The Aspen Oil Sands Project, Imperial Oil’s $2.6 billion, new in-situ oilsands project will eventually produce 150,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd). It is under construction.

Foster Creek Oil Sands Expansion Project — Cenovus — $2 billion, adding 40,000 bpd — under construction.

Lewis/Meadow Creek East/Meadow Creek West SAGD Oil Sands Projects — Suncor — $2 billion, around 200,000 bpd from different projects — proposed.

Narrows Lake In Situ Oil Sands Project — Cenovus — $1.6 billion — 130,000 bpd — proposed, currently deferred.

What is our problem here?

Why the tears and teeth-gnashing over the indefinite postponement of the TECK Frontier open-pit bitumen mining proposal in the oilsands, when environmentally acceptable in-situ oilsands projects are lined up around the block?


A quick oilsands refresher: There are two ways of extracting heavy oil (bitumen) from the oilsands, open-pit mining and in-situ.

Open-pit involves surface mining with huge shovels and trucks, primary processing plants and vast artificial lakes known as tailing ponds. Open-pit works when the oil seams are close to the surface.

In-situ does the primary processing underground using injected hot steam or solvents, then pumps the bitumen to the surface. This ingenious technology is also referred to as SAGD or steam-assisted gravity drainage. In-situ works when the oil seams are 100 metres or more underground.

There’s plenty of both geological formations in the oilsands. Just using one or the other would last for hundreds of years.

The costs are about the same to construct and operate both. Even though profit margins have been reduced by pipeline constraints and slightly low world oil prices, new in-situ plants continue to be built. More than half the 2.5 million barrels of Canadian bitumen produced daily come from in-situ operations.

What am I getting at here?

Simple: In-situ is the way of the future. It’s cleaner, neater, has a tiny industrial footprint compared to the open-pit industrial sites the size of downtown Edmonton. And there are no tailing ponds — that which drives the greenies crazy.

The regulators and the federal government can tolerate in-situ. It looks clean. It can lower its CO2 emissions more easily than the open-pit projects.

It’s way easier for all concerned to quietly approve and build dozens of smaller in-situ projects rather than rouse the enemy with one or two massive open-pit proposals.

I’m not sure why the provincial government has its knickers all in a knot over the TECK Frontier withdrawal. Just add up the production if all the approved in-situ projects go ahead; another 1.5 million barrels of bitumen could come out of Fort McMurray per day, adding 60 per cent more oil to today’s supply.

So why did TECK, with the support of the provincial government, waste a billion dollars lining up its ducks for an approval permit that wasn’t going to happen … or would have been issued with so many conditions as to be financially impossible?

Obviously, some kind of climate change/resource development deal has to be made/will be made between Alberta and Canada — a compromise allowing the federal Liberals to get to their treasured zero emissions by 2050, yet still accommodate resource development.

Nobody’s yet talking about the lower emissions per barrel coming from in-situ bitumen.

Nobody’s talking about the wind farm cluster in the Medicine Hat to Lethbridge wind corridor. Another three have been proposed, respectively at $200 million, $300 million and $500 million. That’s a healthy chunk of change.

Nobody’s talking about carbon capture, being touted by the Intergovernmental  Panel on Climate Change as the third tool to lower global carbon emissions (after renewables and nuclear power). Alberta has two of the biggest carbon capture projects in the world — the $1.26 billion Alberta Carbon Trunk Line and the $1.35 billion Quest project.

Economically, nobody’s talking about the Industrial Heartland. The mighty industrial zone outside Fort Saskatchewan has set a goal of attracting $30 billion of new capital investment from 2020 to 2030 and is already at $8 billion, thanks to two new petrochemical plants.

The overall point of this column? We don’t need any more environmentally unacceptable open-pit mines in the oilsands! Between in-situ oil projects, carbon capture, natural gas production and wind farms, we can keep growing our energy-based economy in ways acceptable to the new world in which we live.

And yes, Mr. Trudeau, ensuring more pipelines actually get built is a must.