Unearthing the Past

(PDF Fact Sheet)

Fact: The Athabasca region was sculpted over millions of years – largely by water.

  • In the early Cretaceous period (205 to 65 million years ago) period, the mountains were rising in the western part of the province and the sea was flooding the north.
  • There were three large valleys draining the northern part of the province, and one was the McMurray Channel. Where the McMurray Channel met the sea, an enormous amount of sand – about 2.5 trillion cubic metres – was deposited. This sand was shaped and spread over time by the forces of rivers and tides, covering organic material that would transform into oil.
  • As the organic material turned into oil and seeped upward into the sand, rainwater and bacteria seeped down through sand, turning the oil into bitumen. 
  • While the oil within the sand turned to bitumen, sediment slowly accumulated over top of the layer for millennia. Today, bitumen remains entrained in sand at varying depths under the layer of accumulated sediment. Where the bitumen is located close to the surface under a thinner layer of sediment, it becomes economical to remove this overburden and dig the bitumen out using mining techniques. Where it is located deeper under the sedimentary layer, in situ drilling techniques are used.

Fact: It was a catastrophic event that created much of today’s landscape, and the powerful, natural forces at work in the area influenced the global environment.

  • About 9,900 years ago, Lake Agassiz, an enormous glacial lake spread across Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan, North Dakota and Minnesota, suddenly reversed its drainage from the Great Lakes to the Arctic Ocean.
  • Much of the surging drainage water from Lake Agassiz entered the Arctic Ocean via the Clearwater River.
  • During this flood, an incredible amount of earth was displaced as the 100-metre deep Clearwater Valley was created.
  • When the drainage pattern of Agassiz changed, 21,000 cubic kilometres of water rushed into the Arctic Ocean raising the sea level world wide.
  • Temperatures dropped dramatically throughout the northern hemisphere for about 100 years after the flood.
  • As the floodwaters retreated over the next 400 years, an intricate landscape of ridges, knolls, escarpments, beaches, spits, peninsulas, and islands emerged.

Fact: The remains of several dinosaur-era aquatic animals have been found and preserved during mining excavations by oil sands developers.

  • In the sediment above the McMurray oil sands formation, there have been several discoveries of prehistoric marine reptiles – specifically ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. Ichthyosaurs resemble large dolphins and plesiosaurs look much like the long-necked sea monsters from children’s books.
  • Unearthed as a result of oil sands development, fossil samples that have been found would have otherwise remained underground and undiscovered.
  • One of the most complete plesiosaur fossils ever found in North America was discovered during routine operations of a 100-ton shovel at a Syncrude site.
  • Oil sands companies such as Syncrude have strict protocols to protect fossil finds from damage during the course of their operations.
  • When a fossil is found, operations in the area are suspended and move to another area of the mine until the discovery can be evaluated and extracted, if appropriate.
  • Oil sands companies educate heavy equipment operators and other employees on how to identify potentially significant finds.

Fact: Archaeological sites in the Athabasca lowlands date back 10,000 years and some of the oldest human artifacts in the province have been found there.

  • One of the first archaeological sites unearthed by oil sands activity called the Beaver River Quarry revealed a spear point dating back 10,000 years.
  • The Quarry of the Ancestors, located on Birch Mountain Resources’ lease, helped archaeologists uncover the source of fine-grained sandstone used by the ancient people of northern Alberta and Saskatchewan to make weapons and tools. It is the oldest prehistoric quarry in Alberta.
  • Over 300,000 archaeological artifacts have been found in the oil sands mining area.
  • Dating of tools has confirmed that ancient peoples lived in the area even before the Lake Agassiz flood and may have inhabited the area up to 12,000 years ago.
  • Analysis of spear points recovered in the Quarry of the Ancestors revealed mammoth blood as well as the blood of many other animals including caribou, bear and bison.
  • Scientists believe the quarry may have been one of the first places of prehistoric human settlement in northern Alberta after the glaciers receded back into the Northwest Territories and the area become accessible.

Fact: Industry, government and Aboriginal communities work together to protect historic sites, and development has led to some of the most important archaeological discoveries in the province.

  • The provincial government has a regulated system for ensuring historical resources such as archaeological sites are protected.
  • Heritage Resource Impact Assessments (HRIA) are conducted at developers’ expense before a permit for development can be obtained.
  • These assessments are subcontracted by developers to qualified archaeologists.
  • These surveys have identified the highest density of pre-contact archaeological sites in Alberta, and one of the highest in North America.
  • Oil sands activity has led to hundreds of significant archaeological finds as comparatively little funding went into exploring the archaeology of Canada’s boreal forests before developers began undertaking HRIAs.
  • Artifacts found during an HRIA for Shell Canada led to the discovery of 49 new sites on the eastern side of the Athabasca River and also led archaeologists to the discovery of Creeburn Lake, which is estimated to have been inhabited between 9,400 and 7,750 years ago.
  • The Creeburn Lake site has been protected as a Provincial Historical Resource by the government of Alberta and the Quarry of the Ancestors is currently being evaluated for qualification under the same status.


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

Sources for all facts available upon request.

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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