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Here’s how oil sands mining works

oil sands mining

Oil sands mining is one of the most politically1 and legally2 controversial fossil fuel industries. But, how exactly does oil sands mining work?

What are Oil Sands?

Oil sands, sometimes referred to as tar sands,3 are a mixture of materials including sand, water, clay and a type of oil that is too heavy and thick to flow on its own. We call this type of oil bitumen.4

Oil sands production companies can change bitumen into different petroleum products and forms, for example synthetic crude oil.5 The construction industries also use bitumen for road construction, roofing and more.6

The Athabasca deposit in Alberta, Canada is the largest oil sands reserve in the world. The Syncrude Project, of which Suncor Energy is a part, is responsible for operations in this region.7 The Fort Hills mine in north Alberta is one of the project’s flagship mines.8

How Oil Sands Mining Works

There are two main ways of getting oil out of oil sands: open pit mining and in situ.9

If bitumen is found less than 75 metres from the surface, the area can become an open pit mine.10 Around 20 percent of Alberta’s oil sands are close enough to the surface for open pit mining.11

Companies create open-pit mines by first clearing land of trees and other vegetation. After draining water and removing more layers of earth, operators then create mine faces and begin extraction and processing. Oil sands mining companies must reclaim the mine site once bitumen resources are gone.12

Reclaiming means putting mined regions back to a natural state.13 This can include replanting trees or recreating wetlands. This process continues until the site can support plants and wildlife.

In situ mining involves creating two wells at a mining site. Operators inject steam into the top well, which heats up the bitumen. Bitumen drains into the bottom well. Workers then pump the bitumen to the surface. This is called Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD).14

The Environmental Costs of Oil

If we want to achieve our climate change goals new mines and pipelines cannot go ahead, say environmental groups like Greenpeace.15

For example, projections for the Canadian Energy East Pipeline say the site may have the capacity to pump up to 1.1-million barrels of bitumen per day from the oil sands in Alberta.16 Based on this information, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions could increase by 32 million tonnes.17

Oil sands mining projects are also bad for the environment. Clearing large areas of land for new mines releases carbon, destroys the local environment and endangers wildlife. Reviews show that oil companies have also failed to meet their obligation to reclaim cleared land.18

What’s more, oil prices are unreliable. This can be down to a number of problems like political unrest, disease outbreaks and natural disasters.19 World governments have propped up fossil fuel industries,20 but they are also facing pressure to stop.21

While oil sands mining once offered Canada and other nations an economic boost, the evidence is clear that the oil industry is costing our planet dearly.


  1. Muru, T., 2016. Canada’s Climate Change Dilemma. [online] BBC News. Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  2. Jowit, J., 2009. Indigenous People To Launch Legal Challenge Against Oil Firms Over Canada Tar Sand Project. [online] The Guardian. Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  3. Gailus, J., 2012. Web Exclusive: Is It Tar Sands Or Oil Sands?. [online] A\J – Canada’s Environmental Voice. Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  4. Union of Concerned Scientists. 2013. What Are Tar Sands?. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 20 May 2020].
  5. Amatto, T., In Situ | Student Energy. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  6. Claisse, P., 2016. Bituminous Material – An Overview | Sciencedirect Topics. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  7. 2020. Ownership & Investors | Syncrude. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  8. Oil Sands Magazine. 2020. Fort Hills Mine | Oil Sands Magazine. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  9. Brett, D., Oil Sands | Student Energy. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  10. Oil Sands Magazine. 2017. Mining For Bitumen | Oil Sands Magazine. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  11. Oil Sands Magazine. 2017. Mining For Bitumen | Oil Sands Magazine. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  12. Cheng, L. and Skousen, J., 2017. Comparison Of International Mine Reclamation Bonding Systems With Recommendations For China. [online] Springer Link. Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  13. CAPP. Land Reclamation In Canada | Land Reclamation Projects & Action | CAPP. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  14. 1994. Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage – An Overview | Sciencedirect Topics. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  15. Greenpeace Canada. 2017. Greenpeace Reacts To Cancellation Of Energy East Pipeline – Greenpeace Canada. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  16. 2015. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  17. CCNB, D. Transcanada’S Energy East Pipeline: What You Need To Know. [online] CCNB. Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  18. Lothian, N., 2017. Fifty Years Of Oilsands Equals Only 0.1% Of Land Reclaimed. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  19. Investopedia. 2020. What Causes Oil Prices To Fluctuate?. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  20. Coady, D., Parry, I., Le, N. and Shang, B., 2019. Global Fossil Fuel Subsidies Remain Large: An Update Based On Country-Level Estimates, WP/19/89, May 2019. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
  21. Subsidies, n.d. Fossil Fuel Subsidies. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 May 2020].
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