Extracting Oil from Sand in Canada

April 1, 2014

In a remote area of Alberta, Canada, in the boreal forest and wetlands are the Athabasca Oil Sands (or Tar Sands, depending on which group you are talking to about them). In this area, more earth is being moved than probably anywhere else in the world to extract oil from bitumen-laced sand. To get to it, oil producers have to cut down the forest, remove tons of peat and sand, and heat gallons of water to strip the sand and upgrade it. Contaminated water used in the process is then discharged into tailings ponds to settle out. Oil too deep to be extracted this way is brought up using an in-situ process that involves injecting steam, solvents and hot air into the sands. A small Nicholas School fact-finding team went to Fort McMurray, the heart of Canada’s major oil production hub, in late fall to get an up close view of this oil extraction process and its impacts, and to get some water samples for potential research by Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality, and his team. Canadian photographer Garth Lenz joined the team this fall and shot these photos of the mining and in-situ operations, and of the tailings ponds.

Photos by Garth Lenz; center right image by Scottee Cantrell.