From an article by Richard Mial in the La Crosse Tribune:

On a map of northern Canada, Fort McMurray marks where the highway ends. But it’s the starting point for much of the fuel that runs vehicles in the Coulee Region.

The sands of north Alberta — not the Middle East — provide most of the petroleum that becomes gasoline sold in the La Crosse area.

A pipeline channels that Canadian crude to the Flint Hills Resources Pine Bend Refinery in Rosemount, Minn.

La Crosse-based Kwik Trip is among its primary customers. A fleet of 110 tanker trucks ferries gasoline and diesel fuel 24 hours a day from the refinery to the company’s 363 convenience stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

The Tribune traced petroleum’s path from the forests of Canada to the pumps.

It’s a route that keeps the region from relying on crude oil from overseas. But it also has raised questions about the environmental costs, both to Canada and Wisconsin.

Oil sands
Alberta’s oil sands region yields about half of the petroleum converted into local gasoline. Production averages about 1.5 million barrels a day, and that’s expected to go up to 1.8 million by 2012, according to estimates by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

The mixture of sand and thick, tar-like bitumen is mined from the earth with huge shovels, many of them Wisconsin-made.

Large amounts of water are used to separate the oil from the sand — about two to three gallons of water for every barrel of oil, said Don Thompson, president of the Oil Sands Developers Group. Natural gas-fired power plants provide the electricity needed for the energy-intensive process.

Large-scale oil sands mining in the Fort McMurray area dates back to the late 1960s through the Great Canadian Oil Sands, now known as Suncor Energy Inc., said Thompson, a former oil company executive who now lives in Calgary.

Another company, Syncrude, began mining the oil sands in the late 1970s, Thompson said in a telephone interview.

But oil sand production remained limited until the price of a barrel of oil rose enough to justify the expense of oil sand mining, and the quality of technology improved, Thompson said.

Now, about 208 square miles of northern Alberta have been cleared for mines, tailing ponds and “upgraders,” plants that provide some refining before the oil is sent by pipeline to the United States and elsewhere.

A story in National Geographic Magazine includes dramatic photos of tar sands mining.