The Process

The mining process begins by clearing trees and brush and removing the top layer of earth to expose the ore body. The overburden – the topsoil, muskeg, sand, clay and gravel – is then stockpiled so it can be replaced in layers as the mined-out areas are reclaimed. The rest of the overburden, along with the sand that has been stripped of its oil, is used to fill in the mine pits and construct the base for the reclaimed landscape.

Integrated oil sands mining operations accomplish three main functions: mining the oil sands, separating the bitumen from the sand and upgrading the bitumen so refiners can work with it.

The mining process in a nutshell is:

  • Trucks take the oil sands to crushers where it is prepared for extraction.
  • The crushed oil sand is mixed with warm water and fed through a hydro-transport system to an extraction* plant where the mixture of oil, sand and water is placed in separation vessels.

*Note: when the oil sands extraction process was first developed, it operated at about 80 degrees centigrade; today the process is much more environmentally friendly and has a lower operating cost. This is because the technology has been evolved to require much less thermal energy to separate the oil from the sand with the operating temperature of the extraction initially being reduced to 60°C and now further refined to allow ore processing to occur at even lower (40°C) temperatures, resulting in still further energy use reductions.

  • In the separation vessels, injected air forms tiny bubbles, which are then trapped in the bitumen as it separates from the sand granules. The air bubbles float the bitumen to the surface where it forms a thick froth that is then skimmed off, mixed with Naphtha and spun in a centrifuge to remove the remaining solids and water and dissolved salts from the bitumen. The cleaned sand and the water are then sent to the tailings area where the water is recycled back to the extraction process.


Recently “Natural Froth Lubricity” has been introduced. Natural Froth Lubricity uses water from the mixture to create a lubricating froth, allowing the bitumen to move even faster through the pipeline without having to dilute it further. This innovation allows mines to be separated from the upgrader and yet still be fully heat integrated. For example, Syncrude pumps hot water, reclaimed from the waste heat produced by its Mildred Lake Upgrader to its Aurora Mine, 40 kilometres to the north. 

At the Aurora mine, the hot water provides a significant portion of the heat used to extract the bitumen from the ore produced at that location resulting in a substantial reduction in the energy that would otherwise be used. The cooler water is then returned, along with the bitumen, to the Mildred Lake Upgrader where the bitumen feeds the upgrader and the water is reheated and again returned to the Aurora Mine.

Mining technology continues to evolve in a way that shortens the distance between the mine face and the location of primary extraction, reducing overall energy use as a result of shortening the distance the ore must be hauled or transported and lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of oil sands mining operations.

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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