The Black Gold Rush: Where’s All the Oil?
There is a commonly-held belief that oil is running out and that sometime soon global society will be thrown into an energy crisis as wells around the world run dry.
As is often the case, the reality is as far removed from the popular belief as it could be. We are not on the verge of an oil drought, in fact thanks to ‘unconventional oil’ deposits, we now have access to more oil than we could ever have dreamed of.
What is Unconventional Oil?
‘Unconventional Oil’ is any oil that is extracted using techniques other than conventional oil well drilling.
There are a variety of methods other than drilling oil wells that allow oil to be extracted. The most developed unconventional methods for obtaining oil are extracting from ‘Oil Sands’, ‘Oil Shales’ and extracting ‘Heavy Oil’.
Oil Sands or ‘bitumen sands’, as they are technically known, are naturally-occurring mixtures of sand, clay and water that are saturated with bitumen. Colloquially known as ‘tar sands’, it is estimated that more than 2 trillion barrels of oil is contained within these sands worldwide.
The bitumen contained within oil sands cannot be pumped from the ground, as conventional oil is, but must instead be mined or forced to flow into wells using either steam, solvents and/or hot air.
Also known as ‘kerogen shale’, oil shale is the term applied to a fine-grained sedimentary rock containing enough organic material (kerogen) to yield both oil and combustible gas when distilled. There are an estimated 2.8 – 3.3 trillion barrels of recoverable oil in oil shale deposits worldwide.
To extract the oil from kerogen shale the shale must first be mined and then distilled through a process known as pyrolysis. Also known as ‘retorting’ or ‘destructive distillation’, pyrolysis is where the oil shale is heated until the kerogen within the shale becomes a vapour then the gases are separated and cooled to form oil.
Heavy oil is crude oil that does not flow as easily as conventional ‘light’ oil, making its extraction process more difficult. Any liquid petroleum with an API gravity less than 20° (a density greater than 932 kg/m3) is classed as heavy oil and any liquid petroleum with an API gravity less than 10° (a density greater than 1000 kg/m3) is classed as extra heavy oil. Heavy oil is only referred to as ‘unconventional’ because the cost of refining it is higher than light crude oil.
There is more than twice the amount of heavy oil in the world than there is conventional light oil. However even with the latest technologies only half of the available heavy oil is recoverable. There are a variety of extraction processes for obtaining heavy oil. In situ methods usually rely on heating the oil so that the lighter oil separates from the heavy coke and the majority of alternative methods involve pumping the heavy oil out so that it can be processed at a later stage.
Where is all this Oil?
Unlike light oil which mainly resides in the Eastern Hemisphere (the Eastern Hemisphere accounts for 85 % of the world’s light oil reserves), 82% of potentially recoverable bitumen (the unconventional oil found in oil sands, oil shale as well as heavy oil) is found in the Western Hemisphere.
‘Proven’ Crude Oil Reserves (*in billion bbl):
Estimated Unconventional Oil Resources by Region (*in billion bbl):
Total Oil Resources by Region (*in billion bbl):
As the above data demonstrates there is an enormous wealth of unconventional oil ready to be extracted. If only 50% of unconventional oil reserves are recoverable that is still more than double the total current ‘proven’ reserves and even if only 10% of unconventional oil reserves are recoverable that will still be equal to the entire reserve of the Middle East.
Thanks to technological advancements in the mining, processing and refining of unconventional oil we can be safe in the knowledge that we will have a steady supply of oil for many years to come.
Note on our Data – Oil is measured in average US standard barrels. Depending on density there can be from 6-8 barrels per tonne, with an average of 7.33299113 barrels per metric tonne. The World Energy Council classifies Russia as part of Europe; however traditionally Russia is classed as part of Asia. The data from the World Energy Council has been modified to rectify this.