Oil Sands Mining

Mining refers to the oil sands extraction process whereby large amounts of earth are removed, mixed with water and transported by pipeline to a plant, where the bitumen is separated.


What is Oil Sands Mining?

Oil sands are a mixture of sand, water, clay and bitumen found in several locations around the globe, with the largest reserve located in Alberta, Canada. Oil sand can be upgraded into synthetic crude oil and other petroleum products1.

There are two different methods of producing oil from oil sands: open-pit mining and in situ. Bitumen that is close to the surface (less than 75 metres) is mined. Approximately 20% of oil sands are recoverable through open-pit mining.

Bitumen is extremely thick and too heavy to flow or be pumped, and therefore requires dilution and/or heating during the production process.

Open pit mining is similar to coal mining operations – large shovels scoop the oil sand into trucks that then take it to crushers where the large clumps of earth are broken down. This mixture is then mixed with water to form a slurry that is transported to a plant, where the bitumen is separated from the other components in a froth process. Bitumen normally undergoes a process called upgrading to create synthetic oil that can be refined.



In general, unconventional forms of oil including oil sands mining are becoming important in global energy supply due to decreasing reserves of conventional oil. For the Canadian oil sands, debate continues over the industry’s environmental impacts and capacity for export. The International Energy Agency has warned that expanding Canadian production hinges on transportation capacity2.


Environmental concerns regarding oil sands mining focus on the toxic waste byproduct of the extraction process and land disturbance. After the sand is brought to an extraction plant, it undertakes a dilution process in which it is mixed with hot water and chemicals so that it may flow freely into pipelines. The water that cannot be recycled is contained in tailings ponds, where the thick sediment emits toxins. Additionally, as with all mining, there are significant land disturbances.


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Recent blog posts about Oil Sands Mining

External resources


Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers

National Petroleum Council (US)

Canadian Heavy Oil Association (CHOA)


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


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 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)

Alberta Centre for Reclamation and Restoration Ecology

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. Alberta Energy (2015). What is oil sands? http://www.energy.gov.ab.ca/oilsands/793.asp 
  2. Yadullah, H. (2014). New emissions from Canada’s oil sands: Extremely low says IEA’s chief economist. Financial Post. http://business.financialpost.com/news/energy/new-emissions-from-canadas-oil-sands-extremely-low-says-ieas-chief-economist?__lsa=bfcb-b3b5