Industry pros talk oil sands

Looking at Alberta’s future as a top source of oil

Craig Herring, Sci ‘12, holds an oil deposit sample from the department of geology's collection.
Craig Herring, Sci ‘12, holds an oil deposit sample from the department of geology's collection.
Last month, students, alumni and industry professionals gathered to discuss the future of Alberta’s oil sands at the Oil and Gas Speaker Series.
Last month, students, alumni and industry professionals gathered to discuss the future of Alberta’s oil sands at the Oil and Gas Speaker Series.

Engineering student Craig Herring is working with a group of his peers to find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta’s oil sands.

“[Oil sands workers] are doing the best to provide for their families and create economic stimulus for the country,” Herring, Sci ’12, said.

Herring, who helped to organize the Oil and Gas Speakers Series at Queen’s, has spent the past two summers with an oil company in his hometown of Calgary.

“A lot of people out [West] recognize that and have a lot of respect for people working in the oil industry, but out East people don’t necessarily understand ... how important it is and formulate opinions without understanding it,” he said.

Last month, 133 students and professors attended the department of chemical engineering’s annual Oil and Gas Speaker series at Ban Righ Hall.

Started in 2009, the series aims to bring professionals together with students who are looking to break into the industry.

Over the span of two days, 18 speakers from across the country addressed a crowd of engineering, geology, commerce and law students. Among the speakers were industry notables Daniel O’Byrne and Mike Rose. O’Byrne is director and president of Calgary-based Charger Energy Company. Rose, a Queen’s alumnus, is the president and CEO of Tourmaline Oil Corporation.

Nine international companies sponsored the series, including Shell and Imperial Oil. Attendees mingled with representatives from both.

According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), oil sands like the ones in Northern Alberta are a mixture of sand, water, clay and bitumen. About 20 per cent is close enough to the surface to be mined, but the rest lies 200 metres or more below ground level — too deep to be accessed.

Bitumen is a mineral and the part of the oil sands that can be used for fuel, but in its natural state it’s too thick to be pumped up through the ground — it needs to be heated or diluted to be collected.

To do this, workers use a process called Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD). Steam is pumped down into the reservoir to heat the oil sands so they can be pumped to the surface.

Because SAGD is both energy and water intensive, Herring said, it gets criticized by environmentalists. But it’s cleaner than people think, he said.

“Your power is always coming from natural gas, which as far as clean energies go, it’s about the best you can get,” Herring said.

The Alberta government mandates that companies have a 90 per cent water recycle rate for SAGD extraction. The other 10 per cent of the water is pulled from the Athabasca river through underground saline reservoirs — water that Herring said isn’t safe to drink.

According to CAPP, oil sands divert less than three per cent of flow from the river.

Peter Hodson is a Queen’s environmental studies professor and worked for Environment Canada. He worked on a 2008 study of possible water contamination through oil sands digging.

The study concluded that the areas being used in the oil sands were being polluted at levels above government water-quality guidelines and were harmful to fish in the river.

The study came out after allegations that oil industry developments were potentially damaging to the health of Aboriginal communities in the region.

At the time, the Alberta government rejected the claims that water was being contaminated based on reports from the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP).

“The weakness of the RAMP program was that it’s industry-funded,” Hodson said. “The stakeholders are predominantly industry and government ... so we have a circumstance where the industry has got much greater influence on what's going on than anybody else, [like] the fox guarding the chickens.”

After the study’s publication, the federal and provincial governments both announced review panels to study the problem. They plan to add a secondary level of oversight to ensure oil companies are sticking to Canada’s water quality standards.

Earlier this month, the Alberta provincial government, in partnership with the federal government, announced a monitoring program for the oil sands. The program promises to be transparent and take a more comprehensive approach to the issue.

Another issue of environmental concern are tailings ponds. CAPP describes tailings as the water, sand, clay and residual oil that’s left over after the bitumen has been set aside to be processed.

Tailings ponds are constructed to hold these leftovers. Once the sand and clay settles, water can be recycled for use in the SAGD process.

Air cannons and laser systems keep birds off the toxic oil sands.

One of the major concerns with tailings ponds is that they’re multiplying too quickly.

“There’s a gap between the amount of oil sands development and the time it takes to reclaim land and clean up the tailings ponds,” Kingston and the Islands MP Ted Hsu said. “Because the oil sands are expanding so fast, the land that's being [used for] the tailings ponds is growing at an ever-faster rate, faster than we can keep up.”

There are international concerns to worry about as well, Hsu said.

“The perception of a lot of people around the world is that Canada is not doing what it should or could be doing and that diminishes our ability to be a leader in the world,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think that’s true.

“If I were the people of Alberta, I would say, “‘How could the oil sands best benefit my children and my grandchildren and their grandchildren?’” Hsu said. “If we don’t develop the oil sands so quickly, the oil is still going to be there. And it’s probably going to get cheaper and cheaper to extract, as we learn how to do it better and better.”

Greenhouse gas emissions per barrel of oil have decreased 29 per cent since 1990.

“There are a lot of new technologies that are really cool and really exciting that will be available from a couple years from now and will be a big part of exploiting the resource in the future,” Herring said.

The Canadian Energy Research Institute estimates that $2.1 trillion, generated by jobs and resources from the oil sands, will be contributed to the Canadian economy over the next 25 years. This includes $766 billion in royalties and taxes that will be paid to provincial and federal governments.

In addition the research institute estimates that 905,000 jobs will be created as well over the same period. These estimates are based on continued development of the projects in Northern Alberta, especially in the current economic downturn.

“The economic risk to Canada to shut things down altogether is enormous,” Herring, Sci ’12, said. “The way that things like Kyoto and Copenhagen are written, they would completely crush the ability for new projects to get started.”

“The best way to do it, I think from everyone’s perspective, is to set regulations to make it challenging; to ask companies to do better but to reward them for doing better.”

With files from Janina Enrile

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.