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Scientists explore cleaner oilsands extraction methods

In 1967, a new age began for Canada's oil industry when the oilsands of Alberta finally began yielding their long-sought riches. As the environmental and health impacts of oilsands production emerged, scientists looked for ways to obtain the oil more cleanly. Today the oilsands keep Alberta's economy humming, but opponents say it's a dirty business whose true cost has yet to be realized.

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If there's one thing that oil executives and environmentalists can agree on, it's that the method for extracting oil from the oilsands is expensive and destructive. It's a problem that researchers at the University of Calgary are addressing by experimenting with new methods - such as steam extraction and igniting the sand - that don't involve scooping up massive quantities of oil-laden sand. In this 1975 report for the CBC-TV show Science Magazine, David Suzuki talks to the project leader about his efforts to make the most of dwindling fuel reserves.
• The type of petroleum yielded from the oilsands is called bitumen, a thick, viscous substance that must be processed into synthetic crude oil. In its raw form, bitumen can be used to pave roads.
  • According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the combustion method of extracting bitumen (described in this clip) proved "uneconomic." However, a process call Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) did prove successful in yielding clean bitumen. SAGD is just one of several in situ extraction methods that oil companies tout as cleaner than the more conventional surface-mining method.

• Dr. Doug Bennion, interviewed in this clip, said in 2010 that the combustion method - which involves heating the oilsands to hundreds of degrees Celsius to release the oil while still underground - was not really successful. "Economically, it's a very efficient process. A lot less energy goes into it than goes into a steam process," he told Report on Business. "But it burns wells out. It burns back and explodes, and it's had a lot of sand problems... It's not the fact that you can't get the reservoir on fire. It's that you have a difficult time controlling it and getting oil to the surface." 

Medium: Television
Program: Science Magazine
Broadcast Date: Feb. 17, 1975
Guest(s): Doug Bennion
Reporter: David Suzuki
Duration: 4:48

Last updated: February 17, 2012

Page consulted on November 18, 2014

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