Alberta’s oil sands were formed millions of years ago when the province was covered by a warm tropical sea.
Oil began forming in southern Alberta when tiny marine creatures died and drifted to the seafloor. Over time, their bodies were compressed by heat and pressure and formed liquid rock oil – referred to today as petroleum. In the north, rivers flowing away from the sea deposited sand and sediment. When tectonic plates shifted to form the Rocky Mountains, the pressure squeezed the oil northward causing it to seep into the sand.
At that time, bitumen’s primary use had nothing to do with energy. First Nations residing in the area combined it with spruce gum to waterproof their canoes. In 1788, Sir Alexander MacKenzie wrote of his encounter with “bituminous fountains; into which a pole of twenty feet long may be inserted without the least resistance. The bitumen is in a fluid state, and when mixed with gum or the resinous substance collected from the Spruce Fir, serves to gum the canoes.”
The economic potential of the oil sands was observed in 1908, after recording secretary Charles Mair predicted: “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 (above) pioneered a method for separating bitumen from sand. This process was key to the eventual development of large-scale oil sands mining projects.
Efforts to tap the oil sands resource began in the early 20th century. However, their potential wasn’t fully grasped until the late 1930s:
"The tar sands, or more properly the oil sands, of the McMurray area constitute probably the largest potential oil field in the world, and it has been the dream of many oil technologists to find an efficient and economic process of separating the oil from the sand in such a condition that it will be readily processed in a modern refinery into gasoline, diesel and fuel oil, and road oils. The engineers of Abasand Oils Ltd., at Fort McMurray, have for some time grappled with the problem and have worked out a treatment which appears efficient and economical . . . It is expected that trial runs will be made before the end of the year and that the plant will be in full operation early in 1940." (SOURCE: peel.library.ualberta.ca)
To this day, Mr. Dummond’s prediction rings true, as separating the oil from the sands is an ongoing challenge. Technology has improved with each decade, and many of the most significant milestones have only recently been achieved. Making the most of this incredible resource truly is a work in progress.
1875: Canada's Geological Survey registers oil sands.
1915: Shipments to Edmonton for paving.
1929: Dr. Karl Clark patents hot water separation process.
1938: Abasand commercial production (2,500 barrels). Destroyed by fire in 1941; not rebuilt.
1950s: Separation technology using centrifugal force. Strong interest results in dozens of exploration leases.
1964: Esso starts Cold Lake project; Great Canadian Oil Sands (GCOS) construction.
1967: First GCOS (Suncor) production; 32,000 barrels/day.
1978: First Syncrude production; 109,000 barrels/day.
1993: Truck and shovel technology adapted; key to revitalizing development outlook.
1997: Syncrude begins using hydrotransport technology that allows oil sands to be mixed with water closer to mines and moved through a pipeline to condition it for the extraction process.
2001: First commercial steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) in situ drilling project
2004: Oil sands production reaches 1 million barrels/day.
2007: Devon Energy’s Jackfish project became the first commercial in situ operation to rely completely on saline water, requiring no fresh water withdrawals.
2008: Sycrude granted first land reclamation certificate.
2010: Suncor reclaims first tailings pond.
2013: Operations commence at Imperial Oil’s Kearl Oil Sands project; utilizing new technology that significantly lowers GHG emissions to levels similar to those of oils refined in the United States.