Tar Sands

From Open Energy Information

Tar Sands:
A resource, found in particular abundance in Canada, where viscous petroleum is mixed in with a layer of sand, clay, and water. The form of petroleum is often referred to as "bitumen". The resource has only recently been considered part of the world's oil reserves
Other definitions:Wikipedia Reegle

About Tar Sands

The Tar Sands, also referred to as Oil Sands, or Bitumen Sands, are a natural mixture of sand, clay, water, and a viscous form of petroleum referred to as bitumen. They are found in particularly high concentrations in Canada, although they are found throughout the world.[1]

The topic has been covered recently due to a proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the United States. The proposed pipeline would pipe oil directly from the oil sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Illinois, an oil distribution hub in Oklahoma, then on to refineries in the Gulf Coast of Texas [1]. Since the proposal, the plan has faced much scrutiny, with some members of Congress, along with Environmentalists, against the pipeline plan, while many conservatives have been pushing for the plan to be approved by the Obama Administration. Recently, however, President Obama turned down the proposal. The move is still only a temporary one [2].

Tar sands near the surface can be extracted using open pit mining techniques. It uses large equipment to dig the sands out of the group and put on a truck to be transported to an extraction plant. The extracted sands are then put in separators. Using hot water this will separate the oil from the sands. The bitumen is extracted several more times before being transported as synthetic crude oil. [3]

There are also two different kinds of tar sands. The kind that deposits notably in Canada and Venezuela is known as "water-wet" and the other kind is known as "oil-wet" which deposits in Utah. Of the two different kinds of tar sands the "oil-wet" tar sands are notably cheaper to extracted than the "water-wet" tar sands. This is due to the different methods used to extract the two different kinds of tar sands. [4]

Alberta, Canada


In Alberta, Canada, tar sand development has been peaking in recent years. The intense development of the tar sands in Alberta has been widely publicized due to several environmental and health issues reported, as well as the proposal of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The oil sand deposits in Alberta are immense. Current estimates have the reserves of oil found in Alberta second to only Saudi Arabia for oil reserves found in any country in the world. Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) reports that there are 170 billion bbl of crude oil reserves in Alberta's oil sands, compared with around 280 billion bbl of crude in Saudi Arabia. The next closest, Iran, has around 130 billion bbl.[5]

This could mean potentially an enormous boost to Canada's economy. In the Fort MucMurray area, where oil sands are being developed, direct employment in oil sands doubled from 1998 to 2008. When construction and maintenance jobs are considered, an even larger job growth number is found. The net value of oil sands rose from $1.3 billion to $22.8 billion over that same period. This resulted in a benefit to the Government of Alberta over that time period of $15.7 billion.[5]

Regulations and Policies

There is a long list of regulations and policies that are triggered by the activity in Alberta, Canada. These regulations and policies are meant to ensure the safe development of tar sands in Alberta:

  • Mines and Minerals Act Chapter M-17 - This act governs the management and disposition of rights in Crown-owned minerals, including the levying and collecting of bonuses, rental and royalties (Administration of portions of this act is shared with the Department of Sustainable Resource Development)
  • Oil Sands Tenure Regulation, 2010 A.R. 196/2010
  • Mines and Minerals Administration Regulation A.R. 262/97
  • Oil Sands Royalty Regulation, 1984 A.R.166/84
  • Oil Sands Royalty Regulation, 1997 A.R. 185/97
  • Oil Sands Royalty Regulation, 2009 A.R. 223/2008
  • Oil Sands Allowed Costs (Ministerial) Regulation A.R. 231/2008
  • Bitumen Valuation Methodology (Ministerial) Regulation A.R. 232/2008
  • Oil Sands Dispute Resolution Regulation A.R. 247/2007
  • Experimental Oil Sands Royalty Regulation A.R. 347/92
  • Petroleum Royalty Regulation A.R. 248/90
  • Petroleum Royalty Regulation, 2009 A.R. 248/90
  • Oil Sands Conservation Act Chapter O-7 - This act establishes a regulatory regime and scheme of approvals administered by the ERCB for the development of oil sands resources and related facilities in Alberta.
  • Oil Sands Conservation Regulation A.R. 76/88
  • Government Organization Act A.R. 44/2001 - Under this act, the responsibility for certain enactments was transferred to the Minister of Energy. See the complete list here.
  • Exploration Regulation A.R. 284/2006
  • Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act Chapter F-25
  • Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Regulation A.R. 186/2008
  • Natural Gas Royalty Regulation 2009[6]

Environmental Concerns


While there are no records of early operations prior to the emergence of industrial environmental controls in the 1970s, archival photos of fires and spills led the Royal Society of Canada to conclude that early operations at tar sands development sites were "poor".[5]

Since creation of environmental regulations, a number of environmental hazards have been documented. GOCS, the first viable producer of oil sands, had a plant failure (1967) that led to a bitumen spill, a pipeline leak (1970) that released over 19,000 bbl of oil that reached the Athabasca River, and a surveillance report that found that a tailings pond was flowing freely into the Athabasca River (1975)[5] These are a list of issues that have occurred at other plants as well in the same time period and since that time.

Another environmental concern is the boreal forest, where the Alberta tar sands are located. The boreal forest accounts for about 10% of global forest cover, acting as a large carbon sink for carbon dioxide. Water is also a major feature of the boreal forest, with 540,000 sq. km of surface waters, making up 60% of Canada's inland water area.[5] Within the forest, half of Canada's bird species are found, along with many other large mammals. The biodiversity of the boreal forest, and the buffer it provides Canada and the globe against rising CO2 emissions is the reason environmentalists are concerned over development in this area.

The Alberta government has created an environmental map of the area with regard to the major environmental issues. You can acces the map here.[7]

Other environmental concerns are that during the extraction and production of tar sands oil three times the carbon dioxide is emitted as compared to conventional oil extraction and production. Tar sand extraction also requires total destruction of pristine areas in the Canadian Boreal Forest. The forest is cleared, the wetlands are drained, and living matter and soil are dug up and hauled away in order to expose the tar sands. Oil companies also remove and dump four tons of sand and soil for every barrel of oil that is extracted from the tar sands.[8]

Another concern that has to deal with extracting tar sands in the United States is the water consumption required in the process. To extract tar sands it requires several barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced, though some of the water can be recycled. [3]



[1] [2] [9] [6] [5] [7] [10] [8] [3] [4]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Alberta Energy: Oil Sands
  2. 2.0 2.1 keystone pipeline system
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 [1]
  4. 4.0 4.1 [2]
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 The Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel
  6. 6.0 6.1 Regulations and Policies of Tar Sands in Alberta
  7. 7.0 7.1 Environment Alberta
  8. 8.0 8.1 [3]
  9. Obama turns down pipeline
  10. Alberta Oil Sands