Fossil fuels are of paramount importance these days. They are energy-dense hydrocarbons that were formed in the Carboniferous era around 286 to 360 million years ago. They were formed by the decomposition of plants, trees, leaves, animals, phytoplankton and zooplankton under the heat and pressure in the Earth’s mantle. The plant and animal matter that decomposed near the outer layers of the mantle formed crude oil. The plant and animal matter that decomposed further inside the Earth’s mantle formed natural gas or methane (CH4).
All kinds of transportation vehicles use fossil fuels. They are used by ships to make world trade. They are used by airplanes to ferry passengers and cargo alike. They are used by cars and bikes for everyday and long-distance commutes. They are used by tractors to plough the fields of farmers. They are used by trucks to ferry essential commodities between countries and cities. They are used by buses for mass transportation of people. They are used in LPG and CNG cylinders at homes for cooking. They are used by military vehicles of all kinds. Last but not least, they are used to produce electricity for domestic and industrial purposes.
Coal, Crude Oil and Natural Gas are the three main types of fossil fuels. As the world’s energy demand grows, the demand and the price of fossil fuels also increases. Countries have even waged wars (like the US and Iraq) for access to cheap and plentiful fossil fuels. Countries are looking for new sources of fossil fuels to meet their demand apart from Saudi Arabia. Surprisingly, one such new source of fossil fuels has been found! It is the tar sands in Alberta, Canada.
What are tar sands and how is crude oil extracted from them?
Tar sands are a mixture of sand, clay (Bitumen) and water that are found about 85 feet underground in Alberta, Canada.
Bitumen is a type of fossil fuel that is thick, black and highly viscous. It does not flow unless it is mixed and heated with lighter hydrocarbons. To extract the Bitumen, conventional oil extraction methods cannot be used as Bitumen sticks to the sand it is found together with and even if it’s separated from the sand, it does not flow easily due to its high viscosity. Therefore, two unconventional extraction methods such as Open Pit Mining and Insitu are used to extract Bitumen from Tar Sands.
Open Pit Mining: If the Tar Sands are found less than 85 feet from the Earth’s surface, they are shoveled by massive machines and transported to crushers via massive trucks. In the crusher, they are crushed under high pressure from machines and mixed with boiling-hot water to separate the bitumen from the sand. The Bitumen, in its natural state, cannot be refined by refineries as it is still too viscous to flow smoothly. Therefore, it is sent to Upgraders to refine it into crude oil, which can be further refined to get our well-known fossil fuels like Petrol, Diesel, LPG, CNG, Fuel Oil, Asphalt, Kerosene, etcetera.
Insitu: In this method, two pipes are drilled parallelly to the place where the tar sands are. Superheated steam (from boiling heavy water) is pumped in through one of the tubes. This makes the tar sands less viscous. The heated tar sands flow into the other tube due to lateral pressure buildup and are collected for upgrading and refining.
Canada’s current crude oil and natural gas production
During 2018, Canada produced 167 billion barrels of crude oil and 4.2 billion tons of natural gas. It is now the US’s largest exporter of fossil fuels, especially natural gas. It has managed to outrank even Saudi Arabia in exporting fossil fuels to the US. During 2018, 30% of the US’s electricity production was made by burning Natural Gas.
Current Natural Gas prices for Alberta, CA: Canada has produced so much crude oil and natural gas that during December 2018, the price of one gallon of natural gas in Canada was just 1.115 Canadian Dollars. The cost of one barrel of crude oil during December 2018 in Canada was just 44 Canadian Dollars and is expected to dip further in the future as more oil pipelines are built.
Canada is the world’s third-largest exporter of crude oil today after Saudi Arabia (of course) and Venezuela. Thanks to its tar sands in Alberta, it has achieved energy independence and security. Crude oil exports from tar sands also give a significant income to Canada every year. To be precise, Canada earns 4.82 billion Canadian dollars (and increasing) by exporting crude oil every year. As Saudi’s crude oil exports continue to decline and its major refineries come under threat from terrorist attacks, Canada is set to play an important role in the world’s crude oil trade and electricity production.