The first cultural signal from a trip to Alberta’s energy region is the approximately 16-to-1 ratio of men to women on the 50-seat flight to Edmonton from Denver. The veined and snowy landscape stretches away in whites and browns and blacks, the cultured marble countertop of North America … or perhaps its vanity.

At the Edmonton airport, signs alert arriving workers where to stand to wait for their shuttles to the Kearl and CRNL projects. The geography and even time itself are measured by these projects: Housing developments in Ft. McMurray, where modest dwellings go for $700,000-plus, are referred to as “early Suncor” or “middle Albian.” Yesterday as part of a press trip organized by the Canadian Consulate, a gaggle of U.S. press was flown up to the Shell Albian oilsands mine operation, then to a growing in situ oil extraction operation  run by Cenovus.

At Albian we were schooled in how the oil sands lying close to the surface can simply be directly dug out and squeezed for all they’ve got, once you remove all that muskeg and overburden … a euphemism for “what’s in our way” that never fails to make me smirk at its presumptuousness.

Before we saw the operation, one of the world’s biggest trucks, made by Caterpillar, came in to see us through what must naturally be the world’s biggest garage door. These trucks alone are creating at ton of U.S. jobs at Cat, not to mention at Michelin, whose plant in South Carolina makes the machine’s enormous tires, which cost $70,000 a pop.

The scale of an oil sands mine is stunning at first ... and continues to be so later.

We saw the Jackpine mine where the sands are now being dug, and we saw the original Muskeg mine (behind me in the photo), where the years-long process of remediation is under way, refilling a hole in the planet that simply drops your jaw in its scale. It’s a giant exercise in land recycling, albeit minus the resource that’s been taken out and refined to fuel our every transportation need. (I asked the pilot, and the round trip from Edmonton to the Ft. McMurray area used approximately 400 liters of aviation fuel … one of the many grades of fuel refined from oil sands oil, including at the Shell Scotford upgrader and refinery we visited the day before near Edmonton.

That was the same day we learned that Alberta exported on average $77.7 billion worth of goods from 2005-2010, which would have placed it third behind California in total value compared to all U.S. states. But with a total provincial population of just 3.7 million, Alberta’s per capita exports of $21,000 per person were far ahead of export-value leader Texas, at $7,000 per Texan.

Will the oil that TransCanada wants to export to the U.S. travel across the borderline and on to Gulf Coast refineries via the Keystone XL pipeline project now drawing so much protest and scrutiny as it nears the end of its U.S. State Department and, apparently, U.S. Presidential review?

One thing’s clear from here in Alberta: There are two other major pipeline expansion projects on the books to handle all the growing oil production (and it’s all growing). They’re pointed toward the British Columbian coast, whence the oil would depart toward Asia. If their Southern neighbors kill the XL pipeline with politics, Canadians won’t blink an eye as they point the oil toward eager customers in China and elsewhere. As two Canadian humorists point out in a new book on “How To Be a Canadian,” Albertans have oil, money and guns. What they don’t have is patience for nonsense.

Just the tires cost $70,000 each for this mammoth machine.

2 Responses on “Holes You Can Drive a Truck Through

  1. Glad you enjoyed it Adam. I’m not on the megatruck. But I was on the bus and plane all day long. You get a sense of the breadth and scale of “the resource” up there by how many gallons of its end products you have to burn to get to it.

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