Explorer Peter Pond had identified oil in the region in the late
1700s. In the late 1800s, Dr. Robert Bell included oil sands in
his Geological Survey of Canada reports. In 1927, researcher Dr.
Karl Clark patented the hot water extraction process basic to
bitumen separation technology today. But until the Leduc wells in
'47 struck significant reserves, who could afford to develop that
technology commercially? Shell Canada went into the Peace River
area in '49, followed by Royalite in '55. Ten years later,
Syncrude Canada Ltd. was born.
In 1967, Great Canadian Oil Sands (now Suncor) began processing
synthetic crude, employing 1,500 people full-time and producing
58,000 barrels a day. In 1978, Syncrude began production at
Mildred Lake with 129,000 barrels a day. In 1983, Imperial Oil
started to build its "in situ" oil sands recovery
production plant at Cold Lake. Today, the oil sands yield about
450,000 barrels a day.
Last summer, the federal and provincial governments announced a
new generic fiscal regime to help generate new investment in
Alberta's oil sands. Since then, companies, such as Syncrude and
Suncor, have indicated major new projects, about $6 billion's
worth, will soon come on stream. They predict that will create
10,000 new jobs over the next 15 years and increase production to
1 million barrels a day by 2010. As well, they are spending over
$100 million a year on research and development, $20 million
collaboratively, involving industry, government, and universities.
Yet, Albertans inherit other aspects of the legacy of oil as well.
The pursuit of prosperity affects our environment. "Over the past 10 to 15 years, we've made tremendous strides in understanding the impact [of the petroleum industry] on the face of the landscape," comments Natural Resources Minister McLellan.
Companies are reclaiming land as drilling and mining operations cease production, returning soil and planting seedlings and grasses. Working with the Fort McKay First Nation,
Syncrude has even relocated a herd of wood bison (grown to over 130 animals) from Elk Island to the Fort McMurray area.
However, Brain Staszenski, Director of the Environmental Resource Centre of Alberta asserts, "We're paying a big price for the economic benefits of
oil." He cites effects on air quality from gas flaring at conventional wells and greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands plants, soil and water contamination from drilling and oil sands extraction and upgrading, and surface disruption, especially on the ecologically sensitive eastern slopes of the Rockies.