Alberta’s oil sands were formed millions of years ago, as tiny marine creatures died and drifted to the sea floor and were covered by layers of sediment that exerted enough pressure and temperatures to transform the organic matter into oil.

Over millions of years, that oil became trapped in thick layers of sand. Gradually, lighter hydrocarbons evaporated or were consumed by bacteria, leaving bitumen and water trapped in the sand. The area was then covered by glacial debris, but oil sands outcrops along the Athabasca River showed where deposits lay buried.

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Oil Sands Discovery and Early Use

In 1717, fur trader Henry Kelsey was recorded as the first European to have seen the oil sands after Waupisoo of the Cree people brought a sample to the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post in the Athabasca region. At that time, bitumen’s primary use had nothing to do with energy. Indigenous people residing in the area combined it with spruce gum to waterproof their canoes – a practice described by Sir Alexander Mackenzie in 1790 as he traveled through the area.

Economic Potential of the Oil Sands

The economic potential of the oil sands was recognized by Charles Mair in 1908, who wrote, “That this region is stored with a substance of great economic value is beyond all doubt, and, when the hour of development comes, it will, I believe, prove to be one of the wonders of Northern Canada. We were all deeply impressed by this storehouse of not only hidden but exposed resources we possess in this enormous country. What is unseen can only be conjectured; but what is seen would make any region famous.”

Scientist Karl Clark of the Alberta Research Council pioneered a method for separating bitumen from sand. This process was key to the eventual development of large-scale oil sands mining projects.

Industrial Development

Efforts to tap the oil sands resource began in the early 20th century. The challenge: how to release bitumen from the sand and water? In 1944, Dr. Karl Clark, working for the Research Council of Alberta, used hot water and mixing to separate bitumen from sand. Large-scale experimentation at Bitumount proved that the method could work, but first commercial development of the oil sands didn’t happen until 1967 with the opening of the Great Canadian Oil Sands project – now Suncor.