Alberta’s Tar Sands: In-Situ Extraction Converted to Mining?

Canada’s massive Athabasca tar-sands mining operation in Alberta has been in the news, as the U.S. State Department nears a decision to approve or reject the Keystone XL pipeline.  This proposed pipeline would carry oil extracted from the tar sands through the heartland of the U.S. to refineries on the Gulf coast, where it would be processed and most likely exported to Mexico, and Central and South America.  (Fun fact: we already export more petroleum than we import here in the US, which is why the “energy independence” argument for more drilling is a bunch of hooey.)

Speaking of hooey: the extraction and processing of tar sands bitumen into oil has a very high carbon footprint and uses large amounts of fresh water.  You can read all about it here.

We’re watching the production end of this mess, looking at the steadily growing impacts in Alberta where the tar sands are being exploited, mostly by good ol’ fashioned mining but also by in-situ extraction of bitumen. Google Earth now has 2010 high-resolution imagery covering most of the active tar-sands extraction areas, just north of Fort McMurray, Alberta along the Athabasca River.  There is also a good database of historical imagery in Google, so you can do some interesting time-series analysis.

One thing we noticed – a 7,000-acre forested area of what appeared to be in-situ extraction since 2003 is now cleared and actively being mined.  Industry has been touting in-situ extraction as a more “environmentally friendly” way to produce the tar sands, but that’s just PR bull if they’re going to eventually mine it anyway.

Here are a few examples to get you started on your own skytruthing adventure of this leading environmental issue.  Let us know if you see anything interesting!

Overview in Google Earth showing part of the tar sands mining complex straddling the Athabasca River about 40 miles north of Fort McMurray, Alberta.  High-resolution imagery from 2010.
Detail showing 7,000-acre recently cleared area, at upper right in overview image above.
Same area as it appeared in 2005, using Google Earth “view historical imagery” tool. Area is mostly forested in 2005, but marked by regular grid of dirt access roads leading to small clearings that we assume are well sites for in-situ extraction of tar sands oil.  Compare with 2010 image below.


Recently cleared area in 2010.  Apparently in-situ extraction has been replaced by conventional mining. Area was still forested in 2006 but by 2008 logging had cleared most of the land, and conventional mining operations were underway.  Compare with 2005 image above.


Zooming in even further on the 2010 image, we can see details of the active mining that’s now taking place.


And here is what that same place looked like in 2005.