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Oil sands / bitumen

What is oil sands?

Oil sands, technically known as bitumen, are an unconventional type of petroleum deposit. Bitumen has been in use as an adhesive and sealant throughout human history, with the earliest known use dating back 40,000 years. Only in recent time is oil sands becoming a viable source of crude oil for energy production. In its natural state, bitumen is incredibly dense and viscous, making it very difficult to extract and refine economically.

Oil sands deposits exist as semi-solid reservoirs which look much like a lake filled with oil. The consistency of Canadian oil sands at room temperature is similar to that of cold molasses, malleable and semi-fluid. Some places in Canada have low enough temperatures to cause the oil sands to solidify enough for heavy machinery to perform traditional surface mining. Venezuelan oil sands reservoirs are warmer, allowing for greater oil flow.

To enable extraction, oil sands are often heated through injections of steam or warm water into the reservoir heating the oil and allowing it to be pumped out in a similar fashion to traditional crude.

Once extracted, the bitumen is usually mixed with a lighter form of petroleum to enable transportation and refining using traditional, pre-existing crude-oil pipelines and infrastructure.

How is oil sands used?

Typically oil sands are ‘upgraded’ into a form of synthetic crude oil, which is suitable for refining into petroleum much like traditional crude oil. This can be achieved through a variety of ways, dependent upon the method of initial extraction. The end result can be used in combustion engines like those found in motorbikes, automobiles, ships, aeroplanes or oil-fuelled power stations.

Who uses oil sands?

The biggest consumer of crude oil sourced from oil sands is the USA who receives 99% of all exports from Canada, the worlds’ largest exporter of crude from oil sands. Canada and Venezuela, the worlds’ largest producers, are also major consumers of energy from oil sands. Recently China has also taken an interest in sourcing energy from oil sands.

In 2010 China acquired a 9% stake in the Canadian oil sands company Syncrude Canada Inc. In addition they also provided $20 billion worth of ‘soft loans’ to Venezuela to be repaid, at least in part, with oil extracted from Venezuela’s Orinoco oil sands.

Where does oil sands come from?

The vast majority of recoverable oil sands are located in Canada and Venezuela, though many countries around the world have large deposits of non-recoverable oil sands. The Canadian and Venezuelan reserves contain an estimated 3.6 trillion barrels of recoverable oil between them, or roughly twice the estimated total of the global remaining reserves of conventional crude oil.

The Canadian Athabasca-Wabiskaw oil sands in the north east of Alberta are the largest single deposit in the world. It is also the largest of three major deposits in Alberta, which cover over 141,000 square kilometres combined, an area larger than the size of England. Between them, these three reserves contain at least 1.7 trillion barrels of recoverable oil.

The next largest reserves are found at the southern end of Venezuela’s eastern Orinoco River Basin, estimated to contain 513 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

Interesting Facts about Oil Sands

  • In ancient Egypt bitumen was used as a sealant in the preservation of mummies. The word mummy is derived from the Arab word mĊĞmiyyah, which literally means bitumen.
  • The Canadian Syncrude consortium’s oil sands project in the Athabasca oil sands area is reportedly the largest mine of any type in the entire world.
  • The word “tar” to describe oil sands is actually incorrect, since, chemically speaking, tar is a manmade substance, usually from the destructive distillation of coal.

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