Digging Into the Oil Sands

You got oil in my sand! You got sand in my oil!

Either way, it brings us quite nicely to the topic of "oil sands," a perplexing term for a valuable resource that might be better described as oily sand. There's profit to be made for companies willing to roll up their sleeves and dig into the mix of sand, water, clay, and the bitumen that can be separated from the rest and upgraded into synthetic crude.

There's nothing light or sweet about this petroleum or the methods used to get it from the ground and into a barrel. Oil sands are sometimes called tar sands because of the tarry consistency of bitumen after it's been warmed up or diluted. While still in the ground, the stubbornly thick, significantly adulterated material clings to individual grains of sand.

Canada, in whose oily sands Suncor Energy  (NYSE: SU  ) , Canadian Natural Resources (NYSE: CNQ  ) , and Marathon Oil (NYSE: MRO  ) play, has an estimated 174 billion barrels in proven oil sands reserves, most of which are in Alberta. Its oil sands reserves alone place Canada second to only Saudi Arabia in terms of total oil reserves. And that's just the amount believed to be recoverable under current economic conditions, using current technology.

Fortunately, our neighbor to the north doesn't hoard its crude. Canada is the world's eighth-largest producer of crude oil and the No. 1 supplier of petroleum to the United States.

So, there's oil in them thar sands. The world wants it, and it's not doing the growing international economy much good trapped in sand. Enter the big machinery, the water, and the natural gas.

It starts with digging. Lots and lots of digging goes into harvesting the reserves nearer the surface. For perspective, it takes two metric tons of the mixture called oil sands to produce a single barrel of synthetic crude.

Getting at bitumen reserves deeper in the ground can involve injecting steam (cue the natural gas that heats the water to produce the steam) into the ground to warm the bitumen so it moves more easily and can be brought to the surface using wells. 

Now, that crude has been sitting in the ground for a mighty long time. Why are oil companies jumping full-force into the sandbox now?  

As you might expect, the resource-intensive extraction process is also rather costly. Only somewhat recently has the price of oil -- which recently closed above $100 a barrel -- reached a sticky enough price level to make heavily investing in oil sands a relatively sweet proposition.

The Energy Information Administration estimates that alternative fuel sources, including oil sands, become economically viable when the price of oil hits $30 to $60 per barrel. A January report from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers shows the estimated bitumen netback at roughly $30 a barrel when oil was just above $90 in December.

It's not easy or pretty, but for companies playing in the oil sands, sustained high oil prices would mean high sweet profits for years to come.

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