Oil Sands


Commercial production of oil from the Athabasca oil sands began in 1967, when Great Canadian Oil Sands Limited (then a subsidiary of Sun Oil Company but now incorporated into an independent company known as Suncor Energy) opened its first mine, producing 30,000 barrels per day (4,800 m3/d) of synthetic crude oil.

Development was inhibited by declining world oil prices, and the second mine, operated by the Syncrude consortium, did not begin operating until 1978.

The third mine, operated by Shell Canada, did not begin operating until 2003.


Oil sands or bituminous sands are a type of unconventional petroleum deposit. The oil sands are loose sand or partially consolidated sandstone containing naturally occurring mixtures of sand, clay, and water, saturated with a dense and extremely viscous form of petroleum technically referred to as bitumen. Natural bitumen deposits are reported in many countries, but in particular are found in extremely large quantities in Canada.

Production Methods

Because the Athabasca sands have very large amounts of bitumen covered by little overburden surface mining has been the most efficient method of extraction. The oil sands are dug from the ground using large excavators and hauled to the processing plant by dump truck.

There are also several in-situ techniques that involve extracting the bitumen form the sand without removing the sand first. Cyclic Steam Stimulation (CSS), Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD), Solvent Extraction, Toe to Heel Air Injection (THAI), and Combustion Overhead Gravity Drainage (COGD). These methods are not exclusive and new techniques combining methods are reporting good results. Most of these methods involve heating or changing the composition of the bitumen so it flows and can be pumped to the surface.


  • Total natural bitumen reserves are estimated at almost 250 billion barrels, of which 176 billion barrels (70.8%) are in Canada.
  • Most of the 176 billion barrels is located within Alberta, 173 billion barrels is recoverable with current technologies.
  • Potentially there are 1.75 trillion barrels of bitumen within Alberta.
  • The Alberta oil sands covers an area of 140,000 square kilometres – an area larger than England.

The Future

With advancing in technology reducing production costs, and allowing recovery of previously unrecoverable reserves the potential oil sands remains