Tar Sands Tourism

Tar Sands Tourism: an excursion through Alberta’s controversial new tourist industry

It might not top your vacation list, but Alberta’s Wood Buffalo region certainly offers the seasoned traveler something unique.  Where else can you go for a stroll in woodland built on the site of a former mine, ogle at 850-tonne mining equipment, spend a day learning about bitumen extraction and take in the world’s largest industrial development project by helicopter?

Welcome to Fort McMurray, the epicentre of Alberta’s new oil boom, where tourism might not mean going for a dip in the lake and the sand might not feel so soft under your feet, but there’s certainly plenty to see and do.

“Our tourism industry is not built specifically around the oil sands,” says Gina Dobbie of Fort McMurray Tourism, explaining that the region has long been an attraction for hunters, fishers and tourists looking to catch a glimpse of the spectacular Aurora Borealis.  She adds, “The opportunity to take a tour of the first successful oil sands company and to visit the award winning Oil Sands Discovery Centre are high on the list of things to do.”

What’s behind this new industry?  Is it just gloss for what the United Nations Environment Program has dubbed one of the world’s top 100 hotspots of ecologically degradation?  Or is oil sands tourism merely taking account of the new face of Alberta’s north?  And who goes to Northern Alberta on vacation, anyway? 

Wood Bison Trails

About 40 kilometres north of the city stand two bison carved out of stone at the side of the highway.  This is the Wood Bison Trails, a former mine that Syncrude, the biggest oil sands company, has successfully reclaimed and turned into forestland.  You can choose from three paths to hike, depending on your sense of adventure.  The longest one boasts an impressive view of Northern Alberta wilderness—and an odd close-up of the Suncor refinery.  The other distraction is the rather pungent smell.  Is that gasoline?

Back at the starting point, Nirav Patel is showing his family around the park.  I ask him if there’s much to see in Fort McMurray.

“One or two days is enough,” he huffs.  An engineer working at Syncrude, he has come out to explain to his family the difference between oil extraction here and back home in India.  The park is just a place to let the kids loose for a few minutes. 

Syncrude says that the 104-hectare park is just one of 4,624 hectares they’ve successfully reclaimed in the region, but just exactly what that means has critics wondering.  Mike Hudema of Greenpeace Alberta says the site is the only one in the province to have received a reclamation certificate from the government.  “The site was where the overburden was kept, so it was much easier to reclaim than the huge mines or toxic lakes,” he says, referring to the massive tailings ponds around the mines.  A tailings pond is where the water used in the separation process, now contaminated with refuse from mining, is stored.  Syncrude says the reason they have yet to reclaim a tailings pond is that it’s such a long process, one which they are investing heavily in.

Wood Bison Viewpoint

Five minutes up the road I run into more bison: real ones this time.  The Wood Bison Viewpoint is a patch of grassland where Syncrude initially brought 30 bison to graze.  The population is now up to 300.

Although it’s a bit of a stretch to see them (they’re in a pen about 200 metres from the viewing area) the sight of bison is exciting.  It’s the first wild animals I’ve seen on my trip. 

Architect Terry Langis is taking pictures of the bison with a telephoto lens.  He tells me that Fort McMurray is no stranger to tourism.  “Professionals come to see the technology, and Europeans come for the wilderness.  They can’t believe the open space.”

To the south the wilderness does seem to stretch on forever.  Beyond the bison pasture is a field of maturing trees planted by Syncrude.  The view ahead is serene: a bison calf stumbles towards its mother, birds caw from somewhere in the forest behind.  Just don’t look north.

There, barely hidden behind a couple trees, stands Syncrude’s coking facility at Mildred Lake, the glow of its perpetual flame reflected in the tailings pond in front of it.  Controversy arose last month when 500 migrating ducks drowned in one of these ponds.  It kind of spoils the moment.

Giants of Mining

Across the street is the Giants of Mining exhibit.  Here Syncrude has left some of the enormous machinery used in an earlier stage of mining.

Until recently all mining was done by these huge excavators, called bucket wheels.  A giant wheel with teeth would spin around, pummelling through the earth and sending the oil-soaked sand back along conveyor belts, which would be trucked off for processing.  At night the heat would cause the teeth to glow red in the dark.  Today the bucket wheel is being abandoned in favour of the simpler truck and shovel method.

At the back of the bucket wheel is a freight box that acts as a counterweight to the wheel.  Underneath, sparrows and crows have built nests, their own peculiar way of adapting to the surroundings.

Jenilee Purcell is impressed by the big machines but disappointed that she wasn’t able to get on one of the plant tours.  “I really wanted to go onsite and see the big loaders,” she says.  I ask her if she came here on holiday.  “I came to see my family,” she laughs.  “This isn’t the kind of place you go on vacation.”

Oil Sands Discovery Centre

Back downtown to the Oil Sands Discovery Centre.  We arrive in time for an outdoor tour of the Discovery Centre gardens, where they have assembled some more of the old machines, including a 6-storey bucket wheel nicknamed Cyrus.

Inside, the exhibits focus on the science behind tar sands mining.  You can look at bitumen, the substance used to synthesize crude oil, through a microscope and watch how it is separated from sand.  You learn that the oil sands were likely created from marine plankton and other organic material millions of years ago.  You can pretend to drive an actual size dump truck (the kind used in today’s truck and shovel mining), while listening to audio of the CB radio and watching video of different mining sites. 

In the theatre, a demonstration is being given of how oil is extracted from tar sands.  The guide shows how the simple principle that oil and water don’t mix drives the process.  She adds boiling water to a beaker of tar sands and stirs the mixture up.  Soon the solution separates, with the sand sinking to the bottom and a thin line of bitumen remaining on the top.  She scoops out a sample and passes it around for us to smell.  It reminds me of the Wood Bison Trail odour.

At the end of the presentation I ask about the elephant in the room.  “Is this a fairly clean process?”

The guide responds simply, “They’re making it as clean as they can.”

In the Environment section, exhibits document the process of monitoring air quality and water toxicity and the local beaver population.  However, none of the exhibits seems to mention that tar sands mining may be responsible for these problems.  When I ask why there is no information on the substantial criticisms the tar sands have received, I’m directed to a branch of the provincial government.

“The role of the Centre is to tell the story of the history, science, and technology of the oil sands and its industry,” says Shawna Cass from Alberta Culture and Community Spirit, the office that supports the Centre.  “The information provided on the environmental impact of mining oil sands is also an important part of the story, and focuses on land reclamation, air monitoring and water issues.”

The response sounds similar to industry claims about the greenness of oil sands mining.

“This is the biggest concern with the Oil Sands Discovery Centre,” says Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute.  “They do an adequate job explaining the technical aspects of oil sands development, but do not provide a balanced commentary on potential impacts.”

Tar sands tourism: a new industry?

Tar sands tourism may be a different way to spend your week off, but has limited appeal if you want to hear more than the industry line.  Certainly, everyone I met was there to visit family.  But with production expected to expand to as much as 2 billion barrels per day by 2010 (up from 1.26 billion in 2006), the dusty city of Fort McMurray is likely far from seeing its last tourist.

Originally written in 2008. Photos by Robin Jones.


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