Athabasca, Alberta, Canada (57°1'12" North, 111°39' West), site of the world’s largest commercial oil sand recovery operations. Oil sands are deposits of natural bitumen, viscous oil that must be treated in order to convert it into an upgraded crude oil before it can be used in refineries to produce gasoline and other fuels. According to the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, Alberta's oil sand deposits contain approximately 1.7 trillion barrels of natural bitumen, of which over 175 billion are recoverable with current technology. Output of marketable oil sands production increased to 858,000 barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2003, up from 741,000 bbl/d the year before. By 2006, Alberta's oil sands production will account for close to one-half of Canada's total crude output and 10 percent of North American production.
The fur trader Peter Pond was the first European to describe the vast oil sands of Athabasca, Canada. In 1788, he wrote: "At about 24 miles from the fork (of the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers) are some bituminous fountains into which a pole of 20 feet long may be inserted without the least resistance. The bitumen is in a fluid state and when mixed with gum, the resinous substance collected from the spruce fir, it serves to gum the Indians' canoes. In its heated state it emits a smell like that of sea coal."
Athabasca Landing, the city's name until 1913, was established by the Hudson's Bay Company at the southernmost point of the loop of the Athabasca River where it swings north-east to Fort McMurray and Lake Athabasca. The westward expansion by European immigrants between in the late 19th century transformed Athabasca Landing into a major fur trading post, and later, a boomtown and transportation gateway for freight and pioneers entering Canada's northwest.
In 1913, Sidney Ells, an engineer for the Canadian Federal Department of Mines, advocated the hot water flotation method of separating bitumen from the tar sands of Athabasca. He was the first to bring out samples for laboratory testing as a road paving material. But oil sands could not compete economically with imported asphalt and the project was dropped. This was one of several unsuccessful attempts to develop the Athabasca sands. Decades later, oil sands re-emerged as a viable energy source. In 1967, the first barrel was shipped from the Great Canadian Oil Sands Project, the world's first commercially successful operation to tap the rich Athabasca oil sands in Alberta, Canada. The project, owned by the Sun Oil Company (later Suncor Energy), ushered in an era of rapid development of the oil sand resource base.
The current operation consists of two main components: the Muskeg River Mine, located 75 kilometers north of Fort McMurray, and the Scotford Upgrader, located next to Shell’s Scotford Refinery north of Fort Saskatchewan. The operation is run by Albian Sands Energy Inc., a company created by Shell Canada Limited, Chevron Canada Limited, and Western Oil Sand L.P. The oil sand is visible on the banks of the Athabasca River, north and south of Fort McMurray, but most of the oil sand in the area lies buried 50 meters or deeper. It is extracted using trucks and shovels and then mixed with warm water to separate the oil from the sand.
The 493-kilometer Corridor Pipeline, owned by Terasen Inc., interconnects the mine and the upgrader and consists of two separate pipelines. The 24 inch pipeline transports 215,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen from the mine to the upgrader, and the 12-inch return line transports 65,000 barrels per day of diluents back to the mine for re-use. The Scotford Upgrader, primarily owned by Shell Canada Limited, uses hydrogen-addition technology to upgrade the bitumen from the Muskeg River Mine into a wide range of synthetic crude oils. Much of the output from the upgrader is sold to refineries and the balance of the synthetic crude is sold to the general market.
- Alberta Department of Energy. About oil sands.
- World Energy Council. 2004. Oil Sands and Heavy Oil, In Cutler J. Cleveland, Editor, The Encyclopedia of Energy (Elsevier Science, Oxford, United Kingdom).