The wildfires ravaging Fort McMurray are well to the south of most oil sands projects, which is why several oil sands operators volunteered to use their work camps as shelter spaces for fleeing residents. But wildfires—and fires in general—are a constant occupational threat for anyone who works in the oil and gas business, and the oil sands are no different.
In their natural state, the oil sands themselves aren’t particularly flammable. Bitumen has the consistency of molasses at room temperature, and is mixed with sand, making it burn at a slower pace if ignited (plus, 80 per cent of it is buried deep underground). But the same can’t be said of all the equipment and chemical processes used to extract and upgrade that bitumen into synthetic crude oil. Companies that mine and upgrade oil sands bitumen rely on massive pieces of machinery, high temperatures and high pressures to do the dirty work—producing fuels and feedstock.
A 2004 article in the U.S. National Fire Protection Association Journal offered a list of the potential fire risks faced by Suncor Energy, one of the oil sands’ biggest producers. It included: “hydrocarbon spill and pressure fires; storage tank fires; vapour cloud explosions; flammable gas fires; runaway exothermic reactions; and coke and sulfur fires.” The list continued by noting the fire potential posed by: “natural gas- and coke-fired electricity/steam generating plants; a large fleet of mining equipment; ore-processing and oil extraction plants; multi-story office buildings; fleets of tank trucks carrying combustible and hazardous commodities; and the wildlands and boreal forests that surround the facility.”
On that last point, Chelsie Klassen, a spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says oil sands companies have “had production reduced or shut in because of wildfires in the past.” But she said all operators have emergency teams in place to make sure workers are evacuated safely and fires are prevented from spreading beyond the facility.
And those soupy, bird-killing tailings ponds? “They’re not flammable,” Klassen says.
It may well be the only thing about an oil sands operation that isn’t.