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The Basic Facts of Oil Shale and Tar Sands

Oil Shale Fact Sheets

The Problems with "Unconventional" Petroleum

Petroleum resources cover a spectrum of materials that vary greatly in their physical properties, energy content and accessibility. The sweet spot, conventional crude, is in the middle of this spectrum. It is relatively cheap to produce and refine and produces the bulk of our transportation fuels. Conventional crude is what most people have in mind when they think of oil. Other petroleum products, known as unconventional resources, look and act very different than conventional petroleum, requiring more energy and labor-intensive methods to extract and convert into a useable fuel.

On opposite ends of the petroleum spectrum are the unconventional resources of oil shale and tar sands. Oil shale is fossilized plankton and algae that has turned into a waxy solid called kerogen. With millions more years of pressure and heat, kerogen will eventually transform into crude oil. Kerogen will only liquify when heated in excess of 600F. Tar sands are essentially crude oil that has spoiled. Tar sands are what remains when crude oil has been broken down and degraded by bacteria, leaving behind a thick substance called bitemn that has only a fraction of the energy content of crude oil. Other petroleum resources less desireable than conventional crude are high sulphur "sour" grades of crude oil and heavy and extra-heavy oils that are sludge-like and difficult to pump. A relatively recent addition to this list is shale oil, which is conventional crude trapped in very tight rock formations that must broken open, or fracked, to allow the oil to flow. As conventional crude oil deposits are depleted, "unconventional" petroleum products are drawing interest as possible substitutes.

Oil Shale

The more that's understood about oil shale, the less realistic its various development schemes appear. As the current public debate over oil shale's future prospects grows louder, many of the pertinent facts about oil shale have fallen by the wayside. Below are some of the basic facts about oil shale that are being overlooked:

Oil shale reort technology

Tar Sands