If you’ve been paying attention to the oil industry at all for the last five or six years then you’ve undoubtedly heard about tar sands or oil sands. While it’s recently become economically viable to extract this form of oil for use in place of standard crude, there are still a lot of questions to be answered for the average person.
If you’re looking to get informed on the shifting tides of oil sands then read on, we’ll introduce you to the concept and the technology which has made the extraction of tar sands viable.
A different form of oil deposit
While the vast majority of previously extracted oil has come from underground reservoirs until recently, oil sands weren’t even counted in the world’s oil reserve.
These “sands” take the form of either loose sand or partially congealed sandstone. The oil contained within them is of one of the heaviest classifications available. It’s called bitumen.
Bitumen is so viscous that it won’t flow at room temperature. Instead it has to be heated just to be moved along. The problems with pulling it from the sands were numerous, although there were some limited applications. Foremost among these was the synthesis of synthetic oil from the bitumen.
The name for the “tar sands” actually comes from bitumen’s superficial resemblance to tar. Tar is actually a man made material, however, and the name “oil sands” is usually judged to be a bit easier to understand.
Oil sands aren’t a new discovery either, the indigenous people of Canada used the vast Canadian oil sands to seal their canoes from time immemorial. In some places in these fields the bitumen actually seeps to the surface, allowing for it to be harvested for small-scale applications.
The Alberta oil sands are some of the largest deposits in the world. Most of the bitumen is held in three main reserves located around the province.
Essentially, oil sands are comprised of sand or sandstone which is interlaced with an extremely heavy form of oil. In the past this has made extraction for standard commercial use economically unfeasible, but as technology has advanced and prices have risen it’s looking more and more like these fields are going to be exploited in the near future.
Like all things related to oil, however, things are never as simple as they seem at first glance. The largest deposits in the world inhabit Canada and Venezuela. They’re quite different, with Venezuela’s fields holding super-heavy oil rather than bitumen.
Even on the same continent things can get complicated. While Canada’s tar sands are overwhelmingly water wet, the tar sand deposits in the United States are wet with hydrocarbons. That means that techniques learned in one area won’t necessarily be applicable in another.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way however.
Mining the tar sands
Getting at existing deposits of tar sands in order to harvest the oil from them is quite a troublesome task.
Much of the oil sand extractions which have occurred have been at the surface. Many of the deposits in Canada are either at the surface or covered by only a few meters of soil. Once you penetrate through that it’s a relatively simple matter to fill trucks with the material and send it away to be processed.
Unfortunately, surface mining is invariably strip mining which can have a devastating impact on the local environment.
For underground deposits things get complicated. Each field must be approached on it’s own terms and the sheer number of techniques which are used to extract oil from deep in the Earth gets downright staggering.
Regardless of your personal stance on oil sands, the engineering which has gone into exploiting them is impressive. Newer techniques are being developed all the time, with the aim of increasing the efficiency of the mines or wells and reducing the environmental impact.
The controversy around oil sands
While the technology is there in order to utilize tar sand oil as a replacement for crude, provided the economic incentives stay in place, they’re often at the center of controversy. People are tired of the environment being torn up in exchange for fossil fuels.
The strip mines are of particular concern to most environmentalists. They have a devastating, and highly visual, effect on local environments.
The truth is that any method of oil extraction produces quite a bit of waste, pollution, and other problems. Tar sands have become particularly problematic in this area, producing a lot of waste and pollution for relatively small gains compared to traditional wells.
Basically, you have all of the worst combined in one area. Extraction of oil from tar sands effects the following:
Air quality-Large amounts of gasses are released during the extraction process.
Environment- The environment is always going to be affected by the extraction of any natural resource. Strip mines are the most obvious but there is a wide range of implications depending on the method used.
Water-Large amounts of water are required for most oil sand extractions. With water becoming a dwindling resource it’s a big concern for the future of these fields.
In addition to the above, the impact on people who live in areas where the resources are located are often displaced or otherwise inconvenienced.
Oil sand extraction is rather divisive because of the above. While they’re some of the largest deposits of petroleum products in the world they’re also damaging and difficult to extract.
The Canadian oil fields, for instance, face stern opposition from protesters.
The future of oil sand extraction
Despite the opposition facing them, it would appear that extraction of tar sands is going to continue for the foreseeable future. While renewable energy is beginning to replace some of the world’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels the technology hasn’t caught up enough yet to replace it as an energy source.
The truth is that oil sands are going to be one of the best options moving forward unless the complete elimination of fossil fuels begins.
Currently, the outlook on oil sands is a bit confusing. When oil prices are low they’re not a good option, but if prices rise then they become a viable source of oil. As liquid oil reserves deplete, however, the focus on oil sands is likely to increase.
The Alberta tar sands comprise around 80% of the world’s oil sand reserves. Roughly 80% of these reserves are underground as well, making the whole affair expensive and complicated.
They’re also the subject of frequent protests due to the environmental destruction which takes place when the tar sands are being harvested.
The future of oil sand extraction doesn’t look particularly bright at the current moment, but within a few decades they may be the only viable source of oil left. Continued improvement of methods for underground deposits continues even when the fields in question aren’t producing profitably.
That’s not an exciting prospect for investors, of course, but for those with a look at the big picture it’s clear that they’re going to be an important resource in the near future.
There are some ways which the impact of tar sand mining can be reduced. One of the most important is to continue to recycle waste oils to lower the overall market need for oil. Technology like DST can purify even the most polluted oils, making them usable time and time again.
Newer, experimental methods are also seeking to lower the overall impact of removing underground deposits.
Without taking some measures to safeguard the environment the political pressure around oil sands is likely to make the companies involved fold pretty quickly.
Exploitation of natural resources is never a pretty picture but the needs of the world have to be balanced with the damage done in order to arrive at any real solution.
Oil sands may be the future
While it’s unlikely to occur tomorrow, the truth is that the extraction of oil sands is going to continue forward no matter what the consequences are. In the meantime the industry is slowly growing and developing new extraction methods for the future.
Currently there are times when oil sands are profitable to extract and other times where it simply isn’t. Time marches forward, however, and with each passing day we get a little bit closer to tar sands becoming a viable method of extraction.
The current controversy aside, oil sands are a complex subject with no simple solution. Only time will tell what the future brings, but at the current moment it’s looking like continued development of these resources will play a key role in the economy of the future.