ALEC Oil Sands Trip Educates Legislators On Environmentally Conscious Energy Production

albertaLast month, a group of ALEC members flew to Calgary in Alberta, Canada, to tour an oil sands facility and meet with representatives of the Alberta government, energy companies and an environmental group to learn more about the economic and environmental impact of oil drilling. This is the second year that ALEC’s Task Force on International Relations has provided legislative members this opportunity.

During the trip, attendees witnessed first-hand a new oil mining technique that uses steam to extract oil from sand. The technique, called SAGD (Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage) is used by Shell, Cenovus and others to melt tough chunks of oil (called bitumen) into transportable, unrefined liquid oil that can be piped from the ground into refining facilities. About two barrels of steam are used to produce one barrel of oil (a metric called SOR). Cenovus’ goal is to continually lower its SOR, which it accomplishes as oil mining technology continues to improve. Because most of the processes to extract the oil happen below ground, the oil sands facilities’ above-ground environmental footprint is quite minimal compared to their open-mine counterparts.


Environmental concerns remain, however, and ALEC members had the opportunity to talk about and ask questions of oil production and its influence on the environment. Much of the talk centered around oil facilities’ carbon footprints, their impact on the native species and the restoration of the ground once oil production is exhausted in that particular area. The group heard from the Pembina Institute about solutions to environmental concerns surrounding oil sands mining, and both the Alberta government and the energy companies talked openly about how they regulate carbon production and help restore the land post-oil production through legislation and new technologies.

New technology also assists in detecting and preventing oil spills, and the ALEC group toured TransCanada’s state-of-the-art control room, where every single TransCanada pipeline is kept under 24-hour surveillance. Experts monitor the pipelines and contribute to a continuous stream of information that alerts the highly specialized workers if there is a spill or even if there is movement surrounding a pipe. The technology is exceptionally sophisticated, and thousands—if not tens of thousands—of parts and people monitor the pipeline. Cenovus had a similar control room for the ALEC group to explore. All in all, the energy companies demonstrated a clear interest in the safety of their people and the land surrounding their facility and the land through which the pipelines carrying their oil traverse.

The hands-on approach to educating legislators and private sector members about oil sands mining was invaluable to increasing overall understanding of how oil production affects the local, national and international economy. The Cenovus oil sands facility in Christina Lake, Alberta, produces approximately 140,000 barrels of oil per day—compared to the approximately 16 million barrels of oil consumed every day by the U.S.—and joins other oil production facilities in making Canada the largest provider of oil to the United States.

While oil production will remain a controversial issue, it is hard to ignore its job-producing and revenue-generating properties. The Canada trip showed the ALEC group how environmental concerns surrounding oil production can be mitigated using proper legislation and innovative technologies, although much more remains to be discovered. ALEC looks forward to continuing to provide similar educational opportunities for its members.

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