A dizzying bird’s-eye view of Alberta’s oilsands

It’s the largest bitumen deposit in the world. Mining there is visible from space. And for many Canadians, the oilsands are still completely unseen
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As soon as you arrive in the Alberta boomtown of Fort McMurray you can smell the oil — it’s like a sharp cousin to hot asphalt. 

You can see it too — evidence of its extraction is visible in the few tailings ponds along the highway north of town, where plumes of exhaust drift, ever expanding above refineries. 

This is the oilsands — the home of billions of barrels of tarry crude oil that lies under 142,000 square kilometres of northern Alberta, driving the local economy and bolstering provincial budgets. 

oilsands photos: An aerial view of steam emissions rising from an industrial facility

But it’s not until you’re in the air the scope of the oilsands becomes clear — a sprawling landscape teeming with enormous trucks outfitted with tires taller than two F-150 trucks stacked together. 

Roads and large dump trucks weave their way across the snow-covered Suncor open pit oilsands mine
A heavy hauler truck on a dug-up landscape at Suncor Fort Hills in Fort Chipewyan

As the sun rose over the frozen earth last winter, The Narwhal flew to see the oilsands mines. On our way out of the city the pilot pointed to land cleared for a subdivision that hasn’t been built — a sign the booms of the past, when there were more workers than housing, might not come back. 

An aerial view of densely packed suburbs

Soon the pink-hued snow gives way to a moonscape where boreal forest is being scraped away. 

oilsands photos: A black and white image of a network of roadways in the Suncor open pit oilsands mine
Plumes rise on the distant horizon where upgraders from Suncor Base plant and the Syncrude Mldred Lake plant are visible, with open mines in the foreground

Even then, it’s hard to grasp what you see. 

oilsands photos: An aerial view of steaming oilsands being moved by a bulldozer

Off to the east, the Suncor Base Plant spreads pipes and tubes like fingers across a vast industrial complex, crawling with an average of 6,000 workers each day.

To the northwest are Syncrude’s Mildred Lake facilities, a similar maze of pipelines and stacks, where bitumen is diluted and upgraded before being sent by pipeline to refineries like those in Edmonton, some 500 kilometres away. 

Plumes rise above large-scale plants at the Suncor Base Plant in Alberta's oilsands

The scale is difficult to comprehend. Reference points help — those enormous dump trucks are specks on the landscape, the buildings and trailers even smaller. It helps snap the mind into focus.

But that view encompasses only two of the eight oilsands mines currently in operation. 

Many dumptrucks , obscured by dust and plumes, on a road at Suncor Fort Hills in Alberta oilsands

People had known about the oilsands for centuries before anyone started to think about ways to dig them up. In the 1950s, a plan emerged to detonate a nuclear bomb below the crude oil deposits.

That plan fizzled and in 1967 Great Canadian Oil Sands, now Suncor Energy, launched the world’s first large-scale oilsands open-pit mine. 

oilsands photos: Many trucks, huge tires, trailers and other equipment at an equipment-storage site at a Suncor open pit oilsands mine

The goal has remained the same in the decades since: extract the oily sand from below the surface. It’s mixed with water and often chemicals and cooked in separators to release the valuable oil. The resulting mix of sand, silt, clay, water, residual hydrocarbons and chemicals are dumped in clay-lined pits to settle. 

Equipment in the un-frozen liquid of a tailings pond at a Suncor open pit oilsands mine in the middle of winter

There are lakes of mine tailings in various states — from young pits of muddy bitumen- and-chemical-soaked water, to mature tailings ripe with the glossy sheen of oil, to pits back-filled with sand for reclamation.

If you were to take all of the tailings ponds from all of the oilsands mines, they would cover an area twice the size of Vancouver, 300 square kilometres.

oilsands photos: Steam rises avocet the many compartments of a tailings pond at a Suncor open pit oilsands mine

They’re not really ponds — these industry-made reservoirs store nearly 1.4 trillion litres of byproducts from the mining of oilsands, including arsenic, naphthenic acids, mercury, lead and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

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While there has never been a comprehensive federal study, many people believe these chemicals are linked to higher rates of rare cancers in nearby Fort Chipewyan (the Alberta government’s data shows “higher than expected” rates of bile duct cancer in the region). 

oilsands photos: A scarecrow meant to deter waterfowl from a Suncor tailings pond is visible in a frozen landscape, behind a chainlink fence

The tailings ponds are ever growing. A recent analysis from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society found Suncor’s Fort Hills oilsands mine expansion will add 60 square kilometres of new tailings ponds over the project’s lifetime — an area large enough to cover the island of Manhattan.

The analysis also estimated the mine will result in 732 million cubic metres — 300,000 Olympic swimming pools — of new tailings fluid.

Steam rises above brown liquid in a tailings pond at a Suncor open pit oilsands mine in the middle of winter

This is just a fraction of oilsands activity. Approximately 80 per cent of Alberta’s oilsands reserves are so deeply buried it can only be extracted through the much smaller footprint of what’s known as in-situ extraction, most often by pumping hot steam deep into the oil deposit in a technology known as steam assisted gravity drainage. The infusion of steam melts the oil, allowing it to be drawn up to the surface.  

But it’s the open-pit mines where the trees, muskeg and layers of earth are methodically removed — so deeply Niagara Falls could be tucked neatly below the surface. 

The soil structure here has been forming for millions of years. It’s so ancient an oilsands worker accidentally dug up a 112-million-year-old dinosaur, Alberta’s oldest, at Suncor’s Millennium mine in 2011. Those layers are moved truckload by truckload, to get at the tar-like oil trapped in dirt.

At the edge of a Suncor open pit oilsands mine, boreal forest, a waterway and the natural ground level are visible near Fort McMurray, Alberta

Whether from open-pit mines or in-situ extraction, the resulting tarry substance is too viscous and is not yet marketable. Upgrading can involve making the bitumen less thick (converting it to what’s known as “dilbit”) so it can be transported by pipeline to refineries across North America.

Plumes rise high into the sky at Suncor Base Plant next to the Athabasca River, which is covered in ice

Refineries essentially distill the oil into higher value petroleum products — like gasoline, diesel, lubricating oil and jet fuel. 

The Suncor Base Plant in the Alberta oilsands obscured by thick plumes with a stack visible in the middle

The process brings tremendous wealth to the companies who produce it — depending on the price of a barrel — and the operations fatten Alberta’s budget in eye-watering ways. 

Plumes silhouetted against the sky above a A worker transport bus passes the Syncrude Mildred Lake upgrader north of Fort McMurray

For the fiscal year 2022-2023, provincial revenues from the oilsands — including recovery from in-situ extraction that does not involve open pit mines — amounted to almost $17 billion, the largest slice of Alberta’s financial pie for the year.

No matter your perspective, it’s hard to take it all in. 

The numbers here are as expansive as the landscape.
Plumes are silhouetted against the sky at the Syncrude Mildred Lake upgrader in the Alberta oilsands
$35 billion in profits for six companies in 2022.
Plumes are silhouetted against the sky at the Syncrude Mildred Lake upgrader in the Alberta oilsands
$17 billion in government royalties in 2022, making it the largest source of revenue for the year.
Plumes are silhouetted against the sky at the Syncrude Mildred Lake upgrader in the Alberta oilsands
3.3 million barrels produced per day.
Plumes are silhouetted against the sky at the Syncrude Mildred Lake upgrader in the Alberta oilsands
81 million metric tonnes of carbon pollution in 2022 — the equivalent of burning 90 billion pounds of coal.
Plumes are silhouetted against the sky at the Syncrude Mildred Lake upgrader in the Alberta oilsands
1,097 square kilometres mined, 0.1 per cent certified reclaimed.
Plumes are silhouetted against the sky at the Syncrude Mildred Lake upgrader in the Alberta oilsands

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Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?

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