What does a real synfuel operation look like, the kind that can change a country's energy fortunes? The answer can be found 700 miles north of Montana near a onetime frontier outpost in Alberta called Fort McMurray. At Syncrude Canada's North Mine, a huge open pit nearly two miles across and 250 ft. deep, giant shovels scoop out a petroleum-soaked deposit called oil sand that is beginning a long journey from here into the gas tanks of American cars. The region contains enough of the crude mixture to produce an estimated 175 billion bbl. of oil, eight times the known deposits of conventional crude in the U.S.
Everything here is done on a scale that would make Paul Bunyan feel right at home. The electric-powered shovels that mine the sands are several stories tall. Dozens of giant yellow earthmoving trucks lumber in and out of the mine carrying tons of freshly excavated sand. The largest ones weigh as much as 400 tons--more than 200 times the size of the average car. The trucks use huge tires that cost $55,000 each. The drivers sit so high above ground that one says piloting these behemoths is "like driving a two-story house from the second-floor bathroom."
The deposits can be as little as 25 ft. below the surface. After topsoil is removed, the shovels scoop the oily mix into the trucks, which transport it to hoppers for crushing. Hot water is injected to create a slurry that separates the raw oil from sand, clay and other particles. Then 2,500-h.p. pumps, the world's largest, push the viscous oil sands through pipes to a plant on-site that converts it to crude oil. From there, it goes by pipeline to refineries in the U.S. The output of the Alberta operations is expected soon to reach 1 million bbl. a day, surpassing U.S. crude production on Alaska's North Slope. The U.S. now imports more oil and petroleum products from Canada than from any other country.
Before you conclude that the moral of this story is that Canada is just lucky to have the stuff, read on. For the U.S. has vast quantities of a similar deposit called oil shale, a claylike rock soaked through with fossil fuel. In fact, at least 1 trillion bbl. of it, or four times Saudi Arabia's oil reserves, is locked up in the mountains 200 miles west of Denver. The U.S. spent billions of dollars to figure out a way to mine the stuff, then gave up and walked away. Why Canada has succeeded at creating a homemade source of alternative fuel while America has failed to tap its resources is testimony to Washington's short attention span when it comes to energy concerns.