Home » Tar Sands Definition: Everything You Need to Know

Tar Sands Definition: Everything You Need to Know

As the price of petrol reaches an all-time high, many people ask themselves what makes fuel and oil so inflated. Another question might be, why aren’t there several alternative fuel options available in this day and age? Not to mention, is there a possibility of an oil shortage in the near future?

These are legitimate questions. However, as there seems to be more traction on the developing plans for fuel-enriched tar sands worldwide, the heated debate over the mining of tar sands increases, too.

Over the last decade, there has been plenty of news and controversy surrounding tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline planned to run refined tar sands petroleum from Canada through the U.S. The infamous pipeline has been canceled, then reinstated, just to be canceled again in June of 2021.

Tar sands have been around for decades. However, many people may have only heard about tar sands for the first time, thinking, “What on earth is that about?”

Like most things, there are advantages and disadvantages to tar sands, but understanding what tar sands are and the process used to harness that natural, ecological energy source is the first step in deciding for yourself.

It might sound like it’s from another planet, but tar sands might be closer to your backyard than you think. Here’s everything you need to know about tar sands quickly and easily.

What are Tar Sands?

Tar sands, which have also been dubbed Oil Sands, are natural bodies of sandstone sludge that contain a thick substance called Bitumen that is usually mixed with organic sand, clay, and water.

The reason these syrup-like lakes of rock are so remarkable is that they ooze hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are the molecules needed to create petroleum, and as it turns out, Bitumen is packed with hydrocarbons.

Tar sand is also known to be the dirtiest fuel on the planet. That being said, tar sands must go through a vigorous process to harness the Bitumen to be extracted from many natural elements.

Eventually, it can be produced into a refined liquid. With plenty of regions containing tar sands, the only real battle seems to be finding a more environment-friendly way of obtaining the Bitumen.

Where Are Tar Sands Found?

Tar sands are commonly scattered worldwide, but they can be found more widely in the western hemisphere. It’s true that heavy fuel contributors, Russia and the Middle East, both, have tar sands in their regions currently being utilized.

However, the world’s largest tar sand can be found in Alberta, Canada. The Athabasca tar sands, located in Alberta, have several trillion barrels in reserve.

An Aerial view of tar sands oil refinery in Canada
An Aerial view of tar sands oil refinery in Canada

Venezuela, which has the largest tar sand areas in South America, is recognized as the second-largest in the world after Canada. They have been noted to have 2.26 trillion in reserve.

The largest tar sand in the U.S. is located in Eastern Utah. They currently have 15 billion barrels in reserve and approximately 28 billion more estimated to be available in the future.

What Are Tar Sands Used For?

As a natural resource that contains a rich supply of the pure element bitumen, tar sands are used to create petroleum products, such as gas and liquid oil. With a wide ratio, they can provide a dependable energy source.

This security will keep areas from relying on imports from other fuel resources and keep fluctuating costs and projected energy expenses lower.

Tar sands also have the ability and responsibility to establish land preservation in an area, which prohibits commercial builders from being able to take over such land and develop on the protected areas.

With that being said, tar sands have provided economic benefits to an area. Tar sands have already provided billions and trillions of barrels to local reserves for oil products and energy stabilization. However, they have also provided local jobs, which, in return, boosts economic growth within a community.

Canada has given much credit to its tar sands mining community for the building and flourishing of its population. They believe that their economic growth wouldn’t have been monetarily possible without the jobs that had become available through extracting tar sands.

As for Venezuela, tar sand workers have become extra reliant on extracting due to the recurrent political turmoil they face. Now, workers can provide for their families consistently due to their mining jobs.

How Do Tar Sands Produce Energy?

Producing energy from tar sands consists of lots of heat. It’s steam injection heat, to be most precise. It certainly is a laborious, dirty job, yet, it has an encouraging sense of dignity, being able to capture energy from the earth.

Tar Sands Refinery in Canada
Tar Sands Refinery in Canada

As for the science behind producing energy, the secret is all in the extracting and refining of the hydrocarbon molecule found in Bitumen. The sandstone body has several layers to the mixture of sand, clay, and Bitumen. Removing the Bitumen from the other elements is the only way to convert the Bitumen into energy. There are two proper ways to extract Bitumen reliably.

  1. The environmental practice of In-Situ. In-Situ has a total of five different scientific methods where it can get into those hard-to-reach areas and extract the Bitumen more easily. In-Situ will localize pressurized steam into the sand to melt and liquefy the Bitumen in the quickest way possible. Even though it is considered quick, it can take five barrels of water to create enough steam and heat to melt the oil and separate it from the sand mixture. This detailed extraction process will usually result in one barrel of oil, which equals about 5.8 million BTUs of energy.
  1. Tar sands can also be mined using the open-pit mining process. Hydraulic shovels dig up the mass of tar sands. Then, the tar sand is stored with a combination of heat and chemically enriched water as it constantly moves, eventually separating the Bitumen, making it ready for refining.

Why Are They a Problem?

The problem with tar sands comes down to the hefty cost of emissions needed to produce oil products. It releases more Co2 emissions into the air to make oil in this fashion compared to its sister energy, coal. Producing one barrel of tar sands, as opposed to other resources, is about a 15% increase in Co2 emissions.

In this decade, it doesn’t take the word of an environmental activist to believe or comprehend that carbon pollution is the most significant cause of climate change.

Another problem up to date is the obscene use of water needed to extract Bitumen from the sandstone. With the current practices of refining tar sand being 5 to 1, meaning it takes at least five barrels of water to create one barrel of oil, it doesn’t sound environmentally feasible.

No Tar Sands Protest
No Tar Sands Protest

As everyday consumers are being shamed for leaving the water running while brushing their teeth, using up this much water to produce only one barrel of oil at a time doesn’t seem balanced for the overall goal of the world’s environmental preservation.

However, with more data and science under its belt with each passing year, Canada vows that it is on a solid mission to reduce its own messy global footprint exponentially, by 2030, with total emission reductions. And by the same year, Canada anticipates it will be supplying 36% of its oil to the U.S. Today, Canada is responsible for 40% of the world’s crude supply.

What Is the Difference Between Tar Sands and Oil Sands?

Oil sands and tar sands can be referred to as one or the other, but there is a slight difference in how the Bitumen lies within the sandy mixture.

Oil sands are coated or drenched in Bitumen, while tar sands are infused with Bitumen, which affects the level and length of heat it might take to extract the oil.

Are Tar Sands Natural?

Yes, tar sands are natural. Tar sands are a reservoir of a sandstone mixture of sand, water, and clay containing Bitumen. Tar sands have twice the energy production of coal, but extracting the crude from tar sand is much more invasive in terms of labor and on the environment.

Is Tar Sand a Fossil Fuel?

Yes, tar sand is a fossil fuel. Bitumen, described as a thick molasses-like substance, is extracted from the sand and refined into oil.

Are Tar Sands Renewable or Non-renewable?

Tar sands are non-renewable. Tar sand is a natural fossil fuel, which means that the refined fuel is extracted from Bitumen and cannot sustainably be reproduced. However, as an alternate energy source, it is capable of sustaining the economic climate.

Are Tar Sands Used in the Us?

Tar sands are in the U.S., but are they being used currently? Well, kind of, which might be surprising to hear, but the U.S. holds more than half the world’s supply of oil shale.

Oil shale is a close cousin to the tar sands. Shale and tar sands are located on government-owned land in the west, which is found around the Green River area. It branches into Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the planning that has already gone into the U.S. tar sands. Such details have halted activities surrounding the U.S. tar sands because the sand carries different properties than found in Alberta, Canada, which will result in a different refining process than what Canada is presently using.

What Are the Disadvantages of Tar Sands?

Most of the current disadvantages of tar sands hang on its environmental impact in the processing and refining of oil products. For example, the use of water to extract Bitumen is four times greater than other fossil fuels, not to mention its greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenhouse gas emissions from producing one barrel of oil are about 79 to 116 kilograms. That number is estimated to increase by double over the next decade unless a significant change in production is made.

Another disadvantage that appears to be getting some recent notice is that people living in tar sands production areas have had an increase in cancer over the last decade.

Nevertheless, it brings us to the last disadvantage of tar sands: forgetting about alternatives. As the fight progresses on getting tar sands reservoirs approved, it appears that there is less of a battle towards finding sustainable alternative methods of energy.

Reducing the carbon footprint is essential, whether fixing the current production methods of tar sands or finding a great alternative source to support the energy needed in today’s world.