Mining Extraction Method

Fact: Commercial open pit mining has been ongoing in the oil sands for over 40 years.

  • Open pit mining of the oil sands first began in the 1920s.  The first large-scale commercial operation was introduced by Great Canadian Oil Sands (now Suncor Energy) in 1967.

Fact: Oil sands mining technology has evolved significantly over the years.

  • Suncor Energy used bucket wheels from the coal mining industry in its early operations. Bucket wheels were some of the largest vehicles ever built. A large rotating wheel was mounted on a boom, and on the outer edge of the wheel, buckets would remove earth and carry it around to the backside of the wheel where it would fall onto a conveyer that carried it up the excavator.
  • Syncrude Canada Limited relied on enormous draglines that were connected to a plant by a network of conveyor belts when it opened in 1978.
  • Today, massive trucks and shovels have replaced draglines and bucket wheels. The trucks can carry up to 400 tonnes of oil sands to separation plants in surface mining operations.
  • Hydro-transport has in many cases replaced conveyor belts.  Oil sands ore is mixed with water and transported as slurry through pipelines to the processing facility.  Bitumen begins to separate out of the sand in the pipeline, making separation more efficient than in the past.

Fact: Oil sands mining requires a series of steps to turn oil sands ore into synthetic crude oil.

  • First land is cleared of trees and the overburden is drained and stored to be later used for reclaiming the area.
  • Oil sands ore consists of sand, fine clays, water and bitumen. Shovels excavate the oil sands ore and place it into large haul trucks. The trucks haul the ore to a central location and dump it into hoppers where it is ground up and mixed with water.  It is then piped via hydro-transport pipeline to the extraction plant where the bitumen is separated from the sand.
  • The sand, fine clays and a small amount of unrecovered bitumen, mixed with water, is transferred to settling basins known as tailings ponds while the separated bitumen is sent for further upgrading.
  • Bitumen is upgraded into a synthetic crude oil that can then be processed by refineries into end products such as gasoline, diesel or jet fuel.

Fact: Open pit mining projects are large-scale undertakings that require much planning, time and investment while adhering to strict government regulations.

  • It takes about 8 to 10 years to bring mining projects into production.  This includes the time required to complete engineering feasibility studies, to gain regulatory approval, to complete construction and to start up production facilities.
  • Ongoing oil sands projects must receive renewed government operating approval at least every 10 years. 
  • Typical mining, extraction and upgrading projects require a multi-billion-dollar investment to produce 100,000 barrels per day of high quality synthetic crude oil.
  • Oil sands developers must post financial security equivalent to the cost of reclamation before it begins any activity. This money is kept in the Environmental Protection Security Fund and is returned when reclamation certificates are issued. As of June 2008, the fund held more than $720 million.
  • One hectare of a surface mine will produce about 10,000 barrels of bitumen.
  • About two tonnes of oil sands must be dug up, moved and processed to produce one barrel of oil.

Fact: Mining operations are always employing new technology to improve their environmental and economic performance.

  • Replacing draglines and bucket wheels with trucks and shovels has resulted in more efficient operation as it has allowed developers to be more selective in mining.
  • Processes such as hydro-transport and low energy extraction have reduced energy use in mining and extraction by about 45 per cent per barrel since 1990.  Low energy extraction typically operates at 35 to 40 degrees celsius versus the 80 degree celsius processes emplyed by the industry in the 1980s.
  • New technology will reduce the time needed to reclaim tailings ponds and eventually could reduce the volume of tailings or eliminate them altogether.
  • More than 80 per cent of the water used during surface mining operations is repeatedly recycled.

Facts sourced by Oil Sands Developers Group (October 2009).

Sources for all facts available upon request.


Extraction Methods

Did you know...

Canada’s oil reserves are second in the world behind Saudi Arabia

Of 179 billion barrels of Canada’s oil reserves, the oil sands represent 97 per cent

For each permanent oil sands-related job, nine additional direct, indirect and induced jobs are created in Canada.

Currently 240,000 jobs in Canada are directly or indirectly linked to the oil sands.

Between 2000 and 2020, oil sands development has the potential to generate at least $123 billion in royalty and tax revenues for Canada’s federal and provincial governments.

The oil sands currently account for only 4.6 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is less than 0.1 per cent of total global emissions.

Alberta was the first jurisdiction in North America to legislate industrial greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Producers have made great strides in reducing the amount of emissions per barrel of bitumen extracted from the oil sands. The equivalent of 2.6 million tonnes of reductions have been made – the same as taking more than 550,000 cars off the road.

The province of Alberta has committed $4 billion toward climate change initiatives, including $2 billion for public transit and $2 billion for carbon capture and storage (CCS). This is the largest CCS investment in the world.

Air quality around oil sands operations is better than all North American cities reviewed by the Alberta Clean Air Strategic Alliance.

Alberta air quality standards are the most stringent in Canada.

Air quality in Fort McMurray is monitored around the clock. Results are available at the WBEA site.

Air quality has been extensively modeled and demonstrated to remain within Alberta’s strict air quality guidelines even with all projected oil sands development in place.

Oil sands are located below the surface of 140,200 square kilometres of land, 4.5 per cent of Canada’s total boreal forest.

Mineable oil sands only exist under 0.1 per cent of Canada’s total boreal forest.

While disturbance is occurring daily, in more than 40 years oil sands mining has disturbed about one hundredth of one per cent of the Canadian boreal forest – some 500 square kilometres.

Since 2001, coordinated efforts between government and industry through Integrated Landscape Management (ILM) activities have reduced land surface disturbance in the region by 20 per cent.

As required by law, and included in all project approvals, reclamation work is ongoing and continuous in the oil sands. All lands disturbed by oil sands will be reclaimed.

Mining is only an option for oil sands that sit less than 75 metres under the surface.

More than 80 per cent of the oil sands will be developed using in-situ technologies.

In-situ projects resemble conventional oil development and do not require tailings ponds, or mine pits.

In-situ operations create linear disturbance of the surface for wellheads. But new technology and processes, including low-impact seismic and directional drilling, are reducing that footprint.

In Alberta, Alberta Environment regulates oil and gas industry water use under the Water Act. Oil and gas companies are subject to the same conditions for use as any other licensed water user in Alberta.

Currently, the oil sands industry draws less than half the water allocation allowed by Alberta Environment from the Athabasca River.

Water allocations are strictly controlled during low flow periods.

More than 80 per cent of water drawn by industry from the Athabasca is recycled.

Non-potable water which is unsuitable for drinking, livestock or irrigation use is used wherever possible for in-situ production.

Alberta Environment prohibits the release of any water to the Athabasca River that does not meet water quality requirements.

RAMP, a multi-stakeholder body, conducts annual monitoring of the river’s fish species, fish habitat and water quality. The monitoring has not detected significant changes to the Athabasca River.

Bitumen from exposed oil sands along the river banks has seeped naturally into the Athabasca River as it cut its way through the landscape.

Tailings contain the water, residual bitumen, sand and clay that is left over when the bitumen is separated from the sand.

In the ponds, the solids separate from the water so the water may be recycled into the process again. Of the total water used by oil sands mines, 80 per cent is recycled.

During and after mining, the tailings ponds are reclaimed. No tailings water is released to the Athabasca River or any other watercourse.

The first tailings ponds will be reclaimed in 2010.

80 per cent of the oil sands resource will be developed using in-situ technology which does not require tailings ponds.

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