are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen
, a heavy black viscous oil. Tar sands can be mined and processed to extract the oil-rich bitumen, which is then refined into oil. The bitumen in tar sands cannot be pumped from the ground in its natural state; instead tar sand deposits are mined, usually using strip mining or open pit techniques, or the oil is extracted by underground heating with additional upgrading.
This process is expensive and creates a toxic wasteland where fertile earth and pure water once was. Animals will not live there and humans should not, as skyrocketing cancer rates for populations living near tar sands mines now shows.
Tar sands are mined and processed to generate oil similar to oil pumped from conventional oil wells, but extracting oil from tar sands is more complex than conventional oil recovery. Oil sands recovery processes include extraction and separation systems to separate the bitumen from the clay, sand, and water that make up the tar sands. Bitumen also requires additional upgrading before it can be refined. Because it is so viscous (thick), it also requires dilution with lighter hydrocarbons to make it transportable by pipelines.
Much of the world’s oil (more than 2 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, and much of the rest is found in various countries in the Middle East.
The Canadian tar sands industry is centered in Alberta, and more than one million barrels of synthetic oil are produced from these resources per day. Currently, tar sands represent about 40% of Canada’s oil production, and output is expanding rapidly. Approximately 20% of U.S. crude oil and products come from Canada, and a substantial portion of this amount comes from tar sands. The tar sands are extracted both by mining and in situ recovery methods. Canadian tar sands are different than U.S. tar sands in that Canadian tar sands are water wetted, while U.S tar sands are hydrocarbon wetted.
Recently, prices for crude oil have again risen to levels that may make tar-sands-based oil production in the United States commercially attractive.
After mining, the tar sands are transported to an extraction plant, where a hot water process separates the bitumen from sand, water, and minerals. The separation takes place in separation cells. Hot water is added to the sand, and the resulting slurry is piped to the extraction plant where it is agitated. The combination of hot water and agitation releases bitumen from the oil sand, and causes tiny air bubbles to attach to the bitumen droplets, that float to the top of the separation vessel, where the bitumen can be skimmed off. Further processing removes residual water and solids. The bitumen is then transported and eventually upgraded into synthetic crude oil.
About two tons of tar sands are required to produce one barrel of oil. After oil extraction, the toxic spent sand and other materials are then returned to the mine.
In-situ production methods are used on bitumen deposits buried too deep for mining to be economically recovered. These techniques include steam injection, solvent injection, and firefloods, in which oxygen is injected and part of the resource burned to provide heat. So far steam injection has been the favoured method. Some of these extraction methods require LARGE amounts of both water and energy (for heating and pumping).
Both mining and processing of tar sands involve a variety of environmental impacts, such as global warming and greenhouse gas emissions, disturbance of mined land; impacts on wildlife and air and water quality. The development of a commercial tar sands industry in the U.S. would also have significant social and economic impacts on local communities. Of special concern in the relatively arid western United States is the large amount of water required for tar sands processing; currently, tar sands extraction and processing require several barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced. Once used, that water is poisonous and not safe for ingestion. Current research is showing that tar sands development/extraction is actually more costly than how much oil is produced.