Oil sands are basically oil mixed with sand. This oil, called bitumen, is thick and heavy and can’t be extracted by conventional oil wells.
There are three major oil sands areas in Alberta: Cold Lake, Peace River and Athabasca. Fort McMurray and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo are situated in the Athabasca oil sands region. An estimated 1.7 to 2.5 trillion barrels of bitumen are contained in the oil sands of Alberta. More than one third of all oil produced in Canada comes from the oil sands.
There are two ways to separate the oil from the sand—surface mining (open-pit mining) and in-situ recovery. About 80 per cent of recoverable oil sands is through in-situ production, with less than 20 per cent recoverable by surface mining.
The Athabasca deposit directly around Fort McMurray is the only deposit shallow enough to be surface mined. Surface mining involves first scraping off the top layer of earth (overburden) and then mining the oil sands by shovel and truck.
The trucks dump the oil sands into machines called sizers or crushers to break up the larger pieces. Suncor Energy Inc., Syncrude Canada Ltd., Shell Albian Sands Energy Inc. and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. are the companies currently mining north of Fort McMurray. Imperial Oil's Kearl Lake site will also be a surface mine. (See Oilsands Projects for a current project listing and Working in the oil sands for more information.)
One of the most common in-situ recovery methods in the Wood Buffalo region is Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD, pronounced 'sag dee'). SAGD technology involves drilling two parallel horizontal wells through the oil-bearing formation. Steam is injected into the upper well, to create a high-temperature steam chamber.
The heat loosens the thick crude oil causing it to flow down to the second horizontal well. The bottom well catches the heated, thinner oil and then pumps it to the surface. Water is simultaneously injected into the bitumen-emptied area to maintain ground stability.
Other methods include Toe to Heal Air Injection (THAI), Cyclic Steam Stimulation (CSS) and Vapour Extraction Process (VAPEX).
There are 91 active oil sands projects in Alberta. Of these, five are mining projects and the rest use various in-situ recovery methods. To learn more about oil sands developments in Alberta go online to oilsands.alberta.ca.
Wondering where all the in-situ projects are located?
Most are in remote areas surrounding around Fort McMurray. The Oil Sands Developers Group (OSDG) has created an interactive map which shows in-situ developments in the Wood Buffalo region. Go online to oilsandsdevelopers.ca and click on Oil Sands Map in the menu bar.
more information on the Athabasca Oil
Sands or about getting a job working
in the oil sands, check out:
- Labour Market News: Employment
in the Oil Sands
- Labour Market News: Process Operators