What are the oil sands?
Oil sands are a mixture of sand, clay, water, and bitumen. Bitumen is extra-heavy crude oil, some of which is so viscous that it cannot flow on its own. When bitumen is deposited at shallow depths of less than about 65 metres, it can be surface mined; however, about 80 per cent of the recoverable bitumen reserves in Alberta are buried too deep to mine and can only be recovered by drilling wells. This is referred to as “in situ” recovery (Latin for “in position”).
Where are oil sands deposits located in Alberta?
Oil sands occur around the world, but Alberta sits atop the largest known deposits.
This diagram of Alberta shows the surface area that active oil sands deposits cover and what portion is close enough to the surface to be mined. Within the 381 000 square kilometres of boreal forest in Alberta, about 90 000 square kilometres contain active oil sands deposits. Of that, only 4800 square kilometres (about 5 per cent) is close enough to the surface to be mined.
How many oil sands projects are there?
As of March 2012, there are nine oil sands mining projects.
There are more than 50 thermal in situ projects approved in Alberta, where techniques involving heat in the reservoir allow the bitumen to be recovered.
In addition, over 200 primary and enhanced recovery projects extract bitumen that has a low enough viscosity to flow to wellbores either on its own or with the injection of fluids into the reservoir. The ERCB has also approved almost 20 experimental schemes that are testing unproven technology or new applications of existing technologies.
Alberta currently has seven oil sands processing plants that upgrade bitumen to lighter hydrocarbon liquids known as synthetic crudes. Synthetic and conventional crude oils are handled similarly because their chemical structures are almost identical and they behave the same way in similar situations.
Oil Sands Production and Reserves
The ERCB gathers information on all aspects of production and reserves for resources under our jurisdiction. This information is published annually as ST98: Alberta's Energy Reserves and Supply/Demand Outlook. Refer to the chapter “Crude Bitumen” for detailed information on oil sands production and reserves.