About the Oil Sands


Oil sands are deposits of bitumen, thick, heavy black oil that must be upgraded before it can be used by refineries to produce consumer products such as gasoline and diesel fuels.

Alberta’s bitumen deposits are sometimes erroneously referred to as tar sands but the correct terminology for the resource is oil sands. Tar is a refined substance, while the bitumen contained in the oil sands is naturally occurring.

Bitumen will not flow unless heated or diluted with lighter hydrocarbons. At room temperature it resembles cold molasses. Bitumen makes up about 10 to 12 per cent  of the weight of the oil sands found in Alberta. The remainder is 80 to 85 per cent mineral matter – like sand and clays - and 4 to 6 per cent water.


Upgrading is the technical process that converts bitumen into a product similar to conventional light crude oil.

Location and size

Canada has the second largest reserves of oil in the world, after Saudi Arabia. Only 13 per cent of the world’s known oil reserves– one in six barrels – is considered freely accessible to international oil companies, and half of this oil is found in the Athabasca oil sands.

The Province of Alberta sits on proven oil reserves of 179 billion barrels, 97 per cent of which are located in the oil sands. Oil sands are found in northern Alberta beneath approximately 140,000 square kilometers of land, an area larger than the Island of Newfoundland or the State of North Carolina. However, only 2.5 per cent of this area houses oil sands located close enough to the surface to be mineable. The bitumen contained in the remainder of the area must be produced using in-situ technologies. In more than 40 years, oil sands mining has disturbed approximately 530 square kilometers of land, or about one hundredth of one per cent of the Canadian boreal forest.

According to the Government of Alberta, there were 91 active oil sands projects in Alberta as of January 2009. Of these, five are mining projects and the rest use various in-situ recovery methods.

There are three deposits of oil sands in Alberta. The largest and most shallow deposit is the Athabasca oil sands area, located near Fort McMurray.  The Athabasca is the largest deposit and is the site where all current mining projects are located.  The Cold Lake deposit is the second largest and contains only in-situ projects.  The Peace River, Wabasca and Buffalo Head Hills deposits have seen slower development due to the technology required to access the resource.  This area is known as the Carbonate Triangle and much work is underway to make resource development in this area technologically and economically feasible.


Only 20 per cent of the oil sands resource is located close enough to the surface to be mined (this resource is concentrated such that 20 per cent of the total bitumen in the oil sands occurs in an area of just 2.5 per cent of the geographic extent of the oil sands).  Using truck and shovel technology, the oil sands are transported to a processing facility where hot water and a small amount of caustic soda (i.e. “soap”) are used to separate the bitumen from the sands and clays. Once the bitumen has been recovered, the remaining sands and clays are sent to a tailings pond – often a discontinued mine pit. The tailings are a mixture of water, clay, sand and residual bitumen.  In the tailings ponds, the sand and clays settle and the clarified water is recycled back to the processing facility. More than 80 percent of the water used is recycled.

Tailings are strictly regulated by Alberta Environment and the Energy Resources Conservation Board. The ponds are carefully designed with seepage collection and containment systems. The groundwater is monitored to ensure it is not affected.

In-situ production is used to recover deposits that are located more than 75 meters underground. Most in situ bitumen and heavy oil production comes from deposits buried more than 400 meters below the surface of the earth. Cyclic Steam Stimulation (CSS) and Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) are in situ recovery methods, which include injecting steam through vertical or horizontal wells.  The thick bitumen is heated so that it is able to be pumped to the surface through the wells. In-situ operators generally use non-potable or even saline ground water and they recycle 90 per cent of the water they require.

Other technologies being tested such as THAI™ could have commercial application in the future.  This new form of in-situ technology uses air instead of water to heat up the bitumen.  This technology uses little natural gas and minimal water while producing 50 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, the injection of solvents such as propane, show promise.

Truck and shovel technology

Cyclic Steam Stimulation



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. www.ramp-alberta.org

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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