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    Oilsands: Extraction and emissions


    Author: Jimmy Thomson, Canadian Geographic

    Publish Date: Oct 4, 2013   Last Update: Sep 20, 2018


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    Canada’s oilsands are found in three main deposits in Alberta: Athabasca, Peace River and Cold Lake. The bitumen separated from the oilsands is extra-heavy grade and requires a great deal of energy and water to be processed into usable products.

    Oilsands found deep underground — below about 70 metres — are extracted in situ (in place), while oilsands found above about 70 metres are strip-mined. 

    The oil sands accounted for 64% of Canada’s oil production in 2017 or 2.7 million barrels per day. The oil sands have an estimated $301 billion of capital investment to date, including $12.8 billion in 2017.

    The Alberta oilsands are found within a 142,000-square-kilometre area of boreal forest in the northern part of the province, larger than the size of New Brunswick, P.E.I. and Nova Scotia put together.

    Oil is classified by its density: light oil is the most valuable, while heavy oil is less valuable — it requires more processing to be converted into gasoline or other petroleum products. Bitumen, separated from the oilsands, is extra-heavy grade, so it requires a great deal of energy and water to be processed into usable products. It takes about two tonnes of oilsands to produce one barrel of synthetic crude oil.

    Greenhouse gas emissions vary depending on the oilsands quality and technologies used. Oil sands account for 10 per cent of Canada's GHG emissions.

    Oilsands found deep underground — below about 70 metres — are extracted in situ (in place). This process involves heating water and injecting the steam into pockets of bitumen. The steam warms the viscous substance to make it easier to extract and pump out. 

    Oilsands found above about 70 metres are strip-mined. In this method, the surface layer of the boreal forest and topsoil is removed to expose the oilsands. Then, some of the world’s largest digging machines scoop the heavy sands into some of the world’s largest trucks, which bring it to facilities for processing.

    Processing a cubic metre of surface-mined oilsands uses anywhere from 2 to 4.5 cubic metres of water. As with in-situ extraction, the water is recycled several times and then becomes unusable; this toxic waste water is collected in tailings ponds, the world’s largest artificial lakes.


    OCT 4, 2013 | DEMAND

    Oilsands: At home and abroad


    OCT 3, 2013 | TRANSMISSION

    Oilsands: From pipelines to refineries


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