What are Oil Sands? 

Canada’s energy future lies in the oil sands. Our country possesses approximately 174 billion barrels of oil that can be recovered with today’s technology. Of that number, 169 billion are located in the oil sands.

What is Bitumen?

Oil sands are a mixture of sand, water, clay and bitumen.

photo courtesy Laricina Energy Ltd. - upstream of town looking at the south bank of the Athabasca River

Bitumen naturally occurs along the
river banks and in the Athabasca River area.

Bitumen is oil that is too heavy or thick to flow or be pumped without being diluted or heated – at 11 degrees Celsius bitumen is as hard as a hockey puck.


Canada’s oil sands are found in three deposits – the Athabasca, Peace River and Cold Lake areas in Alberta and part of Saskatchewan. The greatest quantity is found in the Athabasca deposit.

The oil sands are sometimes called tar sands.

Read more about tar sands vs. oil sands

Mining Bitumen

There are two different methods of producing oil from the oil sands: open-pit mining and in situ (latin, meaning "in place"). Bitumen that is close to the surface is mined. Bitumen that occurs deep within the ground is produced in situ using specialized extraction techniques.

Oil Sands Truck

Just 20 per cent of the oil sands are
recoverable through open-pit mining.

Open Pit Mining

Open-pit mining is similar to many coal mining operations – large shovels scoop the oil sand into trucks that then take it to crushers where the large clumps of earth are broken down. This mixture is then thinned out with water and transported to a plant, where the bitumen is separated from the other components and upgraded to create synthetic oil. This technique is sometimes misrepresented as the only method of mining oil sands. Just 20 per cent of the oil sands are recoverable through open-pit mining.

Watch a video/animation on oil sands surface mining and reclamation

in situ facility - Shell Canada Limited

Eighty per cent of the oil sands will be developed in situ
which accounts for 97.5 per cent of the total
surface area of the oil sands region in Alberta.

In Situ Drilling

80 per cent of oil sands reserves (which underly approximately 97 per cent of the oil sands surface area) are recoverable through in situ technology, with limited surface disturbance.

Advances in technology, such as directional drilling, enable in situ operations to drill multiple wells (sometimes more than 20) from a single location, further reducing the surface disturbance.

The majority of in situ operations use steam-assisted gravity drainage, or SAGD. This method involves pumping steam underground through a horizontal well to liquefy the bitumen that is then pumped to the surface through a second well.

Watch a video/animation on SAGD in situ drilling

The Issues: Environmental Impacts

Our industry understands that Canadians are concerned about the impacts of our work, and expect that industry will manage the resource responsibly.

 /><p style=Three per cent of the oil sands surface area
could be mined.

The oil sands have generated much public debate, and with that, some misinformation. It’s important to separate fact and fiction and to have a balanced conversation about oil sands development. There are a number of environmental issues in the oil sands, all of which require a commitment to technology and innovation to overcome.  

Read more about the environmental impact of the oil sands, and what our industry is doing to operate in a sustainable way 

The Facts on Oil Sands

The Facts on Oil Sands

CAPP's pocket book is designed to give you fast, easy access to oil sands facts that will help you get in on the discussion.

Read the Facts on Oil Sands
(Designed for Canadians)

Read About Canada's Oil Sands
(Designed for Americans)

Guiding Principles for Oil Sands Development

Canada’s oil sands industry will provide a secure source of energy, reduce its impact on the environment and provide economic benefits to society while developing this globally significant resource.

Safeguarding the Public

Our industry's top priority is the health and safety of the public and employees.

Read more about Health & Safety


CAPP's Canadian Crude Oil Forecast and Market Outlook CAPP releases its Canadian Crude Oil Forecast and Market Outlook annually in late spring.

Download the forecast at



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