Tar Sands Trouble

The Syncrude oil sands project, North of Fort McMurray

The Syncrude oil sands project, North of Fort McMurray

Finally the big day had come…I was to drive North to Fort MacMurray for the Christmas Show. I had heard nothing but terrifying reports on the danger of the highway, the wildness of the weather and the unpleasantness of the town in general from everyone whom I had spoken to about my trip, so I was truly braced for the worst. It was almost disappointing to experience an easy and uneventful drive up, with clear skies and clearer roads. Evening fell as I neared town, however, freezing rain began to whip across the single-lane highway, and I started to see what all of the fuss was about. But I didn’t have to navigate the harsh weather long and soon arrived at my B&B, another house that I was renting a room in. As I approached the house, I could see a woman just leaving to get into her truck. I called out to her, saying that I was the B&B guest, was there anyone inside? ‘Nope!’ she shouted cheerfully. ‘You’re on your own!’ and promptly hopped into her truck and drove away. I was dumbfounded. I discovered the door was indeed open, so I went inside. I was greeted by three large dogs barking loudly from the kitchen, and jumping up over the baby-gate that separated them from the living area. ‘Shhh-shhh!’ I said, trying to calm them, but they only got more excited and barked more loudly, and in their enthusiasm, knocked the gate right off its hinges. A bit startled, I quickly ran to fix it, as I could see the dogs seemed slightly sheepish for being so overzealous and had made no attempt to actually exit the kitchen. I fixed the gate and gave them each a pat–they were all beautiful, friendly dogs, one clearly a boxer cross of some kind, with a long snout and a brindle coat that made her resemble a tiger. There was also a golden retriever and a big shaggy Saint Bernard mix, all equally affectionate with loud barks but no bite. I headed upstairs and discovered an open door to a nicely made-up room with a towel on the bed. When I managed to figure out the WiFi, I found an email from the host explaining that she was out and had left the door open, and that I should make myself at home. So I did.

the-centre-entrance

The Oil Sands Discovery Centre clearly explained the bitumen extraction process,
but it left a few questions unanswered.

A good night’s sleep later, it was tradeshow time. The show started uncharacteristically late the first day, 1pm, which left me the morning free to visit the Oil Sands Discovery Centre. I was keen to find out how they were presenting the oil sands projects to the public. I walked into the building and was surprised to find they were charging $7 for entry. It only cost $6.50 to visit the Undersea Caverns in the West Edmonton Mall, and they had live stingrays. It looked like the Discovery Centre was a bit of a revenue producer in addition to being a hub for oil sands education.

The exhibit was very well designed, I was impressed with by graphics used on the placards.

The exhibit was very well designed, I was impressed with the graphics used on the placards.

I wandered through the exhibit reading the placards on display and snapping photos discretely (I wasn’t entirely certain this wouldn’t be frowned upon). I only had a limited time, so I opted out of watching the many videos available, which seemed to be geared toward much younger audiences anyway, featuring a nutty British professor and a talking drop of oil. As I wandered through the exhibit, I was amazed by the loveliness of the displays. As a graphic designer, I couldn’t help but admire the quality of the layouts, the beautiful photography and perfectly-rendered diagrams, the font styles, colours and sizing. It all made for an impressive and exhaustive display–there were no fewer than ten placards describing in great detail every process involved in removing bitumen from the sand and preparing it for transport–centrifuges, inclined plate settlers, deaeration, separation, catalytic conversion, hydrotreating, distillation, coking, the list went on, complimented by glass tubes of oil and other substances that you could spin around to demonstrate the processes visually. But quite abruptly the displays turned to talk of transporting ‘diluted’ bitumen through pipelines to go to market. I searched everywhere for information on what they actually diluted the oil with before sending it through the pipelines. I couldn’t find any placards illustrating this point, despite there being a huge display on the wall explaining ‘Hydrotransport,’ which is merely the process of moving bitumen mixed with water from the mines to the processing plant. I managed to find an interpreter at the front entryway, and asked him where the information on bitumen dilution was posted. He explained that this wasn’t in fact a part of the display, but he was happy enough to fill me in on it. He told me that the majority of the bitumen is cut with 50% naphtha, an oil by-product produced in the process of ‘upgrading’ bitumen, so it was made on site. When I asked him what naphtha was, he explained that it was essentially the same as lighter fluid, highly toxic and highly flammable. But it was abundant and cheap, since it was a by-product of what they were already doing with the oil, so that was their dilutant of choice. I asked him about the dangers of mixing a highly flammable substance with an oil product, and he agreed that there could be potential for combustion, but that this had not yet been proven. Interesting.

The process of removing and refining the bitumen from the oil sands was illustrated in great detail using diagrams and models.

The process of removing and refining the bitumen from the oil sands was illustrated in great detail with diagrams and models, yet a description of the process of dilution for transport was conspicuously absent.

Another interpreter showed up at this point, so I decided to question her as well, in case she happened to know where this information might be hiding in the display. She concurred that it wasn’t represented on any of the boards, and confirmed all of the claims made by the first interpreter. I said that it was concerning that this fairly significant bit of information had been left out of the exhaustive info in the showroom–every process  had been explained in such excruciating detail except for this one, and it seemed to me like an important point. She assured me that it must have simply been an oversight, and that they often updated the information on display as the technology progressed, so perhaps they would be adding that information to the exhibit soon. Perhaps.

I asked who was funding the Discovery Centre, and I was told that the Alberta Government funded it along with a number of sponsors, including Syncrude and Suncor, who were both running massive oil sands projects just 40 minutes North of town. Strange that these beneficiaries of the oil sands projects would  leave out such an important point in their public educational display: the addition of highly toxic, highly flammable chemicals to an already toxic oil substance, that was then being piped through the country’s forests and cities. It’s funny how these small details can sometimes slip through the cracks.

The Syncrude Aquatic Centre

The Syncrude Aquatic Centre brought odd images to mind.

The tradeshow that weekend was extremely uneventful. I didn’t sell Spirit Bear, as there were concerns that it might prove controversial in this oil town, considering my stance on the pipeline. One thing that made me raise my eyebrows at the show was the Syncrude Aquatic Centre. I can’t imagine wanting to swim in a pool named for an oil company with the word ‘crude’ in the title. It brings unpleasant thoughts to mind.

I eventually met my hosts, who turned out to be a lovely couple plus a friendly downstairs roommate, all originally from BC and very earthy people–not what I had expected to encounter in Fort Mac. The first morning my hostess served me vegan power balls and fresh apple slices for breakfast, and made me a delicious vegetarian enchilada for dinner the same night. That was the last I saw of them, though, as they left Saturday morning for a yoga retreat in Mexico that they had organized, leaving me with the downstairs roommate (an acupuncturist) for company, who kept me happily fed with homemade soups and a delicious vegan, flourless pumpkin pie made with ground cashews and coconut oil. Amazing. I didn’t even need to find my organic cafe, and a good thing that I didn’t, the closest thing in Fort Mac was the local Starbucks.

The highway up to the tar sands projects was snow-blown and littered with giant transport trucks.

The highway up to the tar sands projects was snow-blown and littered with giant transport trucks.

Monday rolled around and it was time for my oil sands adventure. I did a few errands in the morning and had planned to go back to the B&B to pack before driving North, but the radio was sending out a storm warning for the area, with strong winds up near the Suncor plant where I was headed, and snow was falling steadily. I considered not going–I knew most people would have advised me against it, but I couldn’t miss this opportunity. So I headed straight out of town.

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The Syncrude sign seemed welcoming. Upon arrival, I felt anything but welcome.

The drive up was a little scary. Huge logging and oil trucks sped up the two-lane highway, unfazed by the snow and wind. I drove carefully, trying my best to discern where the line in the centre and the edge of the road had actually disappeared to beneath the muddy snow piling on top of them. As I neared my destination, I began to notice that sensation Neil Young had described when he had compared the oil sands to Hiroshima–a kind of choking feeling when you breathe, a caustic sensation in the throat, and a strong, distinct and incredibly unnatural smell…burning oil. I turned off the heat in the car to minimize airflow from outside. The drive went quickly despite the conditions, and I soon saw signs for oil sands projects. Suncor was the closest one, but luckily I had asked the girl at Starbucks (I did break down and finally go there) which projects you could actually get a good view of. I had heard they were not very accessible, and you really needed to go on a tour in the summertime to get any decent visuals. She told me that at Suncor all I’d be able to see was the parking lot, and that Syncrude was worth the extra ten minutes drive if I wanted a show. So I kept on going right past the Suncor signs until I saw Syncrude’s. And oh, what I saw behind that sign. The day was foggy and snowy, so I had been concerned that I wouldn’t be able to see very much. I was dead wrong.

I was hoping I'd be able to get a clear view of the tar sands projects. I wasn't disappointed.

I was hoping I’d be able to get a clear view of the tar sands projects. I wasn’t disappointed.

Countless smokestacks at the Syncrude plant billowed dark smoke into the overcast sky.

Countless smokestacks at the Syncrude plant billowed dark smoke into an overcast sky.

Smokestacks too numerous to count sat bunched together just off the highway, gated off but clearly in view, spewing dark smoke into the white, smudgy sky. It was slightly surreal. There was a little unmanned kiosk with a stop sign at the entryway to the plant, so I pulled over and jogged up to the barricades that separated the road from the developments. I snapped several shots on my camera phone, my fingers quickly going numb from the cold. It was about -20º. I could see a couple of guards down the road at a checkpoint that was the main entryway to the plant. I decided I’d try to engage with them, see how they responded to me, if I would be allowed to get in any further. What happened made me feel like I was in post-war Eastern Germany. As I rolled up toward the guards, I had to wait in line as they spoke to the person in the car in front of me, so I snapped a quick, blurry photo of them before driving ahead. As I pulled up I sensed that this was not going to go over well, so I quickly put my phone down in the mug-holder next to my right elbow.

‘Hi there!’ I said cheerfully through the window.

‘What are you doing here?’ They asked cheerlessly.

‘Oh, I’m just a tourist,’ I said, putting on my best ‘harmless woman’ impression. The guards were women as well, and they weren’t impressed.

‘You actually aren’t allowed to take pictures around here,’ she explained tersely. ‘You’ll have to wait here.’ My heart started beating a bit faster as she eyed my Android accusingly. Would they confiscate my phone? Force me to delete my pictures? I breathed small sigh of relief knowing that I had already sent one photo of the smokestacks to Mikey before I had approached the guards–I’d at least have one piece of evidence remaining that they couldn’t delete.

The guards were not happy to discover a 'tourist' taking photos of the Syncrude project.

The guards were not happy to discover a ‘tourist’ taking photos of the Syncrude project.

The guard was radioing someone else, saying ‘Yes, we have the person here who was taking photos. Yes.’ My God. They had spotted me with my phone and reported it already–they were watching out for things like this!! Not a surprise, with all of the negative press the oil sands had been getting these days, but it was something else to actually experience it. My heart was hammering in my chest. How much trouble was I in?

I wrinkled up my nose and popped my eyes wide open. ‘I heard you could go on tours up here, but only in the Summertime. They told me at the Discovery Centre that this was one of the sights to see up here, they said I should just drive up. I didn’t realize it would be a problem!’

The guard seemed to buy my story and innocent act, and radioed back, ‘It’s just a tourist. Yes.’ Phew. She was still looking at my phone, so I wasn’t sure if I was out of harm’s way just yet.

‘Gee, sorry to cause trouble. I guess I’d better turn around.’ The woman leaned into the car, her face friendly and conspiratorial now. ‘Yes, you can just pull around here. Just don’t take any more pictures, okay?’

‘Sure!’ I exclaimed cheerfully, ‘No problem!’ Wow, I nearly got busted. If I had spoken to them they way I’d spoken to the interpreters in the Discovery Centre, I’m sure I would have been detained. It felt like I was at a checkpoint in a war zone there for a minute. I felt like I’d really dodged a bullet.

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I managed to get in a little closer and take more photos despite my brush with the security guards.

I swung my car around and drove down the opposite road, which led towards the highway, but took a detour at the parking lot. I was out of their sight now, and I wasn’t quite finished with my recon. I pulled into a parking lot meant for busses that brought in the workers, and snapped a few more photos surreptitiously from the car. My heart was racing the whole time. If I got spotted taking more photos after I’d been told not to, I had no idea what might happen. I jumped at the sound of a honking horn, and realized a bus had crept up behind me wanting my space. I quickly pulled out and drove in a little closer to the fence and took a few more shots, and then I sped away (as fast as one can speed in falling snow). My paranoia was in full bloom. How much surveillance did they have, if they’d picked up on me taking those photos so quickly? I wanted to get away before there was any further trouble.

I returned to the highway and drove back to the Suncor project. I decided to check it out since I was there anyway, and Suncor hadn’t yet targeted me as a potential threat. It was true what the girl at Starbucks had told me, there was really nothing to see, just a big parking lot and some fenced-in buildings. Suncor had cleverly kept its development well away from the highway, and had positioned its smokestacks far from the prying eyes of visitors. I could see no evidence in the deep fog of any real industrial activities, save for the whisper of a few smoke stacks off in the distance that meshed in with the white, low-hanging clouds.

But I was satisfied. I had seen the true face of the Tar Sands, even if I hadn’t been able to witness the scarred land, or the enormous tailings ponds. I had seen much more than I had expected, and the reactions of the guards confirmed their insecurity to me–they had a lot to hide.

With a light heart I zipped back to the B&B, packed up my things and headed to the airport. Fort Mac had revealed some of her secrets to me, and I was very pleased indeed.

Nothing to see here–the Suncor project was very carefully tucked away from prying eyes, the best view I could get was of a few buildings behind chain-linked fence.

Nothing to see here–the Suncor project was very carefully tucked away from prying eyes,
the best view I was able to get was of a few buildings behind a chain-linked fence.

On my flight home later that night, I found myself sitting alongside a worker from the Syncrude plant. What are the chances? We had a great discussion, and I gave him the link to my blog. I hope he reads it and finds it educational if nothing else.

Please share this blog with others, so all Canadians can learn more about the large industrial projects happening in this country. 

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About jensera

Jennifer Harrington is a Toronto-based illustrator, writer and graphic designer. She illustrated the best-selling children’s book series 'A Moose in a Maple Tree,' which includes the titles 'A Moose in a Maple Tree,' 'The Night Before a Canadian Christmas' and 'Canadian Jingle Bells.' She is also the owner of JSH Graphics, a boutique graphic design agency that specializes in print and web advertising. With her latest project, Eco Books 4 Kids, Jennifer has partnered with illustrator Michael Arnott to create a series of ecologically-themed ebooks for children. Her next book, 'Spirit Bear,' is due for release in the Summer of 2013. Jennifer offers two different school presentations for her 'Moose in a Maple Tree' collection, an illustration demonstration and a Christmas concert series, which can be booked at www.amooseinamapletree.com. She will be taking bookings for school readings of 'Spirit Bear' beginning in October 2013.

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