SAGD steam generators at Christina Lake, Alberta

Collecting the Science, Technologies, and Culture of the Oil Sands

Our guide points to a pink portable toilet, as I make a mental list of technologies that I want to acquire to document everyday life at a Fly-in Fly-out oil sands camp in Northern Alberta. She tells me that the toilet is a symbol of the changing workforce. Now almost 40% of workers at the site are women; they occupy administrative as well as technical positions. This is an important story that shows the transformation of Canadian society that we are mandated to document in the national collection. Yet only 12 % of our natural resources artifacts depict women’s professional lives. Looking at the collection, you would think that 88% of women in Canada still stay at home.

 

Christina Lake in-situ operation. Photo: Cenovus

Christina Lake, Alberta in-situ operation. Photo: Cenovus

I am visiting in-situ oil sands operations with Jason Armstrong, Coordinator of the Canadian Energy Literacy Network. It is an opportunity for us to see and better understand these sites. It is also an opportunity to connect with people in the field, talk about their and our work, and lobby for artifacts. We have a small, but significant collection of petroleum-related objects: prospecting and exploration technologies, drills and drill bits, artifacts from Petrolia, and the Ocean Ranger forensic collection. My focus during this trip is on collecting SAGD (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage), CSS (Cyclic Steam Stimulation), directional drilling, and hydraulic fracturing technologies.

SAGD steam generators at Christina Lake, Alberta

SAGD steam generators at Christina Lake, Alberta

I also want to provide some social context to these technologies, including gender representation. Who are the people improving, running, and monitoring these technologies? What is their education? What are their values? How do they deal with the constant criticism directed at their industry?

CSS wells at Cold Lake, Alberta

CSS wells at Cold Lake, Alberta

 

I talk to scientists at Imperial Oil, some of the best–and the most humbled–in their field, about decreasing the environmental impacts of the CSS and SAGD. This is definitely on their minds. We talk about challenges around proprietary research and scientific cooperation in a very competitive industry. It is difficult to “collect” what they do, but we try to make a list together: smaller test instruments and crucial parts of larger equipment, the first SAGD test devise, which sits in the corner of the lab (sorry, no photos in the lab), and well monitoring software and communication equipment.

Directional drill bent at 2 degrees to create a horizontal well

Directional drill bent at 2 degrees to create a horizontal well

Precision seamed slotted liner for horizontal  wells. Oil seeps into the pipe, while sand is too large to go through the slots

Precision seamed slotted liner for horizontal wells. Oil seeps into the pipe, while sand is too large to go through the slots

Collecting from a Fly-in Fly-out camp is equally challenging. The camp works as a technological and social system. A piece of technology that we can accession to the collection will never truly preserve this system. The camp employs several hundred people from cleaners and cooks to power engineers. A typical shift is eight to twelve hours, and the people that we talk to, stay at the camp for between seven to eighteen days at a time. There is a gym, a squash court, a music room, a theatre to socialize after work, and there is apparently lots of dating going on too. Any acquisition from a Fly-in Fly out camp will have to include objects related to work but also leisure. We need SAGD and CSS technologies, but we also need a treadmill, and a drum set. And we definitely need one of the pink, portable toilets.

Kitchen at Christina Lake, AB camp open 24-hours

Kitchen at Christina Lake, Alberta camp open 24-hours