Survey of Energy Resources 2007
Natural Bitumen - Introduction
Since 2005, oil price increases have greatly increased investment in the production of extra-heavy oil and natural bitumen (tar sands or oil sands) to supplement conventional oil supplies. These oils are characterised by their high viscosity, high density (low API gravity), and high concentrations of nitrogen, oxygen, sulphur, and heavy metals. Extra-heavy oil and natural bitumen are the remnants of very large volumes of conventional oils that have been generated and subsequently degraded, principally by bacterial action. Chemically and texturally, they resemble the residuum produced by refinery distillation of light oil. Although these viscous oils are much more costly to extract, transport and refine than conventional oils, production levels have increased to more than 1.6 million barrels per day, or just under 2% of world crude oil production.
The resource base of extra-heavy oil and natural bitumen is immense and can easily support a substantial expansion in production. This resource base can make a major contribution to oil supply, if it can be extracted and transformed into useable refinery feedstock at sufficiently high rates and at costs that are competitive with alternative resources. Technology must continue to be developed to address emerging challenges (both environmental and economic) in the market supply chain. (Definitions follow this Commentary).