Oil Sands History and Milestones

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.


When were the oil sands discovered? 

The oil sands have drawn interest for more than 200 years. Historical documents date back as far as 1715, when James Knight, Factor of Fort York, wrote in his journal about "gum or pitch that flows out of the banks of a river” (the Athabasca). His is the first report by a European regarding the oil sands deposits in western Canada.

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.”

When did industrial development begin? 

Canada's Oil Sands

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 that 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.

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