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. New technologies are increasing the treatment methods available to oil sands producers as more research is completed.

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Historically, oil sand was incorrectly referred to as tar sand due to the now outdated and largely ineffective practice of using it for roofing and paving tar (oil sand will not harden suitably for these purposes).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;

  • Oil sand is a naturally occurring petrochemical that can be upgraded into crude oil and other petroleum products.
  • Tar is synthetically produced from coal, wood, petroleum or peat through destructive distillation, it is generally used to seal against moisture.


The earliest documented oil sands mining operation was set up in 1745 in northeastern France, with refining capabilities added in 1857.

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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