Oil Sands

Oil Sands is a form of heavy oil found in sand and rock primarily in the Athabasca region of Northern Alberta, Canada.


What is Oil Sands?

Oil sands’ or ‘tar sands’ are a mixture of sand, clay, and water that contain an extra heavy crude oil variant known as bitumen. Bitumen is highly viscous, meaning it does not flow unless it is heated or mixed with lighter hydrocarbons1. It is often compared to cold molasses.

To extract the bitumen in the oil sands, conventional oil drilling techniques cannot be used because bitumen is too heavy to be pumped and sticks to sand grains. Therefore other extraction techniques have been developed. The most common methods to extract bitumen are open-pit mining and in-situ, which is Latin for ‘in place’.

Bitumen within 75 meters of the surface is open-pit mined. First, huge clumps of oil sands are shoveled into large trucks.  They are then taken to crushers, where they are broken down and mixed with heated water to separate the bitumen from the sand. Once the bitumen is released, it is sent for further processing.

Around 80 percent of the oil sands are found 75 meters below the surface; therefore, to extract them, in-situ or underground methods must be used. The majority of the in-situ operations pump steam underground through horizontal wells with the purpose of liquefying the bitumen which can then be pumped up to the surface – a method called Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD).

Produced bitumen is heavier than conventional sources and requires a special process called upgrading to give it properties similar to conventional oil.  Once processed, bitumen is refined just like conventional oil into common petroleum products.

The two largest oil sands reserves in the world are located in Northern Alberta, Canada and Venezuela2.



The oil sands represent a large supply of potentially recoverable oil and, like all oil, its key advantage is its energy density. The synthetic crude oil created through upgrading bitumen is mostly used to fuel cars, airplanes, and trucks. However, bitumen is also used to create petrochemical products that people use daily, such as artificial limbs, icepacks, soccer balls, medical equipment and even LCD touch screens for laptops and cell phones3. Interestingly bitumen is also used to pave roads and patch holes in canoes.

Oil sands development poses environmental and social challenges. The crude derived from oil sands is more carbon intensive than conventional crude, due to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with its production techniques. Other environmental challenges include heavy water use, which in most cases comes from fresh water sources. Tailings ponds, which are man-made dams for storing wastewater from oil sands mining processes, are problematic because of the contaminants contained in the wastewater. Currently, the water cannot be naturally recycled back into the ecosystem but many companies are exploring technologies to return the water and ponds to their natural states.  Land disturbance and use is also a concern for the oil sands, particularly when it comes to mining, as deposits occur in ecologically diverse areas.

Finally, the complexity of extraction techniques used for oil sands production equates to higher production costs than conventional sources of oil.

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Recent blog posts about Oil Sands

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 (2014). Oil sands glossary. http://www.energy.alberta.ca/OilSands/1708.asp
  2. Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (2012). Alberta’s energy industry: An overview. 
  3. Cenovus (2014). Examples of products made with oil and natural gas. http://www.cenovus.com/news/more-than-fuel-chart.html