Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Tar Sands Open Front in northern Saskatchewan

This story, a small community of desperately poor people who at first will welcome tar sand extraction as a possible panacea against the ravages of historical colonialism and modern poverty, is not a new one. The location is, however, and it signifies a new escalation in tarsand production. It is interesting noting their concerns about capacity in pipes that already exist in Alberta. The possibility of building the infrastructure in Saskatchewan will add another massive dimension to what is already the largest such project in the history of the Earth.

The problem of capacity on the existing pipelines, however, is not incurable-- the massive new pipelines that Enbridge wants to build South East to proposed new refineries in places such as Pennsylvania and existing refineries (including Montreal and Toronto) that can handle heavy bitumen out East.

The pipeline capacity is the Achilles Heel of the whole process; Stop their pipes they can't make heavy bitumen and refine it into synthetic oil.


Drills strike 'elation' in north
Murray Lyons, The StarPhoenix
Published: Thursday, March 22, 2007

AXE LAKE PROJECT -- Darryl Janvier and John Marsolier both agree the millions of dollars being spent on drilling into the Saskatchewan side of the McMurray oilsands formation could lead to a longterm economic bonanza for this province.

Janvier is a labourer from the largely Metis community of La Loche. With a knack for fixing mechanical things, he has found a good-paying job at the Oilsands Quest Inc. exploration camp, located 700 kilometres north of Saskatoon.

The work includes doing maintenance on the company generators, some carpentry and general cleanup.

He points out his grandfather, Jules Janvier, once ran a trap line not too far from where Oilsands Quest has its camp.

Darryl Janvier says he's satisfied, from what he has seen this winter, that oil development can occur without being disruptive to the environment. He hopes he can be one of the people kept on this summer to help maintain the camps until next winter's drilling season.

"The land has burnt out," he said, referring to the damage to the spindly jack pine trees by recent forest fires. "Our hope right now for our future is education for our kids, trying to get them to try and stay in school. There are no jobs in the community." Other people from La Loche have also found employment recently, including Mary Moise and 22-year-old Kelsey Janvier, who has been working on keeping the camp living quarters clean. Another La Loche resident, Dean Janvier, 39, has been hired to do kitchen preparation work.

Chris Hopkins, president and CEO of the publicly traded Oilsands Quest Inc, says his company wants to be known as a good employer and a good environmental steward by people in local communities. He says the local Metis communities have not had a fair shake in the past and he is hoping the company can work with community leaders to get skill levels up in more direct oilsands work so higher-end, better- paying jobs will go to local people.

Hopkins says the company is out to do what it can to support local suppliers.

For example, Marsolier is the owner of the Esso bulk plant in Meadow Lake and has been satisfying the camp's massive thirst for diesel fuel. It's a 13-hour return trip by road from Meadow Lake to the Axe Lake camp.

"It pretty much employed another guy at our office," Marsolier said. "We go up there twice a week with two semi loads each time." At the height of employment levels this winter, Oilsands Quest had more than 200 people in camp. In total, nearly $50 million will have been spent in this winter's program, including drilling, "shooting" seismic lines and continuing a road and camp infrastructure construction program to support what they expect will be a long-term exploration project, perhaps leading to a full-blown production unit producing 50,000 to 100,000 barrels of oil a day by the next decade.

Looking long-term, Hopkins says there is no real reason for Saskatchewan bitumen to flow west through Alberta.

He says capacity problems in pipelines there are already an issue with the number of projects in Alberta, and he sees no reason why there shouldn't be a direct pipeline to the heavy oil upgrader in Lloydminster from the Saskatchewan oilsands.

Only two years ago, some people were dismissive of the idea there was a major oilsands deposit on the Saskatchewan side of the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.

Later this year, however, Oilsands Quest could be in a position to announce a reserve estimate of a deposit containing several billion barrels of oil in place.

Insider knowledge that bitumen existed on the Saskatchewan side goes back more than 30 years. In fact, the two areas chosen last winter by Oilsands Quest for their first drill pads were based on drilling done in 1974 and 1976, when separate work was done by Crowsnest Resources and a subsidiary of the former Gulf Canada.

Errin Kimball, a geologist and vicepresident of exploration for the company and an associate with Hopkins in past Alberta oilsands ventures, says it was an exciting day last winter when the first drilling target hit pay dirt in a bitumen core.

"After the first hole came in, the feeling was elation," the Edmonton-based geologist said.

Hopkins was also on site that day when it happened.

"For me, it was a feeling of relief after spending $20 million and cutting 52 kilometres of roadway." In fact, the next drilling pad discovered no bitumen at all. But since then, more than 80 per cent of the holes drilled into the formation have found oilsands deposits.

During the past six months, the infrastructure of the camp has grown enormously, including three semi-permanent living camps and a road network to serve the drilling process that has spilled out beyond the 36 sections (square miles) of what is so far the core discovery deposit known as Axe Lake.

During a media visit to the Oilsands Quest site, camp manager Morris Kimball (the geologist's father) pointed out the presence of an inspector from Saskatchewan Environment.

Kimball says Oilsands Quest has nothing to hide about the way it has gone about its work and set up its camps. He pointed out four modular container- sized units the company has brought in to the main camp that treat water and do biological sewage treatment, which allows the camp to pump the treated effluent into the bush safely.

The camp also burns waste wood and paper to reduce the amount of solid garbage and has even banned foam cups to reduce the environmental footprint.

However, there have been some frustrating waits in the past few years with Oilsands Quest having to get regulatory approvals. The company had been asking the province since last October for permission to build a 1,600-metre gravel runway on level ground about a kilometre from the main camp. By January, when permission still had not come from Saskatchewan regulatory authorities in Regina, the company had to build an ice runway on a nearby lake that was by then frozen more than one metre thick. In the beginning, it took a full year before Saskatchewan gave Oilsands Quest the approval to go drilling in 2005, but Hopkins avoids criticizing the provincial NDP government.

"It took them about a year to give us approval," he said. "The reason why is simple. There was no oilsands industry in the province and there was no regulatory framework whatsoever for the approval of oilsands exploration in the province.

"They needed time to do that framework. There is nothing bad about that, so I'm not pointing fingers.

They didn't know there was oilsands here. They were starting from scratch, just like we were." mlyons@sp.canwest.com

© The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) 2007

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