Photo Essay: A Trip to the Oil Sands

The Oil Sands are back in the news, as a new round of Greenpeace efforts are targeting Suncor, the second time in recent weeks.

I have a tough time fully forming my opinion on the oil sands. Without a doubt, I am worried about their impact, particularly on our water sources. The greenhouse gas emissions are also a concern, but I worry that environmentalists are focusing too much on the oil sands. Most research shows that the bulk of the GHG emissions in the life-cycle of oil production comes in the transport fuel combustion phase, which is to say, when it is used by consumers. Product from the oil sands does create more emissions than conventional sources, but does it justify the effort that environmentalists are putting in to stop them?

My thought right now is no. We’d be best served focusing our efforts on reducing the need for oil. No demand, no oil sands production. It’s that simple. I worry that we’re going to lose the big picture in going after the oil sands.

But I’m open to arguments, and am by no means set in my view. I’d love to hear thoughts from others on this topic. In the meantime, here are some pictures of the oil sands. I had the opportunity to tour Syncrude’s Mildred Lake mine in July, and I appreciate the opportunity greatly. Here is a selection of photos from my visit.

The North Mine at Mildred Lake.

Mildred Lake Mine

The open mine pit, with the sulfur stack seen in the background.

Mildred Lake Mine

A truck gets ready to haul the product away.
Mildred Lake Mine

Want to get an idea of how big the trucks are in the mine? That’s one of the tires. Anton, in the foreground, is 6’7.
Big Tire

Machinery at work.
Syncrude Plant

Nice lake? Try tailings pond. Can’t tell the difference from a distance.
Tailings Pond

The tailings pond goes on for miles.
Tailings Pond

Here’s a closer look.
Tailings Pond

To be fair, this is all reclaimed land. You’d never know the difference. Syncrude started reclaiming this former mine site a few decades ago.
Reclaimed Land

The famous bison herd that has been reintroduced to the area.

Still, you tend to more remember sights like this:
Mildred Lake

And another one of the mine:
Mildred Lake Mine

And the giant trucks. We were told that one driver described it like “driving your house from the second story”

Trucking Sand

To end, a little bit of nature on the edge of Fort McMurray.
Fort McMurray

You can see my full photo set here.


4 Responses

  1. Alex, I certainly appreciate your perspective. I agree that the way oil sands operators abuse water is a major problem. And I agree that most emissions in the life cycle occur downstream. However, we really need to be focusing at _levels_ stages in the life cycle. Do we need to convince people to drive and fly less? Absolutely. Do we need to convince the Gov of AB that we need a real decision-making framework for the oil sands? Without a doubt. Do we need to pressure operators into reducing the intensity of their operations? Most certainly.

    Greenpeace has chosen its strategy, which is to target major companies in a highly visible manner. Great! People like you and I need to fill in where Greenpeace isn’t so effective – convincing people to cycle, walk and take transit.

    Getting to sustainability is identical to assembling a puzzle. All pieces need to be put in place before we’ll get there.

    The other argument against solely focusing on individual behaviour is that a single company has a much greater impact than a single individual. The amount of water I save my limiting my showers to 4 minutes is dwarfed by the amount of water that a company might use to separate oil from sand. The amount of fuel I save by not driving is meaningless next to a single natural-gas intensive in situ project.

    So yes, please continue your efforts to convince people to make environment- and people-friendly choices. But be careful not to blame an individual to the point of undue guilt when industrial impacts are so monumental.

  2. By “_levels_” I meant “_all_”.

    And by “my limiting” I meant “by limiting”. Itchy “submit comment” finger.

  3. Greg,

    Great points. I particularly like your comment about not blaming an individual; this is the crux of a blog post I’m working on, but I think we’re too often quick to cast judgment on people for driving everywhere, living in low-density suburbs, etc. rather than stressing the positives of other manners of transportation and lifestyle. The former, in my experience, gets to nowhere at best and is counterproductive at worst. The latter can be effective, especially if you can get them to experience the benefits. For example, I take the bus/train to work instead of driving. It’s competitive timewise at peak hours, and instead of fighting traffic I spend about an hour cumulatively listening to my iPod and reading. It’s a productive and enjoyable way to begin and end a work day, and unless it’s otherwise impractical I can’t imagine ever wanting to commute by car to a 9 to 5 job.

    I agree it’s imperative to focus on both industry and individuals. Certainly public pressure in the past has proven successful at changing industry behaviour. My point was more that focusing on one segment of the industry rather than addressing the entire issue of demand is perhaps not the best use of effort and resources.

    On a related note, I picked up the book ‘Green Oil’ by Satya Das yesterday. Started reading it on the way home after work. If you haven’t heard of it, you might be interested:

  4. Finally somebody with some sense. This is only happening, because it is profitable.

    Greenpeace would be a lot more credible if it had ever given more than luke warm support to alternatively powered vehicles. EVs may not be suitable for everyone, but if everyone who could get by with them was driving one instead of a gasoline powered one, there might not be the need for this. There are other options for those who regularly need a large range that could be promoted as well. Even liquid petroleum gas (LPG) would be better than needing to extract oil from tar sands. If organizations like Greenpeace had ever put the kind of effort they put into this into promoting such alternatives, this project might have never happened, because it simply wouldn’t be profitable. But instead such initiatives as electric cars are constantly stuck in the middle, fought down both by the oil industry and the “it’s not totally perfect” environmentalist groups. In Germany Greenpeace has gone so far even to practically campaign against EVs calling them climate pigs. Their DVD explaining how we can supply our energy needs without nuclear shows equal lack of concern for oil use by taking the quarter of the energy used by transport totally out of the game.

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