What is Oil Sands?

Alberta’s oil reserves play an important role in the Canadian and global economy, supplying stable, reliable energy to the world. Alberta's oil sands have been described by Time Magazine as "Canada's greatest buried energy treasure." But what is oil sand exactly?

Oil sand is a naturally occurring mixture of sand, clay or other minerals, water and bitumen, which is a heavy and extremely viscous oil that must be treated before it can be used by refineries to produce usable fuels such as gasoline and diesel. Bitumen is so viscous that at room temperature it acts much like cold molasses. A variety of treatment methods are currently available to oil sands producers and new methods are put into practice as more research is completed and new technology is developed.

Oil sand can be found in several locations around the globe, including Venezuela, the United States and Russia, but the Athabasca deposit in Alberta is the largest, most developed and utilizes the most technologically advanced production processes.

Historically, oil sand was incorrectly referred to as tar sand due to the now outdated and largely ineffective practice of using it for roofing and paving tar (oil sand will not harden suitably for these purposes). Though they appear to be visibly similar, tar and oil sands are different; while oil sand is a naturally occurring petrochemical, tar is a synthetically produced substance that is largely the last waste product of the destructive degradation of hydrocarbons. Furthermore, their uses are completely different; oil sand can be refined to make oil and ultimately fuel, while tar cannot and has historically been used to seal wood and rope against moisture.


The earliest documented oil sands mining operation was set up in 1745 in northeastern France, with refining capabilities added in 1857. Oil sand has also been used by ancient civilizations such as Canadian First Nations for waterproofing.

In 1929, the Dominion of Canada issued a patent to Dr. Karl A. Clark for the hot-water extraction process for separating bitumen from oil sands. This process laid the groundwork for the large-scale methods used by today’s producers of Canadian oil sands. Read more.

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