Home > Articles

This chapter is from the book

Two unconventional sources of oil: oil shales and tar sands

As explained earlier, petroleum under pressure from underground rocks fills pockets in the rocks. But in addition, some muds trap petroleum as they form into shales, resulting in a dense rock filled with oil. The oil is tightly bound within the rock and can be released only if the shale is heated to 900°F. At this temperature, a ton of shale may yield as much as 14 gallons, and three tons of shale would be needed for each barrel of oil. Heating three tons of rock to 900° takes a lot of energy and leaves behind a lot of crushed rock. Much of this rock is obtained from surface mines, and even more energy is needed afterward to restore the damaged land—restore it as much as possible, that is. Not only are oil shales a highly polluting energy source, destructive to the land, but also their net energy yield is low compared to conventional sources of oil.

Tar sands (sometimes also called oil sands) are geologically similar to oil shales, but the petroleum impregnates sand or clay rather than mud. Again, the petroleum is so completely mixed with the inorganic material that one can't pump the oil out. The sand has to be mined, primarily by strip mining, and then washed with hot water. As with oil shales, a mess remains—in this case dirty water as well as tons of sandy rock. Tar sands are said to yield as much as one barrel for about every two tons processed.

Those who believe there is a lot more oil out there than 1–3 trillion barrels are basing their estimates partly on what could be gotten from oil shale and tar sands. An estimated 3 trillion barrels of oil exist in oil shales and about the same in tar sands. Together, these massive but difficult-to-use sources could triple the amount of oil available, if all of it could be recovered.

Much of the world's known tar sands and oil shales are in North America. The United States has two-thirds of the known world oil shale, and it is estimated to contain 2 trillion barrels of oil. Some 90% of U.S. oil shale is in the Green River formation underlying parts of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming and extends over 17,000 square miles, an area larger than Maryland.23 Canada has an estimated 3 trillion barrels of oil in tar sands, most of it in a single huge area near Alberta now called the Athabasca Oil Sands. Since so much energy is required to get the oil out of these rocks, the net yield would not be nearly as great as from conventional oil wells. Still, the government of Alberta states that tar sands yield six times the amount of energy required to process them.24

Oil shales and tar sands are already causing major environmental controversies, since so much oil exists in them, and since mining and refining it are so polluting. Mining the 2 trillion barrels of petroleum from U.S. oil shales would leave behind 9 trillion tons of waste rock—an amount equal to the weight of 24 million Empire State Buildings. To put this into perspective, in 2007, all the freight transported in the United States weighed 21 billion tons. So it would take all the freight transportation available in the United States about 424 years to move that much waste rock.25

Three tar sands mines are operating today: Suncor (opened in 1967), Syncrude (since 1978), and Muskeg River of Shell Canada (opened in 2003). They are producing 1 million barrels a day26 and have affected 120 square miles.27 Mining Athabasca Oil Sands takes 2.2 to 5 barrels of water for every barrel of oil.28 Water used for this processing comes from the Athabasca River, which starts in the beautiful Canadian Rockies as the outflow from the Athabasca Glacier. The government of Alberta states that only 3% of the average annual outflow of the glacier is required to process the sands,29 but environmental groups estimate that it will require a quarter of Alberta's freshwater.30 This water would end up in holding ponds, contaminated by toxic chemicals from the mining and processing: mercury, arsenic, and a variety of organic compounds that are carcinogenic.31

Effluents from present tar sand operations are being blamed for human and wildlife ailments,32 and the holding ponds present an even greater hazard. According to Professor David Schindler of the University of Alberta, a leading aquatic ecologist, "If any of those tailings ponds were ever to breach and discharge into the river, the world would forever forget about the Exxon Valdez."33

Currently, oil production from Athabasca Oil Sands costs between $15 and $26 a barrel, compared with about $1 per barrel from Saudi Arabia's wells. But when oil prices exceeded $130 a barrel in 2008, mining those tar sands began to sound like economic sense—except for the pollution (at the time of this writing, oil is $72 a barrel).

Oil shales are not yet in commercial development, but Shell Oil Corporation has invested many millions of dollars in attempts to develop this petroleum source.34 The near future will bring a major battle over North American tar sands and oil shales since they offer huge profits at great environmental costs.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020