On a map of northern Canada, Fort McMurray marks where the highway ends. But it’s the starting point for much of the fuel that runs vehicles in the Coulee Region.
The sands of north Alberta — not the Middle East — provide most of the petroleum that becomes gasoline sold in the La Crosse area.
A pipeline channels that Canadian crude to the Flint Hills Resources Pine Bend Refinery in Rosemount, Minn.
La Crosse-based Kwik Trip is among its primary customers. A fleet of 110 tanker trucks ferries gasoline and diesel fuel 24 hours a day from the refinery to the company’s 363 convenience stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
The Tribune traced petroleum’s path from the forests of Canada to the pumps.
It’s a route that keeps the region from relying on crude oil from overseas. But it also has raised questions about the environmental costs, both to Canada and Wisconsin.
Alberta’s oil sands region yields about half of the petroleum converted into local gasoline. Production averages about 1.5 million barrels a day, and that’s expected to go up to 1.8 million by 2012, according to estimates by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
The mixture of sand and thick, tar-like bitumen is mined from the earth with huge shovels, many of them Wisconsin-made.
Large amounts of water are used to separate the oil from the sand — about two to three gallons of water for every barrel of oil, said Don Thompson, president of the Oil Sands Developers Group. Natural gas-fired power plants provide the electricity needed for the energy-intensive process.
Large-scale oil sands mining in the Fort McMurray area dates back to the late 1960s through the Great Canadian Oil Sands, now known as Suncor Energy Inc., said Thompson, a former oil company executive who now lives in Calgary.
Another company, Syncrude, began mining the oil sands in the late 1970s, Thompson said in a telephone interview.
But oil sand production remained limited until the price of a barrel of oil rose enough to justify the expense of oil sand mining, and the quality of technology improved, Thompson said.
Now, about 208 square miles of northern Alberta have been cleared for mines, tailing ponds and “upgraders,” plants that provide some refining before the oil is sent by pipeline to the United States and elsewhere.
The large tailing ponds are needed to recycle the water used to unlock the oil from the sand, Thompson said.
“You wash the oil out of the oil sand by adding hot water and a pinch of caustic soda. Swirl it around and the oil and sand separate. The sand sinks to the bottom and the oil stays on the top,” he explained.
“Because there are too many solids in the remaining water to recycle it, you flush it all out to a big pond. The water stills and the fine clay and the sands fall out, leaving relatively clean water on top. That you recycle.”
Ninety percent of the water can be reused in time, he said.
‘It’s like the gold rush’
The oil sands also have made the Fort McMurray area a boomtown, where young people work long hours to make big paychecks and housing is so scarce even the smallest home sells for $300,000 or more.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Erin T. Roth, executive director of the Wisconsin Petroleum Council, who has toured the area. “It’s like the gold rush.”
One of the oil companies flew Roth and other industry representatives from Calgary to Fort McMurray.
“In the middle of nowhere, there’s this big landing strip,” Roth said. “All of a sudden, a 747 flies by us and lands. They shuttle employees back and forth. People come from as far away as Nova Scotia to work there.”
The average driver of a big mining truck makes about $110,000 a year, he said. Half of them are women.
State Sen. Jeff Plale, a Democrat from South Milwaukee who visited the Canadian oil sands area two years ago, also noted the “cowboy boomtown” atmosphere.
“It’s almost a throwback ... They (workers) fly in on a Thursday, work straight through to the next Tuesday and then fly home,” Plale said. “It’s a mass exodus and mass entrance ... It’s very long hours, very grueling work — and very dirty work.”
Flying over the Fort McMurray area last November, the first thing Peter Taglia noticed was the vast industrial development, strip mines and tailing ponds — all carved from what had been boreal forest.
The tailing ponds are so large, it’s raised concerns about waterfowl that might mistake the oil-laden water for a rest stop, said Taglia, a Madison geologist and staff scientist for the environmental group Clean Wisconsin.
About 500 migrating ducks perished in April 2008 after landing in a tailing pond, according the March 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The mining pits are huge, Plale said, and the process leaves behind giant mountains of sulfur.
“Any time you’re pulling anything out of the ground, there’s going to be environmental concerns,” Plale said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Taglia met with representatives of Pembina, the largest environmental group in Alberta, and said the worry is the oil sands industry is growing too fast to offset the environmental damage produced.
“We need to slow it down and do much more than they have been doing to deal with the impacts,” Taglia said. “Some of the things they are doing will help the carbon footprint.”
Still, Taglia came away impressed by the attitude of the oil companies.
“One of the things we found out on this trip was that the Canadian oil companies were not hiding,” he said. “It wasn’t just industry telling us they’re doing good things. They showed us bad stuff and admitted they did have a higher carbon footprint. And they did say they use a lot of water. That’s different from what I hear from American companies. It was refreshing honesty.”
Roth also had a chance to see two oil sand mining reclamation sites. Companies are required to reclaim a site within 15 years of ending mining.
One site “actually had buffalo roaming on it,” he said.
When the Alberta surface mines play out decades from now, the bitumen will be obtained from far underground — through a process called “in situ” that injects steam into the ground to melt the bitumen so it can be pumped to the surface.
Both oil extraction processes have been under scrutiny in Wisconsin as the state government considers a low-carbon fuel standard.
Petroleum industry representatives say that standard could force the state to turn away from the heavy Canadian crude oil, because it requires more energy to extract and refine, and use more light crude from the Middle East or more politically volatile sources.
It’s better for the U.S. to use oil from a friendly neighbor, said Thompson, the former oil company executive.
“If not Canada, where are you going to get it?” he asked. “Iraq? Iran? Libya? Venezuela?”