Getting oil from oil sands is fairly straight-forward. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
In the Athabasca region near Fort McMurray, the oil sands are less than 75 meters (246 feet) from the surface, close enough for surface mining.
Surface mining techniques require the forest to be cleared. The soil and rock above the oil sand (overburden in mining jargon) is then removed. This creates the maroon or gray irregularly shaped open pit mines seen in the Landsat images. The open pits are created in a series of benches, or steps, that are 12–15 meters (39–49 feet) high. Huge hydraulic power shovels dig the oil sand and drop it into trucks that have a capacity of up to 363 metric tons (400 tons). The trucks haul the oil sand to a facility that separates the oil and sand.
The oil sand mixes with hot water to form a slurry. In this slurry, the sand settles to the bottom, clay and water sit in the middle, and the bitumen floats on the top. The bitumen is skimmed off the surface and the rest gets pumped to tailings ponds, also visible as the large blue shapes in Landsat images, often outlined in tan.
The September 29, 2016, image is from the European Space Agency (ESA) Sentinel-2 satellite. The resolution of the bands used in this image is 20 meters, compared to Landsat’s 30 meters. Enlarge that image to see a little bit more detail of this surface mining area.