In Situ

In Situ refers to methods of oil sands production that use drilling and steam to produce bitumen. The most common in situ method is called Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD).


What is In Situ?

In Situ comes from the latin term meaning “in position” or “on site” and refers to the oil sands technologies used to recover bitumen that lies too deep beneath the surface to be mined (more than 75 meters deep) and too viscous to flow on its own.  In situ production is required for approximately 80% of the bitumen found in the oil sands.  The most commonly used technology for in-situ production is Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD). Therfore, more emphasis in the article is placed on this technique. However, there are 3 other techniques also in use:

  • Cyclic Steam Simulation (CSS) – uses a single vertical well and the injection of steam to recover bitumen.
  • Toe to Heel Air Injection (THAI) – involves igniting air and injecting it into a vertical well to melt bitumen and recover it.
  • Vapour Extraction Process (VAPEX) – uses solvents to increase the viscosity of oil sands for recovery.

SAGD was invented in 1978.  SAGD works by drilling two horizontal wells beneath the surface, parallel to each other, about four to six meters apart. The top well is injected with steam that heats the surrounding bitumen, reducing its viscosity.  This is the Steam Assisted (SA) part of the name. The less-viscous bitumen then drains into the bottom well with the help of gravity and is pumped to the surface. This is the Gravity Drainage (GD) part of the name. The produced bitumen is mixed with hydrocarbons to further reduce its viscosity and is then stored in storage tanks for transportation and further processing1.



SAGD has several advantages over oil sands mining. SAGD production has less land disturbance and does not result in the creation of tailings ponds.  However, SAGD requires large amounts of thermal energy to produce steam.  Currently the vast majority of this energy is provided by natural gas, a non-renewable and hydrocarbon fuel source, making greenhouse gas emissions a key concern2.

In addition, water use is another important concern.  The SAGD process requires a significant amount of water, although 80 to 95 percent of the water used is recycled back into the process. Some SAGD operations also use saline water that is determined to be unsuitable for drinking or irrigation purposes in order to minimize the use of fresh water3.

Dive deeper

Recent blog posts about In Situ

No items found.

External resources


Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers

National Petroleum Council (US)

Canadian Heavy Oil Association (CHOA)

International Council on Mining and Metals

Society of Petroleum Engineers

International Minerals & Mining Association

U.S. National Mining Association


Canadian Energy Research Institute 

Total-EP Canada

Alberta’s Petroleum Heritage Edukits

Canadian Centre for Energy Information


Oil & Gas Journal

Oil Sands Review


Energy & Fuels

Journal of Geology and Mining Research


Oil Sands Discovery Centre

Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP)


University of Alberta

Fuel Chemistry Division 

CRS Report for Congress – North American Oil Sands: History of Development, Prospects for the Future

Alberta Oil Magazine

Alberta Government – Rules, Reports and Regulations
The Economist – Oil sands

Alberta Energy Regulator

Parlee – Avoiding the Resource Curse: Indigenous Communities and Canada’s Oil Sands

Alberta Energy: Oil Sands Sustainable Development Secretariat

The Oil Sands Developers Group

Alberta Government – Alberta’s Oil Sands 
Canadian Energy Research Institute – Refining Bitumen: Costs, Benefits and Analysis
Canadian Energy Research Institute – Economic Impacts of New Oil Sands Projects in Alberta (2010-2035)

Total Energy

Alberta Tech Futures

Alberta Energy

Teledyne ISCO

MEG Energy


How SAGD Works | Cenovus Energy

Talk About SAGD | Alberta Energy

SAGD 3D Animation | CAPP


In Situ Report Card | Pembina Institute

Alberta Centre for Reclamation and Restoration Ecology

Water Matters 

Total-EP Canada

Canadian Energy Research Institute – Oil Sands Environmental Impacts
The Royal Society of Canada – Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry
Alberta Government – Oil Sands Environmental Management

Alberta Energy: Oil Sands Sustainable Development Secretariat

Canada’s National Energy Board

IHS – The Role of the Canadian Oil Sands in the US Market
The Globe and Mail – Oil-sands link to health concerns
The Royal Society of Canada – Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry


Canadian Oil Sands

Oil Sands Review




The Wall Street Journal

New York Times


Oil Sands Review

The Wall Street Journal

Huffington Post – Alberta Oil Sands Articles
Financial Post – Majority of oil sands ownership and profits are foreign, says analysis
  1. Total E&P Canada (2014). About Alberta’s oil sands. 
  2. GO Productivity (2014). Lessons learned from execution of oil sand’s SAGD projects.
  3. Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (n.d.). Using undrinkable saline water in SAGD.