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Tar Sands

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Several years ago, I wrote a couple of pieces on the Athabasca Oil Sands, and I still get hits from people searching Google looking for images of this industrial monstrosity in Northern Alberta. Since then, media attention of the area has focused on mainly the wealth and growth of industry, property values and the seemly unstoppable flow of oil. Occasionally though, the dark side of the boom is portrayed, but typically not often enough for the average person to think twice about filling up their truck, or even to consider where the magical fuel is coming from.

Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent” by Andrew Nikiforuk is a wild journey through the belly of the beast, from the destruction of vast swaths of boreal forest, habitat to Moose and other creatures, to the drugs and drinking in the camps and Fort McMoney as they call the ever expanding northern city of Fort McMurray.

My Tar Sands Story

[ad#200-left]Almost three years ago, I was offered several Civil Engineering jobs in the oil patch, basically these companies were recruiting to design and manage the construction of the infrastructure that is straining under the influx of workers. Water treatment, sewer treatment, roads, hospitals, schools and housing are just some of the works that can’t keep up with the demand from the population. At the time, I didn’t want to go there, despite the scale of projects – it really didn’t seem like life in Fort McMurray would be that great for the kids. Also, I’d done some work for Syncrude back in 2001-2 while at the University of Calgary, and even then, it was clear that the scale of environmental degradation was beyond anything else I’d seen, even the Hunter Valley coal mining operations in Australia are tame in comparison to these.

One of my tasks as a research associate for the Civil Engineering department was to determine if a suitable construction use could be found for some of the products contained in the Oil Sand Tailings, and whether it would be possible to extract and refine these products to a high enough quality. The main material we were interested in was kaolin, the clay that is used for fine china and magazine paper. If you heat this clay up to about 600 degrees celcuis, it transforms into metakaolin, which can be used as a pozolan in concrete manufacturing. It was believed that by extracting some of this stuff out, it might make a big enough dent in the material stored in the tailings ponds, which have the consistency of toothpaste for thousands of years. As with the concept of extracting oil from tar sands, it was difficult to get high quality metakaolin out of the slurry, even after extensive seiving and washing. But we did make concrete out of it, and we wrote up a journal paper detailing the experiments and tests that we undertook.

Stories like this, that are potential “positive spinoffs” from the Tar Sands are few and far between, and truth be told, the commercial viability of something like this is extremely limited.

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The Future of the Tar Sands

At the end of the article nearly three years ago – I wrote, “Is there an answer that is sensitive to the environment and people?  I hope so, but I don’t believe it has been discovered yet.” I was wrong to even suggest that this could possibly be done – the destruction of forests, watershed, water resources, local culture and social stability has changed the Athabasca region for ever.

The Tar Sands of Alberta have been described as a National Treasure. Ironically, as a nation it is not being treated as a treasure, rather, the Tar Sands is a national disgrace, it represents the culmination of 150 years of North American Oil Greed, although there is still amazing quantities of oil mixed up in the sands of Northern Alberta, it is difficult to extract and one of the most polluting sources of oil known to man. Our reliance on oil, and particularly tar sands needs to decline, we need to de-energize, start work on the task of energy descent before we do more damage to the planet and waste more of the precious energy resources that will be able to help us transition to a lower energy society.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

3 thoughts on “Tar Sands

  1. Are you concerned about the environment where you work, live, and play? Do you want to build more sustainable communities? Check out http://www.infrastructureusa.org and engage with concerned Americans throughout the country and express your concerns in an open online forum.

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