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High stakes in Canada’s vast oil-sands fields

Trillions of dollars’ worth of oil are present, but the environmental costs are high, too – and growing.

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In Fort McMurray, Alberta, bitumen (a viscous form of petroleum) is extracted from oil sands using steam. The largest single emitter of greenhouse gas in Canada is a joint venture in oil sands production.

George Tombs

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The relentless search for oil has led explorers to the boreal forest of northeastern Alberta, among the jack pines and black spruce trees an hour’s drive from the boom town of Fort McMurray. Kelly Hansen, operations manager at ConocoPhillips’s $1 billion Surmont oil-sands plant, holds up the prize: a beaker of sticky black “synbit,” a 50-50 blend of bitumen (a viscous, tarlike petroleum) and synthetic oil.

“The Athabasca oil sands contain the equivalent of 1.7 trillion barrels of oil,” Mr. Hansen says. “About 20 percent of that total can be produced, using current technology” – namely, surface mining and steam extraction underground. Surmont, a facility of gleaming silver-colored steam generators, process pipes, and holding tanks, is jointly owned with French oil company Total. Its initial pilot phase has ended, and the company estimates it will produce 2.5 billion barrels of oil at Surmont.

Thanks largely to the prodigious Atha­bas­ca oil sands, Canada ranks second only to Saudi Arabia in terms of total oil reserves. At a time of roller-coaster crude prices and concerns over the security of energy supplies, these oil-sand deposits have attracted more than $100 billion of investment from just about every major oil company in the world.

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