With the growing energy shortages facing many of the countries of the world it will be necessary to focus attention on new potential reserves for relief. Of all the major possible sources, the tar sands deposits of Alberta are probably the nearest to being ready for full scale commercial development with Great Canadian Oil Sands Limited pioneering the way. The initial years of operation have been difficult ones but the operation is now entering a period of steadier conditions and full production rates. A description of the operations from mine through extraction to upgrading facilities follows.


The existence of the Athabasca Tar Sands deposits have been known for centuries. As natives. fur traders and trappers travelled the lower reaches of the Athabasca River they could see outcroppings along the river banks and indeed made use of the bitumen which oozed from the sands as patching material for their canoes.

The first commercial production of bitumen was achieved in 1930 and the product sold in Edmonton as a roofing material. From this point until 1945 several small plants were constructed but all failed for one reason or another. Many oil companies have experimented with tar sands since this time but only one – Great Canadian Oil Sands Limited has managed to develop a full scale plant capable of producing commercial volumes of product.

As the pioneer in developing this new project, it was necessary to combine three entirely new major operations, anyone of which could be, and was, beset with staggering, and in the early stages what appeared to be insurmountable problems. The three operations are:

  1. A Mining Operation handling up to 200,000 tons per day of a material which has some very unique properties.

  2. An Extraction Process Which had never before been attempted on a commercial sca1e.

  3. A Refining or Upgrading Plant which would process a feedstock different enough from conventional oil feedstock to require a whole new set of operating standards.

Great Canadian has been successful at putting together- such a project and operating it at higher than design rates but only after several years of concerted effort and the solution of an unbelievable number of problems and upgrading of much of the original equipment.

The Athabasca Tar Sands deposit has been estimated to contain up to 800 Billion bbls. of oil of which about 350 Billion bbls. or 40 – 45% is recoverable by today's known methods and of this amount about 80 Billion can probably be recovered by the mining method. The G.C.O.S. Lease is located almost in the geographic centre of the deposit and about 21 miles north of Fort McMurray and adjacent to the Athabasca River. (Figure 1)


A very brief and unprofessional description is presented in order to demonstrate some of the problems encountered because of certain prevailing geological conditions. Also, it will serve to point out the necessity of a knowledge of detailed geological information of the area in order to facilitate both short and long range planning of the operation.

This content is only available via PDF.
You can access this article if you purchase or spend a download.