Initial efforts to commercialize the oil sands were not focused on energy production, but on other uses for the oil from the oil sands.In 1927, entrepreneur R.C. Fitzsimmons used Karl Clark’s process to separate and produce bitumen to be used as a component in roofing and road surfacing. The Alberta government took over the plant in 1948 in order to investigate extraction methods with large-scale equipment. By 1949, the plant was processing 450 tonnes of oil sands a day. Data from the experiments was used as the basis for a major study released in the 1950s by the Government of Alberta that confirmed the viability of profitable commercial production.

It wasn’t until 1963, after the Government of Alberta created an oil sands policy to supplement existing conventional crude policy, that the first major private investment in an oil sands project was made. Sun Oil (now Suncor) committed almost $250 million in the very first oil sands project, also known as the Great Canadian Oil Sands (GCOS) Project. Construction on the Fort McMurray facility began in 1964 and in 1967, the Suncor project became the world’s first oil sands operation.In 1964, the Syncrude consortium was formed to do research on the economic and technical feasibility of mining oil from the Athabasca oil sands. In 1973, construction began and the first barrel was shipped on July 30, 1978.

Syncrude and Suncor continued to make steady progress improving oil sands technologies and an entirely new extraction process called Low Energy Extraction was developed and proven, bringing decreased costs and increased environmental benefits.

In 1996, a federal-provincial agreement on oil sands royalties made the Alberta oil sands an attractive investment. This combination of technology improvements and the implementation of appropriate fiscal terms for the oil sands kick started a development wave and in 1999, Shell Canada announced a joint venture with Western Oil Sands Inc. and Chevron Canada Limited to develop the proposed Athabasca Oil Sands Project. In early 2009, CNRL’s Horizon Oil Sands Project successfully produced its first barrels of crude.Today, technology continues to improve, environmental impacts are being addressed, and operating costs are being reduced, encouraging even further development. After 40 years of hard work, as conventional crude reserves decline, Alberta has become the most important source of new oil in the world.

To discover what mining projects are currently underway, visit the OSDG project status.

Oil sands technology - continuous evolution

Early oil sands mining technology, such as that used in Suncor’s GCOS Project, involved giant excavators called bucket wheels that used toothed buckets mounted on the rim of a revolving wheel to both remove the overburden and then scoop up the sand and place it on a conveyor belt.When Syncrude Canada Ltd. opened in 1978 they introduced gigantic draglines which were perched on top of the ore body following the removal of the overburden. The draglines utilized a heavy toothed bucket attached to a cable from the end of a boom into the oil sand. The bucket was dropped down over the edge of a mine face and dragged back up the oil sand face to scoop up the sand and then place it in a windrow on top of the ore body. Bucket wheels were then used to reclaim the oil sand ore from these windrows and place it onto the conveyors.

The oil sand was transported via conveyor belt to the processing plant where water was added to the oil sands, creating slurry that was conditioned using large tumbler drums.

Truck and shovel mining today

Today, draglines and bucket wheels have been replaced by giant, more cost-effective trucks and hydraulic shovels. Use of these shovels allows the operator to be more selective than the operators of the large draglines and bucket wheel could be in loading the oil sands, which vary in both depth and quality.

As technology evolves, trucks and shovels continue to grow in size. The increase in equipment size improves both operating costs and reduces emissions intensity (a measure of GHG emissions per barrel of oil produced). Today’s trucks carry more than 400 tonnes at a time while the shovels can load an average of 100 tonnes per swing.

O & K Bucketwheel
(Syncrude Canada)
Draglines and bucket wheels have been replaced by giant, more cost-effective trucks and hydraulic shovels (Syncrude Canada)
Mining trucks have progressively grown in size (Syncrude Canada)

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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