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Tar sands oil extraction: how much oil does it produce?


Few oil production methods are as controversial as oil sands extraction. Not only is it very expensive but it also causes enormous environmental harm1. Despite these impacts, millions of barrels of oil continue to be produced around the world, especially in Canada.2

Tar sands in short

Unlike conventional oil reserves, where oil is in liquid form, tar sands contain a thick and sticky form of oil called bitumen, mixed with sand, clay and water. Therefore, instead of drilling, producing oil from tar sands involves mining when the oil is close to the surface and using steam when it lies deep underground.3

Both methods are extremely costly because of their extensive and complicated processes of extraction, transportation and refinement, making tar sands the most expensive source of oil.4 In addition to this, there are immense environmental costs. The extraction of oil from tar sands is associated with increased greenhouse gas emissions and fresh water use, water pollution, and large land areas used for mining, causing concerns about biodiversity, public health, and climate change.5,6

How much oil is extracted from tar sands?

Despite the costs and the environmental damage, tar sands operations are still being carried out at a large scale. The majority of them take place in Canada.2

Illustrating the damage to the landscape caused by tar sands oil production in Alberta, Canada.
A tar sands development in Northern Alberta, Canada.7

The scope of Canada’s tar sands oil extraction has been on the rise for years. It went from producing just over one million barrels per day (b/d) in 2006 to around three million b/d in 2018 – accounting for almost 4% of the world’s total daily oil production.8,9 Most oil producing countries rely on tar sands for only a small part of their overall production. Canada, on the other hand, extracted 64% of its oil from tar sands in 2018.2

Bitumen extraction is expected to keep growing. 96% of Canada’s total oil reserves are in the form of tar sands, meaning there is still plenty of potential for future production.2 The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) estimates that it will reach 4.25 million b/d by 2035.10


To sum up, oil from tar sands is a relatively small piece of the overall global oil production. However, it is the main source of oil in Canada, despite enormous monetary and environmental costs.


  1. What Are Tar Sands?, Union of Concerned Scientists, February, 2013.
  2. Crude Oil Facts, Government of Canada, March, 2020.
  3. Oil Sands Extraction and Processing, Government of Canada, February, 2016.
  4. Rystad Energy ranks the cheapest sources of supply in the oil industry, Rystad Energy, May, 2019.
  5. Leahy, S. (2019), This is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing, National Geographic.
  6. Timoney, K. P., & Lee, P. (2009), Does the Alberta tar sands industry pollute? The scientific evidence, The Open Conservation Biology Journal3(1).
  7. Foundation for Democratic Advancement, flickr.
  8. Total Bitumen Production from Mining & In-Situ, Oil Sands Magazine, February, 2020.
  9. Annual Statistical Bulletin, OPEC, 2020.
  10. Crude Oil Forecast, Markets and Transportation, The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), 2019.

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