I've blogged about the oil sands and posted pictures of the destruction, but never really explained how it all works. There's a detailed explanation at the Syncrude website, but here's the CliffsNotes® version:
(1) Remove 1-5 meters of muskeg ("topsoil"), where trees, mosses, lichen, arctic fox, muskrat, beaver, caribou, and moose live. Dump it in a big pile for later use ("reclamation").
(2) Scoop up the next 10-30 meters of bitumen ("asphalt") and dump it into a mixing container.
(3) Mix the bitumen with sodium hydroxide ("Drano") and water from a nearby river, and heat to near boiling using lots of natural gas or another hydrocarbon fuel.
(4) Add more chemicals to separate the synthetic petroleum from the sand and water, then send it on to the refinery.
(5) Dump the toxic sand and water mixture into a tailing pond and let it settle for 150 years. Scoop out the dead birds every so often.
(6) Take the previously-saved muskeg and spread it over the big hole you made. Maybe plant some grass for a golf course.
Congratulations! You've taken a thriving biome and converted it into fuel for automobiles. Next week, we'll show you how to completely decimate a fish population in less than half a century.
Updated (8/27/09): The Pembina Institute has posted some photos of the mining operation on Flickr.