CANADIAN OIL SANDS
What are Canadian Oil Sands? If we are running out of fossil fuel oil, can we refine fuel from oil sands? And just how big is the supply?
Little has been said in the media regarding energy from oil sands (also known as
). But this resource is huge and significant to the point that it rightly belongs at the head of the line of solutions to North America’s dependency on imported oil.
How big is this resource? Most experts state that there is more oil locked up in oil sands than the entire known global reserves of conventional oil; over twice as much. Canadian oil sands alone total 1.7 trillion barrels of oil chief among which are the
Athabasca Canadian Oil Sands
. Venezuela holds another 1.8 trillion barrels. And there are numerous, smaller resources worldwide.
Oil sands, as the name implies, are a mixture of thick oil and sand along with a number of other minor substances. As is the case with any natural resource, not all of these deposits are economically recoverable.
A sample of
Utah Oil Sands
. Utah has what is defined as small oil sand deposits of roughly 15 billion barrels. At $70 (U.S.) a barrel, these 'small' deposits are worth in the area of one trillion U.S. Dollars.
The problem with oil refined from oil sands lies in the cost of harvesting and refining it. Conventional oil is pumped out of the ground and sent directly to the refinery where it is heated to separate the various fuels from the crude, IE diesel, gasoline, propane, etc.
Rather than being pumped out of the ground, oil sands often have to be mined. This often means strip mining and then restoring the mined land to at least as good condition as before the mining started. A good portion of the expenses involved with oil sands production lies in the restoration of mined ground.
The oil contained in oil sands deposits is also a much lower grade than oil that comes from most oil wells. This oil is a high carbon, low hydrogen content oil similar in most respects to asphalt. The asphalt we use on our highways represents the leftovers, if you will, from refining high-grade crude. So when we speak of oil sands we are talking about something akin to trash oil.
That doesn’t mean that oil sands aren’t usable. They are. It does mean that the refining process used is more sophisticated and, of course, more expensive than that used for conventional oil. Rather than refining gasoline and diesel from oil sands, these products have to be synthesized by the addition of hydrogen at some additional expense.
All of these extra processes mean that utilizing energy from oil sands will necessarily cost more than conventional oil. Until recently oil sand energy was simply too expensive to utilize. But technology improvements (which will be detailed on the energy tech pages – under construction) have lowered production costs for oil sands. And the present high cost of conventional oil has caused investors to reexamine harvesting this plentiful energy supply.
A number of companies are already committing to huge, multi-billion dollar investments in Canadian oil sands. About 10% of the 1.7 Trillion Barrels of oil in the area can be economically harvested with current technology. That means that over 170 Billion barrels are available for immediate development. And another 300 Billion barrels are expected to become economical to develop with technology that is just now coming online.
In 2003 the Shell Oil Company set up production in the Canadian oil sands outside of Alberta, Canada. They are already producing over 150,000 Barrels a day with plans to double production in the next two years, and more beyond that. The
Shell Exploration and Development
pages make for interesting reading and give the reader an idea of the scope and cost of modern oil exploration and exploitation. The Athabasca Oil Sands link on that page refers to the Canadian oil sands project.
Suncor of Canada
is currently harvesting over 250,000 barrels a day from Canadian oil sands with expansion plans already in place.
Syncrude of Canada
has been in operation since 1978. They pioneered most of the oil sand harvesting technology in use today and currently harvest over 300,000 barrels a day from Canadian oil sands with plans to increase production to at least 500,000 barrels a day over the next 8 years.
The story of Syncrude’s success with oil sand development illustrates the time frame and investments needed to develop new energy resources. When you look at the Syncrude web pages you’ll see that they have developed the technology to the extent that oil sands are delivering high-grade oil for under $20 a barrel. That means that they will almost certainly be in the oil sands business for decades.
Oil sands are just one immediately available weapon against high oil prices and energy insecurity. Of all the alternatives to conventional fossil fuel oil energy, Canadian oil sands are certainly the most developed; but there are others.
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