Oilsands | Pembina Institute

Alberta's Oilsands Climate Impacts Water Impacts Tailings Reclamation Air Pollution

Alberta’s Oilsands

Click each heading for more detailed information.

The oilsands underlie approximately 140,000 square kilometres of Alberta,1 an area only slightly smaller than the state of Florida.2
  • The land area open to oilsands leases covers about 20% of Alberta.3
  • Alberta’s oilsands are primarily found in three deposits: Athabasca, Cold Lake, and Peace River.4
Alberta’s first oilsands mine opened in 1967.5
  • The company that started that mine, Great Canadian Oilsands Company, is now called Suncor Energy.6
  • Industrial interest in the oilsands goes back as far as the early 1700s, when local First Nations fur traders brought oilsands samples to the Hudson’s Bay Fort Churchill post.7
Over 66% of the total oilsands area has been leased to companies for extraction.8
  • As of January 2013, the Alberta government had granted 93,000 square kilometres of oilsands leases.9
  • The government grants oilsands leases without an environmental assessment.10
Oilsands operations either surface mine the ore or extract the bitumen using in situ techniques.11
  • Surface mining is used for oilsands deposits that are less than 75 metres underground.
  • Deeper deposits are recovered using techniques that heat and extract the bitumen “in place” (in situ) so it can be pumped to the surface.
The surface mineable area is six times as large as New York City, and 78 times as large as Manhattan Island.12
  • The surface mineable area covers 4,750 square kilometres in the Athabasca Oilsands Region.13
  • With surface mining, the area is first removed of “overburden”: trees are cleared, muskeg is drained of water and removed, and then the underlying clay, silt and gravel is removed to expose the oilsands deposit.
  • Large shovels excavate the oilsands and load it in giant trucks that transport it to an extraction plant where heat and water separate the bitumen from the sand.14
As of January 2013, oilsands mining operations have disturbed 715 square kilometres of boreal forest 15
  • The current area disturbed by oilsands mining (715 square kilometres) is the same size as the urban area of the City of Calgary.16
  • In total, 4,700 square kilometres have been leased for oilsands surface mining operations as of January 2013. 17
  • By 2022, it is expected that mining and in situ oilsands development will result in the daily clearing of 18.6 hectares of forest, or the equivalent of 34.5 football fields, every day.18
  • Mining operations have an average land use intensity of 9.4x10-6 hectares per barrel.19
Oilsands suitable for in situ extraction underlie 135,250 square kilometres which is more than 25 times larger than the surface mineable area,20 and is roughly equivalent to the size of England.21
  • In situ extraction is performed by drilling several wells into the deposit, using steam to heat and separate the bitumen, and then pumping the bitumen to the surface.22
  • Most in situ oilsands deposits are 350 to 600 metres below the surface.23
  • The two main types of in situ technology are steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) and cyclic steam stimulation (CSS).24
  • In situ oilsands production has an average land use intensity of 1.6x10-6 hectares per barrel.25
Alberta’s oilsands are the third largest petroleum reserve in the world, smaller only than those of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. 26
  • The Alberta oilsands contain reserves of approximately 1.8 trillion barrels of crude bitumen. Of that, an estimated 170 billion barrels can be recovered using current technology.27
  • In comparison, Canada has an estimated 4.3 billion barrels of conventional crude oil reserves, of which 1.5 billion barrels are in Alberta.28
  • Approximately 20% of the bitumen is surface mineable and 80% is suitable for in situ extraction.29
In 2012, 56% of Canada’s total oil production came from the oilsands,30 and that proportion is growing yearly.
  • In 2011, 51% of Alberta’s oilsands production (or 889,000 barrels per day) was from mining operations, with in situ operations producing the other 49% (or 854,000 barrels per day).31
  • Currently, less than half of the total oilsands production was exported out of province as non-upgraded bitumen. This proportion of non-upgraded bitumen exports is projected to rise from 46% (741,400 barrels per day) in 2011 to 58% (1,986,000 barrels per day) of total production barrels per day by 2021.32
Canada’s oilsands continue to rapidly expand and more than a doubling of current oilsands production has been approved by federal and provincial regulators.33
  • As of September 2013, operating oilsands design capacity is 2.45 million barrels per day. A total of 5.65 million barrels per day have been approved by the provincial and federal governments.34
  • Actual oilsands production in 2011 was 1.7 million barrels per day.35
  • Industry forecasts suggest production rates will increase to 5.2 million barrels per day by 2030.36
Individual oilsands projects do not operate in isolation. Every new project that is approved adds to the cumulative environmental impacts associated with development in northeastern Alberta.
  • The Royal Society of Canada noted that a lack of provincial and federal regulatory capacity has failed to effectively assess cumulative impacts of oilsands development.37
  • A lack of reliable data makes it difficult to set, monitor and enforce ecosystem capacity limits.38,39
  • The 2012 budget bill (Bill C-38) further weakens federal oversight (e.g., weakened protection for fish and species at risk and a less comprehensive environmental assessment law) of how oilsands development proceeds by changing Canada’s most important environmental laws.40
updated April 2013



Our perspectives to your inbox.