Oil sands or tar sands
Canada has the third-largest reserve of oil in the world, behind Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, and the United States imports more oil from Canada than any other country does. Ninety-nine per cent of the oil that Canadians export—roughly 2.7 million barrels a day—comes here to be refined into petroleum products, which are sold domestically and abroad. The overwhelming majority of Canada’s reserves are in the form of bitumen, a viscous oil, attached to a mixture of sand, water, and clay, that is found under pristine boreal forests across fifty-four thousand square miles in northern Alberta.
It’s the most controversial oil deposit in the world. Oil sand has the texture of soft asphalt; twenty per cent of it lies close to the surface, and the area is effectively strip-mined. The bitumen-rich sand is removed, mixed with water into a slurry, and spun in centrifuges until the oil is separated, leaving behind vast black tailings ponds that are hazardous to wildlife. The mining operations sprawl ruinously for miles. The remaining eighty per cent of the oil sands lie hundreds of feet down beneath a layer of hard rock. Steam is injected deep belowground until the oil naturally separates and is drawn out. The extra energy required to extract the oil from the sand makes it a more carbon-intensive fossil fuel—averaging seventeen per cent more, according to the State Department—than conventional oil. Even the name of the oil fields of Alberta is contested. Most industry and government sources use the term “oil sands”; environmentalists and other opponents prefer “tar sands.”
The oil sands also are the only major reserve of crude in the world that is completely landlocked.