Oil sands are quite fascinating to me. Just the idea of bitumen, which is barely viscous crude oil that hardens out into large rocks, is particularly striking.
We always think of petroleum as a naturally flowing liquid, and extracting it when it’s in this hardened state requires a little more ingenuity. That’s why oil sands are known as an unconventional petroleum deposit–we can’t extract the oil via typical methods like drilling.
So where are the oil sand deposits? And which is the largest one?
It turns out the largest deposit of these oil sands reside in Alberta, Canada. Most of the bitumen is mixed in with silica sand, clay minerals, and water, requiring a special refining process to “sift” out all the extra materials.
The Athabasca Oil Sands, as they are called, is a field of 141,000 square kilometers in length. Here’s the kicker: They contain 1.7 trillion barrels of bitumen, which is equivalent to the world’s proven oil reserves of conventional petroleum!
However just ten percent of these deposits can be extracted with modern equipment, which is why Canada isn’t the country with the world’s largest oil reserves.
And how does it all get extracted?
Large trucks and bulldozers dig up the reserves using in situ extraction, which is a massive undertaking where much of the land gets displaced. It’s such a physically immense operation that it can be seen for miles from a helicopter.
The only problem is 90 percent of the reserves will probably stay underground.
What do you think? Will we be able to extract more as new technology and methods pop up in the future? Let us know in the comments below.