Sights and Sounds of Bitumen Extraction in Alberta Canada

On a recent trip to Wood Buffalo, Alberta I made some sound recordings of the Oil Sands Industrial Site.

The Athabasca Oil Sands Project aka The Tar Sands is a controversial energy project that surface mines the largest reservoir of bitumen (extremely heavy crude oil) in existence, located in north-eastern Alberta, Canada.

By mapping the acoustic ecologies of the bitumen extraction in Athebasca I aim to develop on the work of the ground-breaking 1970’s project Soundscapes of Canada whose objective was to capture disappearing sounds in response to over noise pollution. R. Murray Schafer (pioneer in the field of acoustic ecology) and his peers at the Simon Fraser University undertook an extended field recording tour of Canada. Material collected during that tour forms the basis of a series of radio compositions, each of which treats the Canadian sound environment uniquely.

This sound recording project seeks broaden the scope of the Soundscapes of Canada project by recording the acoustic ecology of an industrial noise zone – the Athebasca Oil Sands Project – a soundscape entirely unique to Canada, as it is the largest capital project anywhere on the earth.

I present my first unedited recordings here in correspondence with photographs taken by Andriko Lozowy (a doctoral researcher based at the University of Alberta whose PhD examines and instigates visual responses to the Oil Sands industrial Site and it’s boom town Ft. McMurray):

Alberta Highway 63. Photo: Andriko Lozowy

Highway 63

Until 1970, Highway 63 didn’t even appear on a map. Since then the 240-kilometre-long, two-lane road has become the critical artery in and out of Canada’s fastest-growing city: Fort McMurray. Drivers in the know call it Hell’s Highway or the Highway of Death.

Highway 63 is probably one of the most dangerous roads I’ve ever travelled on. On any given day, thousands of logging trucks, SUVs, semi-trailers, buses and tanker trucks form a frantic parade to and from Ft McMurray and the Oil Sands bitumen mine sites. Often a dozen different convoys of extra-wide loads carrying tires, turbines and cokers the size of houses completely dominate the highway. In fact, Highway 63 probably ferries the highest tonnage per kilometre of any road in Canada. Due to public and political pressure, the government has begun a project to expand the road into a four-lane, divided highway.

"Crane Lake Nature Trail" Located approximately 30km north of Fort McMurray. Photo: Andriko Lozowy

Crane Lake

Crane Lake Reclamation Area: Suncor (one of the major oil sands mining companies) reclaimed the Crane Lake area (from a mining site) as a wetland habitat and the area is said to attract “more than 150 species of birds, including the impressive Sand Hill Crane” (Oils Sands Discovery Centre Fact Sheet).

On the day that I visited I didn’t see or hear any birds. As you can see in the distance of the photo above, this wetland habitat area reclaimed for birds is only 25km south of a Syncrude Tailings pond.

View of a tailings pond and Syncrude Oil Sand Mine in the distance. Photo: Andriko Lozowy


Oil Sands production is highly water-intensive: up to 4 barrels of water is consumed for every barrel of oil produced. What is left is ‘tailings’: dirty water, clay, silt and sand. Tailings can also contain copper, zinc, iron, residual bitumen, mercury, arsenic, naphthenic acids and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH).

As soon as you cross the bridge North of Ft McMurray on the way to the bitumen mines, the first thing that hits you, before any visual sense of the mining operations, is the the aroma of hydrocarbons. Some have compared the smell of mined bitumen to that of heated sea coal. This is why the Oil Sands were for so long known colloquially “tar sands” due to tar’s similar appearance, odor, and colour – companies attempted to revert to the geological classification of oil sands, however, in a bid to move away from the ‘dirty oil’ smear suggested by tar sands.

View of Syncrude tailings pond by side of road. Photo: Andriko Lozowy

Tailings Cannon

Tailings containment ponds at Syncrude (lakes as big as 30 square kilometers in area) have been expanding since the company began mining bitumen in 1976. After a case in April 2008 when 1600 migratory birds died after landing in a tailings pond, oil sands mine operators were required by law to have plans and resources in place that prevent migratory birds from landing in tailings lakes.

Some mines have radar detection systems that automatically discharge warning shots from propane cannons to ward off flocks of birds as they approach. Others depend upon less effective deterrent measures that require human intervention in placing scarecrows and discharging cannons.

Syncrude worker camp. Photo: Andriko Lozowy

Worker Camps

The Oil boom left Ft McMurray struggling to house the influx of workers coming to the area,  creating a “shadow population” of 10,442 living in work camps. On our visit, ground was being flattened to make space for new cabins that are ‘shipped’ up to the sites (fully-formed!) along Highway 63.

Fort McKay Industrial Park. Photo: Andriko Lozowy

For more info read National Geographic’s article The Canadian Oil Boom

See also the image gallery for this article.

And the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers response to the article.

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11 Responses to Sights and Sounds of Bitumen Extraction in Alberta Canada

  1. Pingback: Sights and Sounds of Bitumen Extraction : The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts

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  5. Wow, fantastic collaboration between the sound recording and photography. This is such a powerful piece of work – it’s all so bleak. The worker camps looks as though they belong in a science fiction movie. I hope this piece has been picked up by local environmental groups and councils. I look forward to viewing more of your work.

  6. Pingback: Refining the process: Canada’s oil and the risk-averse nature of the oil industry « Speechless

  7. Pingback: Reframing the Canadian Oil Sands : Imaginations

  8. Hi, I’m writing a fiction piece based on the bird deaths that I hope will bring some of this to light. Can you tell me more about the sound cannons? What do they look like? Are they real cannons or more like a stereo speaker? Are they remotely controlled or does an operator have to physically go to each cannon to make the sound? If you can give me any details I would greatly appreciate it.

    Many thanks,

  9. Dear Carolyn,

    The following powerpoint presentation -Bird deterrent systems for oil sands
    tailings ponds in northeastern Alberta – by Brock Simons, John Gulley, Martin Jalkotzy gives plenty of information about the cannons and the other types of bird deterrent systems used.

    Hope this is helpful!


  10. Pingback: Refining the process: Canada’s oil and the risk-averse nature of the oil industry 2015 | Speechless

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