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The Athabasca oil sands, also known as the Athabasca tar sands, are large deposits of bitumen or extremely heavy crude oil, located in northeastern Alberta, Canada – roughly centred on the boomtown of Fort McMurray. These oil sands, hosted primarily in the McMurray Formation, consist of a mixture of crude bitumen (a semi-solid rock-like form of crude oil), silica sand, clay minerals, and water. The Athabasca deposit is the largest known reservoir of crude bitumen in the world and the largest of three major oil sands deposits in Alberta, along with the nearby Peace River and Cold Lake deposits (the latter stretching into Saskatchewan).[3]

Together, these oil sand deposits lie under 141,000 square kilometres (54,000 sq mi) of boreal forest and muskeg (peat bogs) and contain about 1.7 trillion barrels (270×10^9 m3) of bitumen in-place, comparable in magnitude to the world's total proven reserves of conventional petroleum. The International Energy Agency (IEA) lists the economically recoverable reserves, at 2007 prices and modern unconventional oil production technology, to be 178 billion barrels (28.3×10^9 m3), or about 10% of these deposits.[3] These contribute to Canada's total proven reserves being the third largest in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela's Orinoco Belt.[4]

By 2009, the two extraction methods used were in situ extraction, when the bitumen occurs deeper within the ground, (which will account for 80 percent of oil sands development) and surface or open-pit mining, when the bitumen is closer to the surface. Only 20 percent of bitumen can be extracted using open pit mining methods,[5] which involves large scale excavation of the land with huge hydraulic power shovels and 400-ton heavy hauler trucks. Surface mining leaves toxic tailings ponds. In contrast, in situ uses more specialized techniques such as steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). "Eighty percent of the oil sands will be developed in situ which accounts for 97.5 percent of the total surface area of the oil sands region in Alberta."[6] In 2006 the Athabasca deposit was the only large oil sands reservoir in the world which was suitable for large-scale surface mining, although most of this reservoir can only be produced using more recently developed in-situ technology.[4]

History

The Athabasca oil sands are named after the Athabasca River which cuts through the heart of the deposit, and traces of the heavy oil are readily observed on the river banks. Historically, the bitumen was used by the indigenous Cree and Dene Aboriginal peoples to waterproof their canoes.[7] The oil deposits are located within the boundaries of Treaty 8, and several First Nations of the area are involved with the sands.

Early history

Athabasca oil sands on the banks of the river, around 1900

The Athabasca oil sands first came to the attention of European fur traders in 1719 when Wa-pa-su, a Cree trader, brought a sample of bituminous sands to the Hudson's Bay Company post at York Factory on Hudson Bay where Henry Kelsey was the manager. In 1778, Peter Pond, another fur trader and a founder of the rival North West Company, became the first European to see the Athabasca deposits after exploring the Methye Portage which allowed access to the rich fur resources of the Athabasca River system from the Hudson Bay watershed.[8]

In 1788, fur trader Alexander Mackenzie, after whom the Mackenzie River was later named, traveled along routes to both the Arctic and Pacific Ocean wrote: "At about 24 miles [39 km] from the fork (of the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers) are some bituminous fountains into which a pole of 20 feet [6.1 m] long may be inserted without the least resistance. The bitumen is in a fluid state and when mixed with gum, the resinous substan

Together, these oil sand deposits lie under 141,000 square kilometres (54,000 sq mi) of boreal forest and muskeg (peat bogs) and contain about 1.7 trillion barrels (270×10^9 m3) of bitumen in-place, comparable in magnitude to the world's total proven reserves of conventional petroleum. The International Energy Agency (IEA) lists the economically recoverable reserves, at 2007 prices and modern unconventional oil production technology, to be 178 billion barrels (28.3×10^9 m3), or about 10% of these deposits.[3] These contribute to Canada's total proven reserves being the third largest in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela's Orinoco Belt.[4]

By 2009, the two extraction methods used were in situ extraction, when the bitumen occurs deeper within the ground, (which will account for 80 percent of oil sands development) and surface or open-pit mining, when the bitumen is closer to the surface. Only 20 percent of bitumen can be extracted using open pit mining methods,[5] which involves large scale excavation of the land with huge hydraulic power shovels and 400-ton heavy hauler trucks. Surface mining leaves toxic tailings ponds. In contrast, in situ uses more specialized techniques such as steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). "Eighty percent of the oil sands will be developed in situ which accounts for 97.5 percent of the total surface area of the oil sands region in Alberta."[6] In 2006 the Athabasca deposit was the only large oil sands reservoir in the world which was suitable for large-scale surface mining, although most of this reservoir can only be produced using more recently developed in-situ technology.[4]

The Athabasca oil sands are named after the Athabasca River which cuts through the heart of the deposit, and traces of the heavy oil are readily observed on the river banks. Historically, the bitumen was used by the indigenous Cree and Dene Aboriginal peoples to waterproof their canoes.[7] The oil deposits are located within the boundaries of Treaty 8, and several First Nations of the area are involved with the sands.

Early history

Athabasca oil sands on the banks of the river, around 1900

The Athabasca oil sands first came to the attention of European fur traders in 1719 when Wa-pa-su, a Cree trader, brought a sample of bituminous sands to the Hudson's Bay Company post at York Factory on Hudson Bay where Henry Kelsey was the manager. In 1778, Peter Pond, another fur trader and a founder of the rival North West Company, became the first European to see the Athabasca deposits after exploring the Methye Portage which allowed access to the rich fur resources of the Athabasca River system from the Hudson Bay watershed.[8]

In 1788, fur trader Alexander Mackenzie, after whom the Mackenzie River was later named, traveled along routes to both the Arctic and Pacific Ocean wrote: "At about 24 miles [39 km] from the fork (of the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers) are some bituminous fountains into which a pole of 20 feet [6.1 m] long may be inserted without the least resistance. The bitumen is in a fluid state and when mixed with gum, the resinous substance collected from the spruce fir, it serves to gum the Indians' canoes." He was followed in 1799 by mapmaker David Thompson and in 1819 by British Naval officer John Franklin.[9]

John Richardson did the first serious scientific assessment of the oil sands in 1848 on his way north to search for Franklin's lost expedition. The first government-sponsored survey of the oil sands was initiated in 1875 by John Macoun, and in 1883, G. C. Hoffman of the Geological Survey of Canada tried separating the bitumen from oil sand with the use of water and reported that it separated readily. In 1888, Robert Bell, the director of the Geological Survey of Canada, reported to a Senate Committee that "The evidence ... points to the existence in the Athabasca and Mackenzie valleys of the most extensive petroleum field in America, if not the world."[8]

Athabasca oil sand of the McMurray Formation as seen in drill cores.

Count Alfred von Hammerstein (1870–1941), who arrived in the region in 1897, promoted the Athabaska oil sands for over forty years, taking photos with descriptive titles such as "Tar Sands and Flowing Asphaltum in the Athabasca District," that are now in the National Library and National Archives Canada. Photos of the Athabasca oil sands were also featured in Canadian writer and adventurer, Agnes Deans Cameron's, best-selling book (Cameron 1908, p. 71)[10] entitled The New North: Being Some Account of a Woman's Journey through Canada to the Arctic which recounted her 10,000 mi (16,000 km) roundtrip to the Arctic Ocean. Following this journey and the publication of her book, she travelled extensively as lecturer, with magic lantern slides of her Kodak images, promoting immigration to western Canada at Oxford, Cambridge, St. Andrew's University and the Royal Geographical Society.[11] Her photographs were reproduced in 2011–2012 in an exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Gismondi 2012, p. 71)The Athabasca oil sands first came to the attention of European fur traders in 1719 when Wa-pa-su, a Cree trader, brought a sample of bituminous sands to the Hudson's Bay Company post at York Factory on Hudson Bay where Henry Kelsey was the manager. In 1778, Peter Pond, another fur trader and a founder of the rival North West Company, became the first European to see the Athabasca deposits after exploring the Methye Portage which allowed access to the rich fur resources of the Athabasca River system from the Hudson Bay watershed.[8]

In 1788, fur trader Alexander Mackenzie, after whom the Mackenzie River was later named, traveled along routes to both the Arctic and Pacific Ocean wrote: "At about 24 miles [39 km] from the fork (of the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers) are some bituminous fountains into which a pole of 20 feet [6.1 m] long may be inserted without the least resistance. The bitumen is in a fluid state and when mixed with gum, the resinous substance collected from the spruce fir, it serves to gum the Indians' canoes." He was followed in 1799 by mapmaker David Thompson and in 1819 by British Naval officer John Franklin.In 1788, fur trader Alexander Mackenzie, after whom the Mackenzie River was later named, traveled along routes to both the Arctic and Pacific Ocean wrote: "At about 24 miles [39 km] from the fork (of the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers) are some bituminous fountains into which a pole of 20 feet [6.1 m] long may be inserted without the least resistance. The bitumen is in a fluid state and when mixed with gum, the resinous substance collected from the spruce fir, it serves to gum the Indians' canoes." He was followed in 1799 by mapmaker David Thompson and in 1819 by British Naval officer John Franklin.[9]

John Richardson did the first serious scientific assessment of the oil sands in 1848 on his way north to search for Franklin's lost expedition. The first government-sponsored survey of the oil sands was initiated in 1875 by John Macoun, and in 1883, G. C. Hoffman of the Geological Survey of Canada tried separating the bitumen from oil sand with the use of water and reported that it separated readily. In 1888, Robert Bell, the director of the Geological Survey of Canada, reported to a Senate Committee that "The evidence ... points to the existence in the Athabasca and Mackenzie valleys of the most extensive petroleum field in America, if not the world."[8]

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Count Alfred von Hammerstein (1870–1941), who arrived in the region in 1897, promoted the Athabaska oil sands for over forty years, taking photos with descriptive titles such as "Tar Sands and Flowing Asphaltum in the Athabasca District," that are now in the National Library and National Archives Canada. Photos of the Athabasca oil sands were also featured in Canadian writer and adventurer, Agnes Deans Cameron's, best-selling book (Cameron 1908, p. 71)[10] entitled The New North: Being Some Account of a Woman's Journey through Canada to the Arctic which recounted her 10,000 mi (16,000 km) roundtrip to the Arctic Ocean. Following this journey and the publication of her book, she travelled extensively as lecturer, with magic lantern slides of her Kodak images, promoting immigration to western Canada at Oxford, Cambridge, St. Andrew's University and the Royal Geographical Society.[11] Her photographs were reproduced in 2011–2012 in an exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Gismondi 2012, p. 71)[12] Cameron was particularly enthusiastic about the Athabaska region and the Athabaska oil sands which included photos of Count Alfred Von Hammerstein's oil drill works along the Athabasca River. "While the Count was unsuccessful drilling for "elephant pools of oil," Cameron's book and its images... made her a media celebrity."(Gismondi 2012, p. 71)[12] "In all Canada there is no more interesting stretch of waterway than that upon which we are entering. An earth-movement here has created a line of fault clearly visible for seventy or eighty miles along the river-bank, out of which oil oozes at frequent intervals. ... Tar there is ... in plenty. ... It oozes from every fissure, and into some bituminous tar well we can poke a twenty-foot pole and find no resistance. (1909, Cameron & 71)[10] cited in (Gismondi 2012, p. 71)[12]

In 1926, Karl Clark of the University of Alberta received a patent for a hot water separation process which was the forerunner of today's thermal extraction processes. Several attempts to implement it had varying degrees of success.

A pioneer in the discovery and use of natural gas was Georg Naumann. He used natural gas as early as about 1940.[citation needed]

Project OilsandKarl Clark of the University of Alberta received a patent for a hot water separation process which was the forerunner of today's thermal extraction processes. Several attempts to implement it had varying degrees of success.

A pioneer in the discovery and use of natural gas was Georg Naumann. He used natural gas as early as about 1940.[citation needed]

Project Oilsand, also known as Project Oilsands, was a 1958 proposal to exploit the Athabasca oil sands using the underground detonation of nuclear explosives;[13] hypothetically, the heat and pressure created by an underground detonation would boil the bitumen deposits, reducing their viscosity to the point that standard oilfield techniques could be used. The general means by which the plan was to work was discussed in the October 1976 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists issue.[14] A patent was granted for the process that was intended: The Process for Stimulating Petroliferous Subterranean Formations with Contained Nuclear Explosions by Bray, Knutson, and Coffer, which was first submitted in 1964.[15][16] With the nuclear heating option considered a forerunner to some of the nascent conventional heating ideas that are presently suggested and in use extracting oil from the Alberta regions Athabasca oil sands.[17]

The proposal, originally known as "Project Cauldron", was devised by geologist Manley L. Natland at Los Angeles-based Richfield Oil Corporation. Natland believed that an underground blast was the most efficient way to generate the heat needed to liquefy the viscous bitumen so that it could be pumped to the surface by conventional wells. The project was conceived of as part of Richfield Oil Corporation. Natland believed that an underground blast was the most efficient way to generate the heat needed to liquefy the viscous bitumen so that it could be pumped to the surface by conventional wells. The project was conceived of as part of Operation Plowshare, a United States project to harness the nuclear explosions for peaceful applications. However, some experts had doubts. In 1959, oil sands pioneer Robert Fitzsimmons of the International Bitumen Company wrote a letter to the Edmonton Journal, saying "While the writer does not know anything about nuclear energy and is therefore not qualified to make any definite statement as to it's [sic] results he does know something about the effect dry heat has on those sands and ventures a guess that if it does not turn the whole deposit into a burning inferno it is almost sure to fuse it into a solid mass of semi glass or coke."[18]

In April 1959, the Federal Mines Department approved Project Oilsand.[19] However, before the project could continue beyond preliminary steps, the Canadian government's stance on the use of nuclear devices changed. In April 1962, the Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs, Howard Charles Green, said "Canada is opposed to nuclear tests, period".[20] These 1962 changes in Canadian public opinion is regarded by historian Michael Payne to be due to the shift in public perception of nuclear explosives following the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis,[21] Project Oilsand was subsequently cancelled. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker told Parliament that the decision to detonate an atomic bomb on or under Canadian soil would be made by Canada, not the United States, and ordered Project Cauldron/Oilsand placed on permanent hold, citing the risk of upsetting the Soviet Union during nuclear disarmament negotiations being conducted in Geneva.[22]

The United States government continued with exploring the peaceful uses of nuclear detonations with Operation Plowshare, but was likewise eventually terminated in 1977. While social scientist, Benjamin Sovacool contends that the main problem was that the produced oil and gas was radioactive, which caused consumers to reject it.[23] In contrast, oil and gas are sometimes considerably naturally radioactive to begin with and the industry is set up to deal with this, moreover in contrast to earlier stimulation efforts,[24] contamination from many later tests was not a showstopping issue, it was primarily changing public opinion due to the societal fears caused by events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, that resulted in protests,[21] court cases and general hostility that ended the US exploration. Furthermore, as the years went by without further development and the closing/curtailment in US nuclear weapons factories, this began to evaporate the economies of scale advantage that had earlier existed, with this, it was increasingly found that most US fields could instead be stimulated by non-nuclear techniques which were found to be likely cheaper.[25][26] The most successful and profitable nuclear stimulation effort that did not result in customer product contamination issues was the 1976 Project Neva on the Sredne-Botuobinsk gas field in the Soviet Union, made possible by multiple cleaner stimulation explosives, favourable rock strata and the possible creation of an underground contaminant storage cavity.[27][28]

The oil sands, which are typically 40 to 60 metres (130 to 200 ft) thick and sit on top of relatively flat limestone, are relatively easy to access. They lie under 1 to 3 m (3 ft 3 in to 9 ft 10 in) of waterlogged muskeg, 0 to 75 metres (0 to 246 ft) of clay and barren sand. As a result of the easy accessibility, the world's first oil-sands mine was in the Athabasca oil sands.

Commercial production of oil from the Athabasca oil sands began in 1967, with the opening of the Great Canadian Oil Sands (GCOS) plant in Fort McMurray. It was the first operational oil sands project in the world, owned and operated by the American parent company, Sun Oil Company. When the US$240 million plant officially

Commercial production of oil from the Athabasca oil sands began in 1967, with the opening of the Great Canadian Oil Sands (GCOS) plant in Fort McMurray. It was the first operational oil sands project in the world, owned and operated by the American parent company, Sun Oil Company. When the US$240 million plant officially opened with a capacity of 45,000 barrels per day (7,200 m3/d), it marked the beginning of commercial development of the Athabasca oil sands. In 2013 McKenzie-Brown listed industrialist J. Howard Pew as one of the six visionaries who built the Athabasca oil sands.[29] By the time of his death in 1971, the Pew family were ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the half-dozen wealthiest families in America.[30] The Great Canadian Oil Sands Limited (then a subsidiary of Sun Oil Company but now incorporated into an independent company known as Suncor Energy Inc.) produced 30,000 barrels per day (4,800 m3/d) of synthetic crude oil.[31]

In 1979, Sun formed Suncor by merging its Canadian refining and retailing interests with Great Canadian Oil Sands and its conventional oil and gas interests. In 1981, the Government of Ontario purchased a 25% stake in the company but divested it in 1993. In 1995 Sun Oil also divested its interest in the company, although Suncor maintained the Sunoco retail brand in Canada. Suncor took advantage of these two divestitures to become an independent, widely held public company.

Suncor continued to grow and continued to produce more and more oil from its oil sands operations regardless of fluctuating market prices, and eventually became bigger than its former parent company. In 2009, Suncor acquired the formerly Canadian government owned oil company, Petro-Canada,[32][33] which turned Suncor into the largest petroleum company in Canada and one of the biggest Canadian companies. Suncor Energy is now a Canadian company completely unaffiliated with its former American parent company. Sun Oil Company became known as Sunoco, but later left the oil production and refining business, and has since become a retail gasoline distributor owned by Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas, Texas. In Canada, Suncor Energy converted all of its Sunoco stations (which were all in Ontario) to Petro-Canada sites in order to unify all of its downstream retail operations under the Petro-Canada banner and discontinue paying licensing fees for the Sunoco brand. Nationwide, Petro-Canada's upstream product supplier and parent company is Suncor Energy. Suncor Energy continues to operate just one Sunoco retail site in Ontario.[34]

The true size of the Canadian oil sands deposits became known in the 1970s. The Syncrude mine opened in 1978 and is now the largest mine (by area) in the world, with mines potentially covering 140,000 km2 (54,000 sq mi).[35] (Although there is oil underlying 142,200 km2 (54,900 sq mi), which may be disturbed by drilling and in situ extraction, only 4,800 km2 (1,900 sq mi) may potentially be surface mined, and 904 km2 (349 sq mi) has to date been mined.)

1973 oil crisis