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Oil Sands is a form of heavy oil found in sand and rock primarily in the Athabasca region of Northern Alberta, Canada.

OIL SANDS

Definition

‘Oil sands’ or ‘tar sands' are a mixture of sand, clay, and water that contain an extra heavy crude oil variant known as bitumen. Bitumen is highly viscous, meaning it does not flow unless it is heated or mixed with lighter hydrocarbons[1]Alberta Energy. (2014) Oil Sands Glossary. Retrieved from: http://www.energy.alberta.ca/OilSands/1708.aspAlberta Energy. (2014) Oil Sands Glossary. Retrieved from: http://www.energy.alberta.ca/OilSands/1708.aspAlberta Energy. (2014) Oil Sands Glossary. Retrieved from: http://www.energy.alberta.ca/OilSands/1708.aspAlberta Energy. (2014) Oil Sands Glossary. Retrieved from: http://www.energy.alberta.ca/OilSands/1708.aspAlberta Energy. (2014) Oil Sands Glossary. Retrieved from: http://www.energy.alberta.ca/OilSands/1708.aspAlberta Energy. (2014) Oil Sands Glossary. Retrieved from: http://www.energy.alberta.ca/OilSands/1708.asp. It is often compared to cold molasses.

 
 

To extract the bitumen in the oil sands, conventional oil drilling techniques cannot be used because bitumen is too heavy to be pumped and sticks to sand grains. Therefore other extraction techniques have been developed. The most common methods to extract bitumen are open-pit mining and in-situ, which is Latin for ‘in place’.

Bitumen within 75 meters of the surface is open-pit mined. First, huge clumps of oil sands are shoveled into large trucks.  They are then taken to crushers, where they are broken down and mixed with heated water to separate the bitumen from the sand. Once the bitumen is released, it is sent for further processing.

Around 80 percent of the oil sands are found 75 meters below the surface; therefore, to extract them, in-situ or underground methods must be used. The majority of the in-situ operations pump steam underground through horizontal wells with the purpose of liquefying the bitumen which can then be pumped up to the surface - a method called Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD).

Produced bitumen is heavier than conventional sources and requires a special process called upgrading to give it properties similar to conventional oil.  Once processed, bitumen is refined just like conventional oil into common petroleum products

The two largest oil sands reserves in the world are located in Northern Alberta, Canada and Venezuela[2]Alberta Energy Resource Conservation Board (2012) Alberta's Energy Industry: An Overview.Alberta Energy Resource Conservation Board (2012) Alberta's Energy Industry: An Overview.Alberta Energy Resource Conservation Board (2012) Alberta's Energy Industry: An Overview.Alberta Energy Resource Conservation Board (2012) Alberta's Energy Industry: An Overview.Alberta Energy Resource Conservation Board (2012) Alberta's Energy Industry: An Overview..

Context

The oil sands represent a large supply of potentially recoverable oil and, like all oil, its key advantage is its energy density. The synthetic crude oil created through upgrading bitumen is mostly used to fuel cars, airplanes, and trucks. However, bitumen is also used to create petrochemical products that people use daily, such as artificial limbs, icepacks, soccer balls, medical equipment and even LCD touch screens for laptops and cell phones[3]Cenovus (2014) Examples of Products Made with Oil and Natural Gas.http://www.cenovus.com/news/more-than-fuel-chart.htmlCenovus (2014) Examples of Products Made with Oil and Natural Gas.http://www.cenovus.com/news/more-than-fuel-chart.htmlCenovus (2014) Examples of Products Made with Oil and Natural Gas.http://www.cenovus.com/news/more-than-fuel-chart.htmlCenovus (2014) Examples of Products Made with Oil and Natural Gas.http://www.cenovus.com/news/more-than-fuel-chart.htmlCenovus (2014) Examples of Products Made with Oil and Natural Gas.http://www.cenovus.com/news/more-than-fuel-chart.html. Interestingly bitumen is also used to pave roads and patch holes in canoes.

Oil sands development poses environmental and social challenges. The crude derived from oil sands is more carbon intensive than conventional crude, due to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with its production techniques. Other environmental challenges include heavy water use, which in most cases comes from fresh water sources. Tailings ponds, which are man-made dams for storing wastewater from oil sands mining processes, are problematic because of the contaminants contained in the wastewater. Currently, the water cannot be naturally recycled back into the ecosystem but many companies are exploring technologies to return the water and ponds to their natural states.  Land disturbance and use is also a concern for the oil sands, particularly when it comes to mining, as deposits occur in ecologically diverse areas. 

Finally, the complexity of extraction techniques used for oil sands production equates to higher production costs than conventional sources of oil.

References

  1. ^ Alberta Energy. (2014) Oil Sands Glossary. Retrieved from: http://www.energy.alberta.ca/OilSands/1708.asp
  2. ^ Alberta Energy Resource Conservation Board (2012) Alberta's Energy Industry: An Overview.
  3. ^ Cenovus (2014) Examples of Products Made with Oil and Natural Gas.http://www.cenovus.com/news/more-than-fuel-chart.html
This video made possible by Cenovus Energy

INTERNATIONAL OR PROMINENT INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION

Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers

National Petroleum Council (US)

Canadian Heavy Oil Association (CHOA)

RESEARCH INSTITUTION

Canadian Energy Research Institute 

Total-EP Canada

Alberta's Petroleum Heritage Edukits

Canadian Centre for Energy Information

ACADEMIC JOURNAL

Oil & Gas Journal

Oil Sands Review

Energy

Energy & Fuels

HISTORY

Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP)

SunCor

University of Alberta

Fuel Chemistry Division 

CRS Report for Congress - North American Oil Sands: History of Development, Prospects for the Future

POLITICS

Alberta Government - Rules, Reports and Regulations

The Economist - Oil sands

Alberta Energy Regulator

Parlee - Avoiding the Resource Curse: Indigenous Communities and Canada’s Oil Sands

ECONOMICS

Alberta Energy: Oil Sands Sustainable Development Secretariat

The Oil Sands Developers Group

Alberta Government - Alberta's Oil Sands 

Canadian Energy Research Institute - Refining Bitumen: Costs, Benefits and Analysis

Canadian Energy Research Institute - Economic Impacts of New Oil Sands Projects in Alberta (2010-2035)

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

Alberta Centre for Reclamation and Restoration Ecology

Total-EP Canada

Canadian Energy Research Institute - Oil Sands Environmental Impacts

The Royal Society of Canada - Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada's Oil Sands Industry

Alberta Government - Oil Sands Environmental Management

BUSINESS ANALYSIS

Alberta Energy: Oil Sands Sustainable Development Secretariat

Canada's National Energy Board

IHS - The Role of the Canadian Oil Sands in the US Market

HEALTH IMPACT

The Globe and Mail - Oil-sands link to health concerns

The Royal Society of Canada - Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada's Oil Sands Industry

SUSTAINABILITY

BP

Canadian Oil Sands

Oil Sands Review

OTHER INTERESTING ESSAYS/ARTICLES

The Wall Street Journal

New York Times

NASA

Oil Sands Review

The Wall Street Journal

Huffington Post - Alberta Oil Sands Articles

Financial Post - Majority of oil sands ownership and profits are foreign, says analysis

Take a Step Back

Heavy Oil

Heavy Oil is a form of unconventional oil that is thick and highly viscous, and therefore does not flow to production wells under normal reservoir conditions.

Unconventional Oil

Unconventional Oil refers to crude oil that is not produced by traditional extraction methods. This includes but is not limited to offshore, oil sands, and tight oil.

Oil

Oil is a fossil fuel and liquid hydrocarbon used mainly for the production of transportation fuels and petroleum-based products.

Keep Learning! Progress To

In Situ

In Situ refers to methods of oil sands production that use drilling and steam to produce bitumen. The most common in situ method is called Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD).

Oil Sands Mining

Mining refers to the oil sands extraction process whereby large amounts of earth are removed, mixed with water and transported by pipeline to a plant, where the bitumen is separated.