What Does the Oil Sands Look Like? You'd Be Surprised...

So, what does the oil sands in Canada look like? You'd be surprised, especially considering this vast oil reserve is often incorrectly referred to as the "tar sands," and the photos we usually see in media nowadays are those of open mines. But just a small percent of the oil sands land area has been disturbed because of mining operations, so why don't we ever see an in-situ lease to portray the oil sands?

Of course an open mine is going to look apocalyptic from an environmental perspective, as would any open mine for any industry (Google lithium or copper mines as an example). But the whole story is not being told. A very small area of the oil sands in Alberta can be extracted from surface mining operations. The facts:

  • Only 20% of the Alberta oil sands is mineable (by surface area)
  • The remaining 80% of oil is too deep and can only be extracted using in-situ methods with minimal land disturbance
  • Oil sands surface area: 142,000 km2
  • Mineable oil sands area cleared or disturbed: 767 km2
  • That's 0.5% of oil sands total surface area disturbed (as of Dec 31, 2017)

Below are several pictures showing you just exactly what the oil sands looks like in Canada including in-situ operations (like steam-assisted gravity drainage), mining operations and reclaimed oil sands land. Also see:


In-situ versus Mining Operations - Oil Sands Magazine

In-Situ vs. Mining Production - Oil Sands Magazine

In-situ oil operations in Alberta - Oil Sands Magazine

Different Thermal Operations in Alberta - Oil Sands Magazine

Given that a majority of production comes from in-situ operations and only a very tiny surface area of the mineable oil sands area has been disturbed, let's start off with images of steam-assisted gravity drainage and other in-situ sites to answer the question: what does the oil sands look like?

In-situ operations involve minimal land disturbances as you can see in the following photos:

Christina Lake SAGD Well Pads + Facilities - Cenovus

Cenovus Energy Christina Lake FacilitiesCenovus Christina Lake SAGD FacilitiesCenovus Christina Lake SAGD Facilities

The oil at Christina Lake is about 375 metres underground, so specialized recovery techniques like steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) are used to get the oil to surface. Cenovus's Christina Lake currently produces about 210,000 barrels of oil every day and is one of the most efficient SAGD facilities in the industry. It uses less water and natural gas compared to others like it, meaning less greenhouse gas emissions per barrel of oil produced.

Foster Creek SAGD Oil Sands Facilities - Cenovus

Cenovus Foster Creek SAGD Operations

Foster Creek Cenovus Oil Sands Well Pad SAGD

Man checks steam transmission lines at Foster Creek, Cenovus Energy Project in Alberta Oil SandsAn employee checks steam transmission lines at Foster Creek

Cenovus's other in-situ project in Canada's oil sands produces near capacity every month (between 150,000 up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day). The oil at Foster Creek sits about 450 metres below the surface, therefore it needs to be recovered using in-situ methods like SAGD. Surface land disturbance is minimal, as you can see from the photos above.

Christina Lake SAGD Oil Sands Facilities - MEG Energy

MEG Energy's Christina Lake Well Pad

Road to MEG Energy's Christina Lake Oil Sands Project

A road through the boreal forest to MEG Energy's Christina Lake Operation

MEG Energy's Christina Lake oil sands facility is another SAGD operation in the Christina Lake area. It's located in the largest area of Canada's oil sands called the Athabasca oil sands. Latest projections (according to oil sands magazine) puts year-end production by the end of last year at 100,000 barrels per day.

Cold Lake Thermal Operation Facilities - Imperial Oil

Imperial Oil Solvent-Assisted SAGD Cold Lake

Cold Lake Oil Sands Operation - Imperial OilImperial Oil's Cold Lake facilities in the Cold Lake oil sands area produce on average about 160,000 barrels per day of oil using solvent-assisted SAGD. About 400 employees and up to 1,000 contractors work in Imperial Oil's Cold Lake operation.

Nexen Long Lake SAGD Facilities

Nexen Long Lake SAGD Nexen Long Lake Oil Sands Operation

CNOOC/Nexen's Long Lake in-situ facilities produce roughly 40,000 barrels of oil per day give or take. In summer of 2018, the company announced its plans for a $400 million expansion of current operational facilities which will boost production by about 26,000 barrels of oil a day.


Oil Sands Mining Operations - Northern Alberta - Oil Sands MagazineDifferent mining operations in northern Alberta - Oil Sands Magazine

Considering that mining operations entail a very very very small part of the oil sands overall surface area (less than a per cent), we've decided to show a proportionate amount of images. All mining operations in the oil sands are based near Fort McMurray / Fort Mackay in Northern Alberta.

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. Horizon Mining Operation

CNRL Horizon Mining OperationCNRL Horizon Mine

With a capacity of 294,000 barrels of oil a day, CNRL's Horizon is by far the largest oil sands mining operation in Northern Alberta. It has been in operation since 2009 and has an upgrading plant among other related facilities.

Suncor Fort Hills Mining Operation

Suncor Fort Hills Mining ProjectSuncor Fort Hills Mining Operation Canada's Oil SandsThe Fort Hills mining operation is the newest in the Fort McMurray area to begin production. It is co-owned by three companies: Suncor, Total and Teck. With a capacity of 194,000 barrels a day, it's one of the largest mining operations in Canada's oil sands. Currently, Fort Hills employs about 1,400 people, a majority of whom are Canadian and many of those from Alberta.


Canadian oil sands operators are required by law to develop an in-depth, multi-stage plan for land reclamation. This plan is part of any project's approval process. Learn more about land reclamation in the oil sands.

Below are various oil sands sites in various stages of the reclamation process. Also see:

20+ Photos of Reclaimed Oil Sands Land

Syncrude's Mildred Lake Reclaimed Oil Sands Land

Syncrude Mildred Lake Reclaimed Oil Sands Mine

Take a stroll through the 104-hectare area of Gateway Hill in Northern Alberta and you'll see pristine boreal forests of jackpine, aspens and spruce amid lush wetlands. Heck, you might even see a fox, deer or perhaps coyote. If you're a bird watcher, you may catch a glimpse of a handful of different species in just one day. With all this, you would surely think that two or three decades ago Gateway Hill was the same as it is today, and not the oil sands mine it once was.

Syncrude Mildred Lake Reclaimed Oil Sands Land

In 1983, Gateway Hill was a large mining operation in Canada's oil sands. It was characterized by open black mining pits, deep earth gouges and industrial markings as far as the eye could see. In short, it probably looked like something in the picture above of Syncrude's Mildred Lake oil sands operation before reclamation (notice the reclaimed land image below).

Syncrude Mildred Lake Reclaimed Oil Sands Land

Today, Gateway Hill has been certified by the Alberta Government to be reclaimed to a state that is equal to its pre-mine condition. It is one of several reclamation projects happening throughout the oil sands that operators are required to commence after a project's lifetime has expended. Reclaimed lands do not have to be identical to the pre-mine condition, but they must represent the boreal ecosystem accurately. In short, as a passerby in Gateway Hill, you must never know that there was a mine there in the first place.

Syncrude's Gateway Hill Reclaimed Oil Sands Land

Syncrude's Gateway Hill Reclaimed Oil Sands

Syncrude Gateway Hill Reclaimed Oil Sands

The first step in the Gateway Hill oil sands reclamation process was to put down a thick layer of overburden on the surface of the mine. In Gateway Hill's region, the overburden consists mostly of clay, sand and water with a high concentration of sodium sulfate, a type of salt. This has surprised many ecologists as salty soils are typically not good for plant growth, but yet, boreal forests were growing at Gateway Hill's top surface before the mine was constructed.

Syncrude's Bill's Lake Reclaimed Oil Sands Land

Syncrude Bill's Lake Oil Sands Reclaimed

The second step of reclamation at Gateway Hill included laying down a forest layer, a mixture of forest floor material, overburden and peat. This forest layer is the basis of growth for plants and vegetation. In many instances, the original ground layer of a new mine is saved and used in small phases of reclamation as the bitumen is extracted. The living material in the salvaged dirt dies within a two to three year time frame, which is why most newer mines undergo phases of reclamation even when mining is still occurring.

Time is another huge factor in reclamation, with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) saying it's at least a 50 year process. That's why the full effects of reclamation activities have not yet been realized, save in certain scenarios like that of Syncrude's Gateway Hill, Bill's Lake and Mildred Lake oil sands operations (all three seen above).

Bison Graze on Reclaimed Oil Sands Land Near Syncrude Facility

Wood Bison Graze on Oil Sands Reclaimed Land

Wood Bison Graze on Oil Sands Reclaimed Land

A large herd of bison now graze on reclaimed oil sands land near Syncrude facilities in Northern Alberta. Originally, Syncrude wanted to introduce cattle to see how large mammals would fare on reclaimed land, but after consulting with the nearby Fort McKay First Nation, buffalo were chosen instead.

In 1993, 30 bison were introduced from Elk Island National Park outside Edmonton to a pasture site in the middle of Syncrude's Mildred Lake operation. Today, the herd has grown to approximately 10 times its original size to about 300 bison!

What Does The Oil Sands Look Like?

Canada Action - If we don't use Canada's fossil fuels, we will use someone elses

You should now have a broader understanding of what MOST of the oil sands operations in Alberta look like. Yes, open mines will always look like an environmental catastrophe, but that could not be further from the truth. Nor are these open mines any different than other mining operations, save the black oil that's stuck to the sand which makes it look much more "dirty" of a process.

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) has some of the highest environmental rules and regulations regarding oil and gas production in Alberta, full-reclamation of disturbed lands being one of them. We encourage you to discover just how stringent the AER's reclamation rules are for yourself and see why Canada is a world-leader when it comes to producing oil and gas in a responsible, transparent and environmentally-friendly way.


No Pipelines = Third World System

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