One of the world's largest known reserves of petroleum is contained in the extensive bitumen-bearing sand deposits located in the Province of Alberta, Canada.
More than 175 years ago, one of the early explorers of Canada's Northwest recorded his observation of a black, sticky tar-like substance in the bedded sand banks of the Athabasca River. This material was used by Indians of the area for patching canoes and for other purposes where a water-proofing substance was required. The economic potential of these sands was recognized by geologists of the Geological Survey of Canada more than 75 years ago, even though the vastness of the reserves was not confirmed by core drilling until the 1940's.
The estimated reserves of recoverable oil contained in the tar sands of Northern Alberta are in excess of 300 billion barrels. The area underlain by these sands is at least 13,000 square miles, which is equivalent to approximately one-twentieth of the area of the Province of Alberta. Nearly 90 per cent of the reserves occur in an irregular area some 150 miles long and 50 miles wide known as the Athabasca Tar Sands deposit.
It is not the purpose of this paper to discuss in detail the many reasons why these deposits were not exploited at an earlier date. Suffice it to state that, in addition to two world wars, a major economic depression and the lack of available markets, there were a great many technological difficulties to solve. During the past several decades, many tens of millions of dollars have been spent on investigations by the Federal and Provincial governments, oil companies and other private investigators on drilling, sampling and research, including pilot plant tests, in an effort to determine an economic method of extraction.
Knowledge of the Alberta tar sands deposits has been accumulating rapidly in the past two decades. In this paper, I will describe the geology and characteristics of the tar sands, and the mining and processing project of Great Canadian Oil Sands Limited.