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The Enduring Challenge of Alberta's Oilsands

The discovery in present-day Alberta of deposits of sand saturated with bitumen (the petroleum that exists in the semisolid or solid phase in natural deposits) was recorded as early as 1778 by American fur trader and explorer Peter Pond in the Athabasca area.

Of course, this was a "discovery" only in terms of Western society, as Aboriginal peoples in the area, such as the Cree, traditionally used the bitumen tar for several purposes—they burned the tar in pots to repel bugs and insects, used it to waterproof their canoes and they even used it as chewing gum! (Kids, don’t try that at home).

The potential worth of the resource (the deposits in Northern Alberta constitute the largest known repository of bituminous oil on earth) was recognized as early as 1893 by surveyors enlisted by the Dominion government. Since that time, industry and provincial and federal governments have pursued the development of the oilsands, and currently in Alberta, it is a major centre of crude-oil production.

Soil groupingTwo themes animate the challenge of the oilsands in Alberta—the influence of liquid oil and the difficulty of extracting semisolid or solid forms of oil from the sand. Liquid oil is what early scientists and petro-explorers hoped to find. Dreams of striking it rich with liquid oil brought many West, and even in recent history we find tales of investors arriving in the area with suitcases of cash to finance the pursuit. However, no liquid oil has ever been found in the Athabasca oilsands area.

Consequently, innovation has been necessary to breathe life into the vision of extracting oil out of the sand. With the famous oil strike of Leduc No. 1 in 1947, the focus of development shifted away from the oilsands, and with good reason—liquid oil is far easier to access and refine. The lull in oilsands extraction didn’t last long, however, as petro-innovators knew the day would come when extracting oil from the sand would be feasible. That day has certainly arrived, and a huge expansion of the oilsands industry in Alberta is well underway.

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