Oil sands have already transformed Canada into an energy superpower

This has shifted American dependency from the nations of OPEC to a friendlier and more stable source

Oil sands have been around for decades but they were too expensive to produce at large scale

Rising oil prices altered the economics in their favor, attracting multibillion dollar investments from international oil companies, including those in China


Since 2000, production has expanded to more than 1.5 million barrels a day of synthetic oil from 600,000

This makes Canada's oil sands the most important source of oil imported to the US

Canada also exports considerable oil to the US

Canadian oil sands production is expected to increase 200,000 barrels a day, every year for the next two decades

Current estimates of how much is there already top Iraq's total reserves, guaranteeing Canada's place as a premier oil producer for many decades


The only thing holding back production of Canada's oil sands are environmental concerns

Much of the oil sands come from carving mining sites out of large sections of the boreal forest, an important depository for containing carbon and a breeding ground for many birds


Refining oil sands requires the burning of natural gas, is more carbon intensive than refining of most other crude oils, despite a 40% reduction since 1990 in carbon emissions for each barrel produced

Technological improvements in recent years have streamlined the refining process for bitumin, the feedstock in synthetic oil production

Recovering reserves from deeper underground using steam injection, rather than mining, has reduced the footprint of operations and some environmental damage to forests


Opposition remains strong among American and Canadian environmentalists who are fighting to stop pipelines to the US and western Canada

Without those pipelines, oil sand production capacity would most likely struggle to grow

That resistance has forced the oil companies to invest heavily in research to reduce the footprint of extraction and carbon emissions

Oil Sand Mining in Canada pictures ( 1, 2, 3, 4 )

From National Geographic:

400-Ton Shovel - At the bottom of a mine, a giant shovel devours sand and delivers it to trucks like this three-story, four-million-dollar Caterpillar, which muscle up to 400 tons at a time to extraction plants.

Extraction Plant - At the extraction plant, bitumen is separated from sand in a hot-water wash. As the bitumen rises to the top of the wash, Suncor employee Lee Flett skims off wood, leaves, and other debris before the sticky load is sent to an upgrading facility that converts it to synthetic crude oil.

Squeezing Sand for Oil - Sand, water, and bitumen residues are finally piped to a tailings pond, where the water is extracted, cleaned, and reused in the mines.

Fistful of Oil Sand - contains just 10 to 15 percent bitumen. Only in the past decade have technology and demand merged to make this complex industry profitable. About half the oil produced heads south: The U.S. is Canada's biggest oil customer, importing more from its northern neighbor than from any other nation.

Refinery on River Bank - On the banks of the Athabasca River, Suncor's upgrader plants refined an average of 235,000 barrels of petroleum products a day in 2008. A narrow dike separates the river from ponds that hold water used during the industrial process, which will be cleaned before being reused.

Water Chemistry Sampling - Erin Kelly, a biologist at the University of Alberta, retrieves a sampling device from the Athabasca River near Suncor's bitumen extraction plant. Kelly and colleagues studied the river in 2008, testing for chemical contaminants called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, metals, and other substances. Like oil, bitumen contains natural toxins, and some enter the river through natural erosion of oil sands deposits. Oil companies are required by the Canadian government to prevent residue-heavy water used in bitumen extraction and separation from entering the river, and they store it in massive tailings ponds. Still, seepage can occur, and until recently little concentrated research had been done on the environmental effects of mining in this area. Some locals worry that sand mining and processing are increasing the river's dangerous load. "People from downstream communities have many questions and few answers about the implications of mobilizing these chemicals to the environment," Kelly says. "This research will provide answers to some of their questions."

Lake Fish Health - Ronnie Campbell hauls whitefish from Lake Athabasca, downriver from Fort McMurray, to use as feed for his sled dogs. Locals say their catches are often covered in unusual red spots, and many no longer eat lake fish. While the cause of the spots is unclear, some believe toxic chemicals, such as those released during bitumen production, are leaching into Alberta's rivers and lakes.

Cancer Rates - In the small town of Fort Chipewyan, Emma Michael stands beside the grave of her sister who, like her mother and brother, recently died of cancer. Michael herself is a breast cancer survivor, and the family is among the victims in a cancer cluster that includes, among other forms of the disease, cholangiocarcinoma, a rare malignancy attacking the bile duct. About 1,200 people live in Fort Chipewyan, an isolated community more than a hundred miles downstream from Fort McMurray and its massive mining operations. For several years residents have wondered if pollution from upstream could be causing local health problems. John O'Connor, a physician in Fort Chipewyan for seven years, was among the first to report the high cancer rate. He says the government has not done enough to investigate. "How could such a small community in such a pristine place have such illnesses?" O'Connor asks. In late 2008 the provincial government completed a cancer study, but Fort Chipewyan community leaders rejected the results before they were made public, complaining the study was poorly done.

Syncrude Facility at Night - Like a city aflame, Syncrude's upgrading facility burns on the twilight horizon above one of the company's waste pits. About two tons of bitumen-laden sand are required to produce a single barrel of oil, but it's no straight line from the mine to the gas tank. After being separated from its sandy matrix in a hot water wash, bitumen is transferred to upgrading facilities like Syncrude's, where it is heated and processed in order to break its long, heavy chain of hydrocarbon molecules. Carbon is removed, hydrogen is added, and the new, lighter product is transformed into synthetic crude oil. From there the oil can be further refined into gasoline or jet fuel.

Keeping Birds Away From Tailings Pond - Floating among mats of leftover bitumen on a thousand-acre tailings pond, a radar device scans for incoming birds. The fake falcon flaps its wings, and predator calls blare to scare off waterfowl that would die if they landed on the surface and their feathers became soaked with sludge.