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tar sands
and shale oil

a briefing document
beta release

New translation, the Magna Carta
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tar sands and shale oil is part of a series of briefing documents on the problems of power consumption, posed by the steady depletion of fossil fuels and most particularly of pumpable oil.
One of a grouping of documents on global concerns at abelard.org.
On energy
1 Replacing fossil fuels—the scale of the problem
2 Nuclear power - is nuclear power really really dangerous?
3 Replacements for fossil fuels—what can be done about it?
3a Biofuels   3b Photovoltaics (solar cells)
3c Non-pv (photovoltaic) solar technology
3d Tar sands and shale oil    3e Wind power
5 Energy economics—how long do we have?
6 Ionising radiation and health—risk analysis
7 Transportable fuels    7a Fuel cells
8 Distributed energy systems and micro-generation
8a Geothermal systems and heat exchangers
8b Combined energy systems   
8c Energy storage
9 Fossil fuel disasters   
Fossil fuels are a dirty business
11Books on energy replacements with reviews

On global warming
4 Global warming
4a Anthropogenic global warming, and ocean acidity
4b Energy pricing and greenwash
4c How atmospheric chemistry and physics effects global warming
4d Antarctica melting ice, sea levels, water and weather implications
4e Gathering data to test global warming
4f Arctic melting ice, sea levels
4g Shifting global and local weather patterns
4h Dendroclimatology

On housing and making living systems ecological

Tectonics: tectonic plates - floating on the surface of a cauldron

sustainable futures briefing documents

tar sand resources
shale oil resources
reality not dreams
chatter on oil sands

site map



tar sands resources

Recoverable Tar Sand (Bitumen) Resources of the World [1]
Region Recoverable resources in billions of barrels, assuming a 10% recovery factor
United States 4.3
Canada 265.5
South America 0.9
Western Europe 0.0
Eastern Europe 0.1
Russia 76.2
Transcaucasia and Central Asia 2.0
Africa 4.0
Asia 0.0
China 1.0
Venezuela (Orinoco) has deposits now claimed to be in the same order as the Canadian deposits in Athabasca. Venezuelan tar sands are less viscous than those at Athabasca, but they are buried more deeply, and thus not so easily strip-mined..
Orinoco and Athabasca are presently estimated to hold three-quarters of the world’s tar sand reserves. [June 2007]

A handful of tar sands. Image credit: ostseis.anl.gov“Most of the world's oil (more than 5 trillion barrels) is in the form of tar sands, although it is not all recoverable. While tar sands are found in many places worldwide, the largest deposits in the world are found in Canada (Alberta) and Venezuela, which each have about one-third of the world's total tar sands resources, Open-cast mining of tar sands. Image credit: A handful of tar sands. Image credit: ostseis.anl.govand much of the rest is found in various countries in the Middle East. In the United States, tar sands resources are primarily concentrated in Eastern Utah, mostly on public lands. The in-place tar sands oil resources in Utah are estimated at 12 to 20 billion barrels.”

“Tar sands (also referred to as oil sands) are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen, a heavy black viscous oil.” [Quoted from osteis.anl.gov]
[Tars sands are also known as bitumenous sands.]

return to the index

shale oil resources

A lump of oil shale. Image credit: ostseis.anl.gov“The term oil shale generally refers to any sedimentary rock that contains solid bituminous materials (called kerogen) that are released as petroleum-like liquids when the rock is heated in the chemical process of pyrolysis. Oil shale was formed millions of years ago by deposition of silt and organic debris on lake beds and sea bottoms. Over long periods of time, heat and pressure transformed the materials into oil shale in a process similar to the process that forms oil; however, the heat and pressure were not as great. Oil shale generally contains enough oil that it will burn without any additional processing, and it is known as "the rock that burns". ”

“While oil shale is found in many places worldwide, by far the largest deposits in the world are found in the United States in the Green River Formation, which covers portions of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. Estimates of the oil resource in place within the Green River Formation range from 1.2 to 1.8 trillion barrels. Not all resources in place are recoverable; however, even a moderate estimate of 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil from oil shale in the Green River Formation is three times greater than the proven oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.” [Quoted from osteis.anl.gov]

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Current world oil reserves are approximately 1 trillion barrels and, therefore, represent something like 35-40 years of current production. (1 trillion is 1,000,000,000,000!)

Roughly similar amounts of both shale oil and tar sands resources are currently claimed. But the EROEI for extraction is horrendously worse for ‘unconventional’ oil than for pumpable oil.

All the various oil claims from around the world should be regarded as politically and commercially tainted. Therefore, they should only be regarded as crude estimates.

Recoverable Shale Oil throughout the World [1]
Region Recoverable resources in billions of barrels, assuming a 37% recovery factor Alternative estimates from utah.gov, corrected to the 37% rate
United States 626 592
South America (Brazil) 300 89
Russia 41  
Zaire 38  
Jordan   25
Morroco   21
Australia 17 14
Canada 16 9
Italy 13  
China 10  
Estonia 1 7
Israel   2
Northern and western Europe 2  
Other countries 3  

The cost of extraction is much higher than most pumped oil and is, therefore, commercially unattractive while there is a ready flow of cheaper, recoverable pumpable oil. Then comes coal extraction and renewable plant extraction potential. In Brazil, for example, petrol contains 28% plant ethanol. See references to sugar cane ethanol in Biofuels briefing document.

Shale oil is guesstimated as approximately half as efficient to produce as oil from tar sands. American oil shales are also located in arid areas which are more ecologically sensitive than the tar sand areas of Canada.

Excellent PowerPoint presentation on shale oils from geology.utah.gov. On the presentation is the remarkably frank admission that there is “no proven technology for commercial recovery”.

reality not dreams

“Oil & Gas Journal estimates close to 180 billion barrels [in Canadian tar sands], second only to Saudi Arabia's approximately 260 billion, while BP Statistical Review of World Energy puts the figure at about 17 billion barrels, based on oil sands under active development. And the Canadian oil sands don't even turn up on the International Energy Agency's industry lists of the 10 countries with the largest proven oil reserves.

“Even the higher industry estimate is only about a six-year world supply, as the planet now consumes close to 30 billion barrels of oil a year.”

“Tar sands production is now 1 million barrels a day and is projected to increase fivefold by 2030, still about half of Saudi Arabia's current output and less than 5 percent of world production in 2030.” [Quoted from energybulletin.net]

chatter on oil sands

page 1 page 2 page3 page 4 page 5 page 6

“Take molasses out of your kitchen cupboard, put as much sand in there as molasses, stir it up, and then put it outside where it gets cold and thick and won't flow - well, that's what the tar sand is like. It's extremely hard to work with, and it wrecks all your equipment."

“ [...] Based on current mining leases, the oil sands may transform that Florida-sized swath of forest into a massive lunar landscape - much of it unlikely ever to return to its original state. (Existing projects have already stripped roughly 460 square kilometres.) As well, the mining operations are licensed to draw 349 million cubic metres of fresh water from the Athabasca every year, twice the amount used by Calgary, a city of one million people. Some of the water is recycled, but most of the muddy leftovers, or tailings, wind up in those toxic "ponds" that are large enough to be seen from space.”

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Photo library of Alberta oil sands
Very useful, zoomable, high resolution pictures. Some have further, interesting, audio commentary.

dump truck hauling away spoil and oil/tar sands. Image: Edward Burtynsky Zoomed image showing excavator, and dump
 truck hauling away spoil and oil/tar sands. Image: Edward Burtynsky
Zoomed image showing excavator, and dump truck, as high as a two-sroey building, hauling away spoil and oil/tar sands.
Note the small red and white trucks for scale in further zoom (on right). Image
: Edward Burtynsky

end note

  1. Crude tables primarily from the Encyclopedia Brit., derived from figures adapted from U.S. Geological Survey, Oil & Gas Journal, and American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

  2. This recovery rate estimate is generous.

Related further documents
Tectonics: tectonic plates - floating on the surface of a cauldron

sustainable futures briefing documents

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