|Vast reserves of low quality oil underlie the boreal forest surrounding Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, Canada in the form of "Athabasca oil sands." While these reserves have been known since the early 20th century the high cost of extracting usable oil from these "oil sands" limited the development of a viable oil sands mining industry. In 2003 the rising cost of crude oil led the Oil and Gas Journal to formally recognize Canada's oil sands as a viable resource (Woynillowicz et al., 2005). The oil held in these reserves raises Canada to second place on the list of oil rich countries, behind only Saudi Arabia in total reserves (Oil and Gas Journal, 2004).|
The rising price of oil has fueled this oil boom in Northern Alberta. Canada's National Energy Board predicts $125 billion in investments for creation and expansion of oil sands mining in the Athabasca area between 2006 and 2015 which will take production to around 3 million barrels per day (National Energy Board, 2006). Local people including the Native American population are concerned that exploitation will come at too great a cost to the environment. The government of Alberta plans to propose a surface mining area of 280,000 hectares, "an area approximately four times the size of the City of Calgary" (Mineable Oil Sands Strategy-Government of Alberta, 2005). In 2001 oil extracted from oil sands (271 million barrels) exceeded oil extracted by conventional means (264 million barrels) for the first time (Canadian Centre for Energy Information, 2002-2003).
In 1967 The Great Canadian Oil Sands Company began construction at its Mildred Lake site. In 1974 they were joined by the Syncrude Corporation which began construction of a mine in the same area. By early 2006 the mining operations had expanded to cover an area roughly 30 km by 20 km. Syncrude operates a second mine, the Aurora, approximately 30 km to the north of Mildred Lake.
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