Tar Sands Facts: What’s It All Mean, What’s All the Fuss?

A few quick “Tar Sands Facts” are to help you understand the basics of ‘what all the fuss is about!”

As a general comment, the Tar Sands found in Alberta are in fact an oily, sticky, sand like substance (which looks a bit like “tar,” hence the name) which is actually a naturally occurring substance called “bitumen.” The bitumen is mined via various methods, “upgraded” on site to a synthetic crude oil, which is then shipped via pipeline to refineries all over Canada and the USA for further processing. The controversy lies both in the amount of energy and water required to mine and refine the bitumen in Canada, as well as the moral and ethical issue of what happens when all of the oil mined at the Tar Sands is “used” (in our cars, to heat our homes, and to run our factories) and the resulting release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which are the primary cause of global warming and in turn the cause of the dangerous precipice we humans have placed our planet, and our future on.

Location: Often called “Oil Sands” this oil reserve, is approximately 54,000 square miles, or about the same size as the state of New York and is located in the northern part of the province of Alberta, near the Athabasca River and the Canadian Boreal Forest.

Tar vs Oil: While the oil from the Alberta “tar sands” more resembles Tar than Oil, Tar is a synthetic substance and oil sands in its “natural occurring state” is oil mixed with sand. The Petroleum Industry uses the term “oil sands” rather than the term “tar sands.”

Capacity: The Tar Sands area is estimated to contains 170 of Canada’s 178 BILLION barrels of oil reserves and represents the world’s second largest reserve after Saudi Arabia. To put this into perspective, the Gulf Oil disaster is estimated to have leaked 4.4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and the according to the CIA World Fact Book, the US daily consumption of oil is approximately 18.7 million barrels.

Barrel of Oil:
Oil is no longer shipped around the world in “barrels” but is distributed via pipeline. Oil is “priced” per barrel, hence the measurement continues to be used. According to the Alberta Government, “a barrel is approximately 35 Imperial gallons, 42 U.S. gallons or 159 litres, roughly equivalent to the volume of liquid held by a standard bathtub.”

Tar Sand: Naturally occurring mixture of sand or clay, water and bitumen.

Tar Sands: Summer 2011

Bitumen: According to the Alberta Government bitumen “is a heavy and extremely viscous [sticky or gummy] oil that must be treated before it can be used by refineries to produce usable fuels such as gasoline and diesel. Bitumen is so viscous that at room temperature it acts much like cold molasses. A variety of treatment methods are currently available to oil sands producers and new methods are put into practice as more research is completed and new technology is developed.”

Crude Oil: is a naturally occurring hydrocarbon that when refined, or processed by a manufacturing method is turned into fuel used in cars, jets, heating oil and thousands of other petroleum based products , including plastics!

Synthetic Crude: is a hydrocarbon which is “changed” by a chemical process into a crude oil that can be further “changed” into a fuel. Bitumen, through a chemical process which changes the “stickiness” or viscosity of the substance, is “upgraded” to synthetic crude, which is then “further upgraded” along the lines at different refineries into a wider range of petrochemical products.

Bitumen Upgrading and Refining: Extracting bitumen from the Tar Sands is done using two methods of mining, Open Pit and In-Situ. Open pit, is, as you would imagine it, a mining operations using shovels and trucks to transport bitumen that isn’t too far below the land surface to an “upgrading” facility so that is becomes synthetic crude. In-situ (or in place) uses steam to heat the tar sand underground until it is “fluid” enough to be pumped by a a well to the surface. Only 3% of the Alberta Tar Sands is accessible via open-pit mining.

Did you miss our earlier posts on the Tar Sand? Check back to see why we are so interested and stay tuned for our next update. We will help you understand the carbon footprint of tar sands oil vs conventional crude ie. why this type of oil extraction and production is so much more controversial than “regular” oil, and, in our opinion, if this controversy is warranted.

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