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Can tech make a dirty fuel clean?

John D. Sutter
Instead of leveling the forest, "in situ" oil sands developments in Canada's Alberta just cut strips in the land.
Instead of leveling the forest, "in situ" oil sands developments in Canada's Alberta just cut strips in the land.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Canada is home to the "oil sands," where oil is mixed in with the dirt
  • Traditionally, oil companies have strip-mined forests to dig out the oil
  • A new technique called "in situ" recovery leaves the forest largely intact
  • Others are trying to make the mining process more environmentally friendly
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Fort McMurray, Alberta (CNN) -- This is Drew Zieglgansberger's dirty little secret: a huge metal tube that's filled with a roaring natural-gas flame.

"Here's the big culprit," Zieglgansberger said, yelling over the squeal of the industrial process, which is used to melt oil out of the ground here in northern Canada. "We're burning natural gas to get out something like bitumen (oil). We know that, but I wanted to show you anyway. It's a massive amount of energy we use to create the steam."

This is the oil industry's answer to the traditional process of strip mining Canada's boreal forest to extract "oil sands" from the ground.

Instead of digging for oil, "in situ" oil fields such as this one, about 500 miles north of Canada's border with Montana, send pipes and steam into the ground to slurp the fuel out of the dirt.

The metal tube is large enough "you could get three half-ton trucks in there," said Zieglgansberger, who is Cenovus' senior vice president at Christina Lake. The fire heats water, which winds around inside the tunnel in pipes that look like brain matter. Cenovus injects that steam into the ground to melt a sticky form of crude that's mixed in with the dirt about 1,200 feet below the surface. The heat and water loosen the oil, allowing it to be pumped back to the surface and then refined.

The huge flame is the "culprit" because all of the energy it takes to power the process makes extracting oil in this way rather inefficient.

But it's also an opportunity: Cenovus and others see this type of operation as an environmentally friendly alternative to oil sands mining. Instead of clearing the forest to dig out this oil-dirt mixture, and leaving ponds of toxic waste on the surface, in-situ developments such as this do their work underground.

The companies do cut strips out of the forest to conduct seismic tests that tell them where the oil is located. They argue this is both aesthetically pleasing and environmentally friendly. Some environmentalists, however, say the strips still pose problems for local wildlife, including migrating caribou.

The oil industry sees this type of operation as its future. By 2015, most of the oil produced from Canada's massive oil sands reserve will be steamed out of the ground instead of mined, Zieglgansberger said. About 80% of all oil sands will be extracted using this method, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

These technological advances could lead to a cleaner manner of oil extraction.

"Technological advancements are what started this industry, and it's what is going to help this industry continue to grow," said Anne Marie Toutant, vice president of mining operations at Suncor, the company that started mining for oil here in 1967.

The mining side of Canada's oil sands is also making an effort to be greener.

Suncor plans to stop building new tailing ponds, which are toxic lakes of industrial waste that have been blamed for killing migratory birds. The company has developed a new polymer that it can inject into these lakes to turn them back into land much more quickly.

"We're now talking about reducing our footprint to about one quarter of what it would have been," said Bradley Wamboldt, general manager for tailings at Suncor. "Viewed from space, that means you see less of an impact."

The company recently opened up a field on the site of a former tailing pond after filling the hole with dirt and then planting native vegetation on top. The Alberta government has certified only 257 acres of land as fully reclaimed -- 0.16% of the total active mining area. About 6,500 acres are at some intermediate stage of the process, according to the province's environment ministry.

Projects such as these, and the promise of in-situ technology, lead Zieglgansberger to believe technology and innovation can make a dirty fuel cleaner.

"I don't want to do something that's going to make my grandkids say they're ashamed of their grandfather," he said.

The industry gets an unfair rap, he said.

"We're not just a bunch of cowboys out here punching holes in the ground so we can hold up our money bags and go, "Arr! Look at us!' "

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