. “You cannot lose!” One could be forgiven for taking the same attitude here. “We have the energy!” proclaim the signs at Fort McMurray’s city limits. And how. Canada’s total proven oil reserves are vast, second only to Saudi Arabia’s. Of its 1.7 trillion barrels of bitumen, only 10 percent is currently accessible, but history shows that science has a tendency to overcome such limitations.

And there is plenty of money to be made. You can earn $150,000 to $200,000 per year here as a rig operator. One interviewee tells the television crew that an opportunity like this would never have come to him otherwise. Now, he can save for his kids’ education.

There is nothing slick about the people here in northern Canada — no Gordon Gekko edge to speak of. Many had other careers and wanted a change — in Alberta’s expanding energy sector, they saw an opportunity and they took it. One man I speak to was a journalist for 26 years; another was formerly in IT; a third has been a lawyer. I meet a young woman who recognizes my accent and introduces herself as a fellow Brit. I inquire as to when her family moved to Canada and she laughs: “They didn’t. Just me!” I ask why. She tells me that she trained as a speech therapist and moved out here for a job. The Canadian embassy in London was so surprised that a young woman wanted to come here on her own, she says, that they interviewed her parents before accepting her residency application. They’d be more surprised now: Soon after moving, she decided to pack up speech therapy and work for an oil company. She “love[s] it.”

Golda Meir once joked that the only thing she had “against Moses” was that “he took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil.” Perhaps Moses should have gone to Canada. The scale of the increased demand has pushed Fort McMurray to build a much-needed new airport, which will allow direct flights to Denver when it opens in 2014. In support of this development, Colorado’s governor, John Hickenlooper, arrives on the tarmac one day as we get out of our plane and makes a short speech in favor of Keystone. His words are drowned out by traffic, by the constant noise from big and little commercial planes, from helicopters, and from private jets. In the distance, traffic jams are forming miles outside of the city center. They last for three hours in the afternoon. It is a good problem to have.

In the hotel’s bar on my final evening, I meet two environmentalist girls who are having dinner with the NBC TV crew. We strike up a conversation. Their lexicon is replete with insistent and earnest calls for “renewable energy” and for doing “something different.” We must have a “conversation,” they say. The “public must get involved!” One of them repeatedly insists that there needs to be a “compromise.” I suggest that this “compromise” is precisely what has happened here: The Province of Alberta allows private companies to operate within very strict guidelines and, if they break the rules, they lose their license to manufacture. She doesn’t push back against this directly, but she is “worried” that oil production still has its “drawbacks.” I agree in principle. After all, what doesn’t? But I’m struck by the thought that she’s striving for an impossible perfection and has chosen the wrong target.

Americans, representatives from Alberta’s government tell us in a tedious panel session at a local hotel, are always “amazed” by how heavily regulated Canadian oil-and-gas production is. These soft-spoken, almost dull overseers of the development confirm my suspicion that if this is a “gold rush,” it’s a quiet one. “The government doesn’t produce oil, but it does own the lease and licenses,” Christopher J. Holly of Alberta’s department of energy explains to us. “Our approach is to monitor, regulate, and enforce.” A few PowerPoint slides later and the message is clear: This is no capitalist dystopia in which money-hungry cowboys can dig up the land with impunity. It takes an average of five years just to get a permit. Moreover, Holly explains, there is an inherent win-win with this sort of production: “If producers can reduce greenhouse gases by using less steam at their plants — and steam is expensive to generate, remember — then they will increase their profits.”

The government employees have an unfortunate tendency to couch their discussions of the oil sands in politically correct nonsense jargon. The oil companies are somewhat guilty of this too, being especially prone to smug talk of “giving back to the community.” I loathe this conceit. Companies that follow the rules and sell great products that people want to buy should not have to promise to “give back” to society as if they were convicted criminals who had done something wrong and must atone for their crimes.

Fossil fuels are the foundation of the modern economy. They give us heat, light, food, technology, and transportation. They make possible travel, education, and medicine, among an endless parade of things that even their discontents cannot live without. As George Orwell noted of coal in 1937, carbon is inextricably linked with our prosperity — the “caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported.” In our search for supplies, there is of course a need for some regulation and for self-awareness. But there is no need whatsoever for the companies that make our lifestyles possible to prostrate themselves in front of us apologetically.

The people I meet in northern Canada are selling what the world wants. Ultimately, that is what their opponents hate. A common complaint of the anti-Keystone brigade is that oil-sands petroleum requires between 5 and 15 percent more carbon emissions to generate than the average crude-oil equivalent. (This number obsesses the television crew that is following us around.) Royal Dutch Shell questions those numbers, and points out that, besides, it has a plan to reduce emissions by 1 million tons per year, “equivalent to taking 175,000 cars off the road.” This is a “very real project,” say the government regulators in our meeting. “An impressive project.”

The project is well and good — and, within reason, it is to be applauded. But whom do these marginal improvements convince? People who hate oil hate oil. They don’t want more oil in the world; instead, they desire to replace oil with the mythical energy sources of their choice or, if that is not possible, they want to lower total global energy consumption — the poor be damned. Could things be better? Yes. Are there costs to maintaining civilization? Yes. But we could also stop buying oil from sadistic medieval regimes run by family crime syndicates. I’d take a 15 percent increase in carbon emissions in exchange for North American energy independence. So would the Canadians I meet in the wilds. So, the polls show, would most Americans. One day soon, I hope, so will the person sitting in the White House.

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