The Athabasca Oil Sands

Craig Gorin
October 24, 2010

Submitted as coursework for Physics 240, Stanford University, Fall 2010

Oil and its derivatives remain the primary fuel source for transportation and many industrial processes. There are many arguments for removing the United States' dependence on foreign oil, including environmental concerns, the financial impact of borrowing money to pay for it, and issues of national security. While owning less than three percent of conventional oil reserves, the U.S. consumes twenty five percent of the world's daily usage. [1] With the price of crude oil currently at $80/barrel (bbl), and a consumption of 21 million bbl/day, the U.S. is sending 1.5 billion dollars every day to other countries, many with autocratic and oppressive regimes. The Athabasca oil reserves in Alberta, Canada, an unconventional source requiring extraction from the rock and sand, could provide a large source of oil from a "close neighbour and a good friend," as Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) explained in an interview with the Globe and Mail. "I consider Canadian oil to be a reliable, safe, and secure source." [2] Currently, the US imports more oil from Canada than Saudi Arabia, with over 50% of Canadian oil production coming from these sands near the Athabasca river. [3]

What is Oil Sand?

The oil in the Athabasca area of Alberta is mostly found in the form of bitumen, a mix of heavy hydrocarbons, trapped in sand and carbonates, which would not naturally flow to a concentrated well. With current technology and prices, recoverable reserves are calculated at 170 billion bbl, second in scale only to Saudi Arabia, but total volume is estimated at 1.7 trillion bbl of crude oil, the largest in the world. [1,3] As of 2008, production was greater than 1 million bbl/day, with expected production going as high as 5 million bbl/day by 2030. [3]

About 20% of the available reserves can be extracted using surface mining, while the remaining 80% must use newer and more expensive in-situ techniques. The ores at the surface are collected and ground up using conventional mining techniques, and the bitumen separated by heating in hot water. In-situ methods heat up the sands by pumping in steam, reducing the viscosity of the bitumen and allowing it to be pumped like conventional oil. [3] The bitumen mixture is then "upgraded" into a synthetic crude oil suitable for sale. New technologies may allow for the extraction of an even larger percentage in the future and improve the efficiency of current techniques. However, a large amount of additional energy and water is required for this extraction.

Environmental Impact

While the exact amount of energy and water use for extraction is difficult to obtain, it's estimated that about 1/4 of the energy contained in each barrel is used in the form of natural gas for extraction, along with 2-5 times the volume of water. [3] It is unclear whether these numbers include the energy required to "upgrade" the bitumen to the synthetic oil that is actually sold. Therefore, taking into account the decreased emissions from gas, a barrel of crude oil from the oil sands will still emit at least 5-15% more carbon dioxide than a conventional barrel including its use. Once the nearby natural gas reserves are used up, it is expected that energy from the bitumen will be used for further extraction, increasing emissions as compared to current use of natural gas. [3] In addition, mining requires razing of the forest and boglands native to the area, causing a large impact on native plants and animals. Finally, the water that is used becomes tainted with toxic metals and carcinogenic hydrocarbons, requiring it to be stored in hazardous man-made lakes. As these lakes grow, so do concerns about leaching of toxic compounds into drinking water sources. Recent practices have emphasized the recycling of water, but is currently only at 90% of all water used, and the amount of production only continues to increase. [3]

The oil sands in Canada have become a major sources of oil for the United States, despite harsh environmental damage and carbon dioxide emissions. This process requires a difficult debate weighing the environmental impact vs. reducing our dependence on oil from oppressive regimes. Based on the financial gain being brought to Canada, however, it seems unlikely that production will cease until the process is no longer profitable.

© Craig Gorin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2010 (British Petroleum, 2010).

[2] J. Taber, "U.S. Senator Sold on Oil Sands," Toronto Globe and Mail," 17 Sep 10.

[3] "Alberta's Energy Reserves 2007 and Supply/Demand Outlook 2008-2017," Energy Resources Conservation Board, Report ST98-2008, June 2008.