Oil sands 101

Oil sands 101

What are oil sands?
Oil sands are a naturally occurring mixture of thick, heavy oil, water and sand. The heavy oil is classified as bitumen, which is defined as oil that will not flow under natural conditions or pump without being diluted or heated. The consistency of oil sands is similar to that of peanut butter.

Alberta map

Canada’s oil sands deposits contain as much as 173 billion barrels of economically viable oil, second only in size to Saudi Arabia's reserves.

Current oil sands production is about one million barrels of oil per day. By 2020, production is expected to grow to almost four million barrels per day. There is the potential for over 100 years of production.

Where are the oil sands located?
Canada’s oil sands are found in three deposits – the Athabasca, Peace River and Cold Lake areas in Alberta and part of Saskatchewan, with the greatest quantity found in the Athabasca region.

How is the resource recovered?
There are two ways to recover oil sands – mining or in-situ. The method used depends on the depth of the resource.

Mining
If the oil sands are near the surface, they're removed using surface mining, a process that begins with large trucks and shovels. Only 20 percent of all oil sands are close enough to the surface to be mined.

Kearl process

( click to enlarge )

In-situ
If the oil sands are deeper underground, they're recovered using "in-situ" techniques. “In-situ” is Latin for “in place.” In-situ technologies get their name because they remove oil from oil sands while leaving the sand in place.

In-situ technologies include cyclic steam simulation, where high-pressure steam softens and dilutes the bitumen so it can flow to the well during the production phase and steam-assisted gravity drainage, which injects steam into a bitumen formation with one pipe, and then brings the softened hydrocarbon to the surface with another pipe.

Imperial’s heavy oil operation in Cold Lake uses cyclic steam simulation technology to access the in-situ resource. This process is preferred for thick, high-quality reservoirs since it typically provides higher recovery than steam-assisted gravity drainage.

Cyclic steam stimulation