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Once upon a time in the oil sands…

Of 70 oil sands deposits presently identified on the planet only two are currently active on the world’s oil sands stage.

Of 70 oil sands deposits presently identified on the planet only two are currently active on the world’s oil sands stage.

Alberta’s sands region is light years ahead of the other in development and production.

Alberta’s Athabasca Oil Sands currently produce more than one million barrels a day; Venezuela’s Orinoco Sands produce 55,000.

Experts estimate these two deposits hold three quarters of the world’s oil sands reserves: Alberta’s Athabasca Oil Sands — 1.7 to 2.5 trillion barrels, Venezuela — 1.7 trillion barrels.

This article, and those to follow, are focused on the Athabasca Oil Sands, which are one part of Alberta’s carbonate triangle.

This triangle includes other oil sands deposits at Cold Lake and Peace River, Alberta.

The Athabasca Sands are apparently unique in the world; they are the only sands shallow enough to be surface mined.

The others require underground drilling and injection of steam, or as the industry calls them, “in situ” methods.

The origin story of the Athabasca Oil Sands begins with the formation of the oil itself.

“The oil sands deposits are the remains of marine life inhabiting an ancient ocean which covered what today is Alberta,” suggests Brent Soderbergh in a paper from Uppsala University, Sweden.

This once lowly, sticky, black stuff, described as akin to putty mixed with coffee, was discovered by Canada’s First Nations people.

They put it to good use waterproofing their dwellings and one of their masterpieces — the seams of birch-bark canoes.

The Fort McMurray Oil Sands Discovery Centre tells us a Cree named Wa-Pa-Su, (the Swan), presented a sample of the sands for trade to the Hudson’s Bay Companies Henry Kelsey in 1719, making him the first European to handle the stuff.

Alexander McKenzie noted them in his diary as “bituminous fountains,” in 1788.

About a century later, along came an explorer with long-range vision.

His diary entry read: “That this region is stored with a substance of great economic value is beyond all doubt, and, when the hour of development comes, it will, I believe, prove to be one of the wonders of northern Canada.”

It was 1889, he was a member of the Geological Survey of Canada, the Liard Expedition.

And what a wonder it has become; a giant, wrapped in an enigma.

This chronicler’s words are an appropriate opening of the great Canadian tarsands story. Like many Canadian stories, the sands gathered more early naysayers than believers.

Nonetheless the tenacity of the believers eventually brought about our surveyors “hour of development.”

The first attempt to exploit the oil sands began nearly a century ago, when oil pioneers tried conventional drilling techniques. The nickname they gave the town, “Fort MuckMurray,” suggests their efforts met problems along the way.

These early pioneers believed, like Alexander McKenzie, all that surface sticky stuff was pointing to giant oil pools below waiting to be tapped.

Their theory was wrong, but each failed experiment in the muck took the industry a step closer to discovering the bitumen’s secret.

Several decades later, on September 30, 1967, at the opening of the first oil sands oil production project, then Alberta Premier Manning predicted: “no other event in Canada’s centennial year is more important or significant.”

Few twigged to the fact another oil sands prophet had spoken.

To achieve this opening of the Great Canadian Oil Sands project, Sun Oil, now Suncor Energy Ltd., had, in 1963, made the largest single, private sector investment in Canadian history up to that time.

Their $250,000,000 investment began the journey toward fulfillment of the pioneer’s dreams.

Nevertheless the tarsands remained a skeptical glint in the eyes of the many living in an oil dependent world voraciously using dwindling supplies of conventional oil.

Fast forward four decades to when Suncor CEO Rick George recalled, “Our entry into the oil sands business was deemed a daring venture into an unknown field.”

In 2006 Suncor produced its billionth barrel of oil.

Its new target is to double its daily production, from today’s 260,000 barrels to 500,000 barrels of crude a day between 2010 and 2012.

Not surprisingly, other companies have joined them in ensuing years.

Syncrude, now the biggest, and Canadian National Resources Ltd, one of the newest, and though still under construction is vying to become the biggest.

These three, and an international medley of companies and consortiums have turned the ‘bituminous fountains’ into a blazing fire in the belly of everyone in our oil hungry world.

The oil sands story begins like all fairy tales.

Once upon a time, 10,000 years before Christ, our scientific fellows say there was a gigantic glacial lake in western Canada,

They named it Lake Agassiz.

It covered a large part of Alberta, Saskatchewan, some of Manitoba, and extended south into the US and drained into the Gulf of Mexico.

In world comparisons, scientists estimated Agassiz to have been twice the size of Russia’s Caspian Sea, the world’s largest lake.

In Canadian comparison Agassiz was about seven times the total volume of all of the modern Great Lakes combined.

As we are all acutely aware today, the Earth’s climate is always changing with, and without our help. Ice ages came and went at the whim of natural forces.

Glaciers contained this gigantic body of water and, in the end, wiped it out, or at least it appears climate change did.

The story goes the glaciers tortuously slow, haphazard movement in an earthly warm spell eventually blocked the lake’s southward drainage.

With nowhere to go it was like pulling the plug on this “inland ocean of fresh water.”

It broke loose at the northern end, and hurtled north spilling into the Arctic Ocean.

Here Agassiz’s story enters the realm of Harry Potter.

Our scientific storytellers claim Lake Agassiz’s waters affected the whole planet, raising the level of water in all the oceans of the world at least six centimetres.

Researchers in other disciplines, and from a totally different perspective, have even speculated that some of the flood myths of some ancient peoples could have originated as a result of this cataclysmic global event.

In its headlong rush north, it is said, the waters of the lake roared through the northern landscape like a marauding giant, tearing the land asunder, yet among the geographical carnage left in its wake a legacy for Canada.

Many scientists are convinced Lake Agassiz’s floodwaters exposed the Athabasca Oil Sands.

It seems we may be benefiting today from a previous period of global warming, doesn’t it?

Anyway, these floodwaters may have revealed another wonder though my research hasn’t proven that yet — the Quarry of the Ancestors.

Writer Deborah Jaremko’s article, The Oilsands of the Ancient Hunter, in the 2006 Oil Sands Review magazine tells the rest of the story of this fascinating quarry.

This quarry was uncovered in the search for more of today’s sands.

A limestone-rich quarry, now protected, has released almost 400,000 First Nations people’s artifacts to date.

The high-quality tools, crafted by skilled artisans have been found in archeological digs great distances from the quarry, yet the experts assure us they unquestionably came from there, suggesting a huge manufacturing industry and associated trading area.

These artifacts reveal another positive aspect of the sands’ fascinating story. One researcher reported: “The Athabasca Lowlands of northern Alberta contain some of the highest density pre-contact archeological sites in North America.

Long before the Egyptians were building pyramids the people of the Athabasca were building boats, making complex micro-stone tools and hunting mammoth.

“They travelled by boat trading goods from the Arctic to the Pacific and south into the central US. A shard of dried flesh on an arrowhead from the quarry still held the DNA of a mammoth. This confirmed the researchers’ report, and that these people were courageous hunters as well as skilled artisans.

Giant lakes, giant cataclysmic geological events, giant creatures roaming these valleys — people are turning resources such as the quarry into a giant economic venture.

Now we inherit the legacy of the tarsands, a gigantic economic venture responsible for creating 250,000 jobs in Canada.

Giants and giant events have become common to these valleys.

Some of the limestone near the Quarry of the Ancestors has shifted priorities.

It is now purifying air and water, helping in the oil-extraction process, as well as providing a source of construction aggregate for the colossal extraction projects.

Lake Agassiz had its way with this region of Canada. Time, nature, the sun, the universe perhaps have colluded and repaired the carnage the lake left and now our generations benefit.

Along with reaping the rewards of Lake Agassiz’s legacy comes opportunity — the opportunity to leave a legacy for those who follow — legacy, perhaps even more powerful than our inheritance, a legacy of restoration.

Flights of fantasy are allowed when predicting the future, and Syncrude already maintains a herd of more than 300 buffalo, which are roaming the forests near the operation.

Could they one day restore the broken circle of the Buffalo People, and become thousands?

Then people of the future would say, the oil sustained a people, and now the buffalo have returned and the circle of life continues.

Dreams can go wherever we want, but legacies are reality. The people of oil sands country are living one, and spawning another, their own.

From “one of the most technologically advanced mining operations on the planet” people are earning hands-on experience and knowledge that they can share with others around the world.

Perhaps some will take their skills to some of the other sands deposits in North America.

The ultimate key to success will be found in their bag of tools: they’ll know how to “do it green,” and everyone will be happy.