James Knight, famous explorer who perished during the Northwest Passage Expedition of 1719-1722, was a Director of the Hudson’s Bay Company and a military commander who was sent to take possession of York Factory in Manitoba. In his travels, his writings refer to a gum or pitch that flows out of the banks of a river, referring to the Athabasca River that flows throughout northern Alberta.
Mr. Knight had observed what we know as Bitumen, a heavy, thick oil that typically is located deep underground but can be found as close as 200 feet from the surface. The problem with Bitumen however has always been how to extract it. According to CAPP (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers), at 10 degrees Celsius, “Bitumen is as hard as a hockey puck.” How to extract such a thick oil in a manner that is economical and environmentally responsible has been the quest for many years now.
What is referred to The Oil Sands are three locations in the Northern parts of Alberta; Fort McMurray being the largest, Peace River and Cold Lake. Oil sands (the substance) are a mixture of sand, clay, water and bitumen.
Bitumen is recovered through one of two processes; either open pit mining or ‘in situ’ drilling, from the Latin meaning, “in place.”
Open pit mining goes after the Bitumen that is located closer to the surface. Large shovel machinery digs out the banks loading it into trucks that deliver the raw material to a crushing site. The material is then broken up and mixed with water at a rate of just over three barrels of fresh water to produce one barrel of Bitumen. This diluted material is then sent by pipeline to an oil plant where the Bitumen is extracted and the watery mix is sent to a tailing pond for the material to settle, and the water to be recycled for later use. According to the AER 2013, it is estimated that 80-95% of all water is recycled.
In Situ drilling, which accounts for approximately 80% of all oil sands work, involves very little surface disturbance. It also requires less water (just under one half a barrel of fresh water to produce a barrel of Bitumen) and no tailing ponds are used. In this process, shafts are drilled into the ground in which heat (typically steam) is pumped into, making the Bitumen more fluid and therefore capable of being pumped to the surface through recovery wells.
Since the late 1930’s, the oil sands have gained recognition as being one of the largest oil reserves in the world. Efforts to tap into its wealth have continued ever since.
As of 2014, CAPP recorded that there are over 100 active projects in Alberta along with just four mining operations and one under construction. Regarding the size of the oil sands, it weighs in as the world’s third largest reserve with an estimated 167 billion barrels. The Oil Sands hold 97% of Canada’s reserves and account for half (approximately 1.8 million barrels per day) of Canada’s current oil production.