In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

Fort McMurray - Tour of the Albion Oil Sands Mining Operation

Posted 8/15/2008 by Grant Mitchell


I went to Fort Mac this week with Michael Ignatieff to tour the Albion oil sands mines owned principally by Shell. This was a very memorable and impressive experience. We also met with a municipal councilor, his assistant, and the city’s economic development officer (counter intuitive, I know, but there are huge developmental issues facing the city).

Over the years, I have toured many plants and facilities of various kinds which are the product of remarkable engineering, construction and operational feats. This facility and the people who run it are no exception. The people we met at the plant were clearly professional, dedicated, and frank in their presentations and answers to questions. They were never defensive, even when we asked about issues that you could imagine might be sensitive to them. They were also rightly very proud of what they have accomplished, the magnitude of their day to day work, their exceptional capability of doing it, and the contribution they make to the national economy.

I am left with many impressions:

1. The development of the oil sands is perhaps the magnitude of building the Canadian National Railway from coast to coast. It may also have defining impact on the forging of Canada's status in the world - not as significant as our contribution at Vimy, but big nonetheless.

2. The people of Fort Mac exude a feeling that they are part of something big and significant, that they are together in a world-class adventure. I spoke to one young woman from Ontario who was on a strong career track in Ottawa but who had given it all up to shake her life up and to be part of something, a special adventure.

3. It is not all roses. There are huge infrastructural shortcomings as the municipal authorities and companies try to keep up with the demands of 10% annual growth rates. There are Toronto-like three hour commutes along the one two-lane highway that takes workers to some of the largest oil sands plants. Costs of constructing municipal facilities sky rocket because of the difficulty to get enough workers and the inflating construction materials cost. There is no more development downtown because the sewage system cannot accommodate it. The two lane highway to the city from the south is dangerous. There is onerously inadequate housing available.

4. Awesome is an entirely appropriate description of the mining project that we saw, from the size of the trucks to the size of the hole.

5. The question of the environment is on peoples' minds, not least the company employees who wrestle with these questions as part of the territory of working in these projects. They do not take this lightly. Strides have been made in reducing water usage, reclamation is a clear focus, and efforts are made to reduce nox and sox with good success. Where much more still has to be done is in the area of greenhouse gases.

Climate Change:

Yes, they are thinking and acting on this to some extent. But, I think it is safe to say that they see action here as trade of with economic development and therefore a threat to their jobs and future investment.

It is very frustrating to see that the default position is to focus on negative consequences of climate change initiatives that simply do not have to occur.

Alberta produces a great deal of GHG, but we have one major advantage in dealing with it. We do not have to go to a million sources to deal with it. Not like, for example, Quebec where 60 % of their emissions come from automobiles and trucks. The vast bulk of Alberta’s emissions probably come from 5 or 6 oil sands plants and 5 or 6 coal fired electrical plants.  The trick is to find a way to capture it. People say there is not the technology. Well, there certainly wasn’t the technology to extract oil from the oil sands economically when all that started and they just started one step at a time. I would wager that capturing CO2 from these plants will absolutely pale in comparison to the effort and commitment that has gone into the oil sands.

What is needed is leadership and Conservative leadership is an oxymoron.

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