The 366 daily episodes in 2014 were chronological snapshots of earth history, beginning with the Precambrian in January and on to the Cenozoic in December. You can find them all in the index in the right sidebar. In 2015, the daily episodes for each month were assembled into monthly packages, and a few new episodes were posted. Now, the blog/podcast is on an occasional schedule with diverse topics, and the Facebook Page showcases photos on Mineral Monday and Fossil Friday. Thanks for your interest!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

November 27. The Athabasca Tar Sands

The McMurray Formation is a package of Cretaceous rocks in northern Alberta and adjacent areas of Canada that was laid down in early Cretaceous time, so I should have talked about it earlier this month, but I didn’t. 

The basin that the McMurray sediments accumulated in was an early aspect of the Cretaceous Interior Seaway that reached its height in Late Cretaceous time. The sea invaded from the north, the Arctic, so the transgression of the sea affected Canada earlier than it did the western United States. The McMurray environment was similar to that of the shores of the later Cretaceous Interior Seaway – rivers, deltas, estuaries, and coastal plains. Settings like that typically give rise to interbedded and alternating sands in river channels and beaches, silts in the more distant parts of deltas and estuaries, and muds in overbank deposits, flood plains, and in the parts of the coastal sea even more distant from shore. 

What makes the McMurray special is that it holds one of the largest accumulations of hydrocarbons in the world – the Athabasca Tar Sands. You sometimes hear this called oil sands, but it really isn’t oil in the sense of liquid oil. It’s solid bitumen, tar, oil that has lost the volatile components that help make oil liquid. It’s called the Athabasca Tar Sands because the McMurray formation crops out in the drainage basin of the Athabasca River.

Map by Norman Einstein, released to public domain.
There’s an estimated 1.7 trillion barrels of hydrocarbon in place in these deposits, similar to or more than all the rest of the known conventional oil in the world. Only about 179 billion barrels is listed as economically producible – but that’s “only” about the same as all the oil in Saudi Arabia.

This stuff, because it is solid, is a lot harder to produce. About half of production is mined, dug out of the outcrop, and the rest is produced using steam injection and other methods to essentially melt the material in the subsurface to liquefy it. All methods combined yield about 2.3 million barrels of oil per day – more than half of Canada’s total oil output. Canada is the #5 oil producer in the world, after the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China, and Canada is the leading source of U.S. imports, at more than 3.5 million barrels per day – more than all OPEC nations combined. Canadian imports amount to more than one-third of all US imports, which totaled about 9.2 million barrels a day in September 2014, and Canadian imports made for about 19% of total US consumption, which is just over 19 million barrels a day.

Canada projects that it may be able to double its production of oil from tar sands by 2020.

Leaving apart the controversies over this production, I’m going to focus on the origin of the deposit. I used to think it was more or less just an oil reservoir at the surface with the volatiles gone, but it’s more complicated than that.

First, there’s the question of the source rocks for the bitumen. The most common speculations for source rocks include marine Devonian carbonates or Triassic-Jurassic shales, or both. Those rocks are known to be the sources of conventional oil in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, but they may be inadequate to generate the volumes we see in the tar sands. It’s been suggested that they formed in place, from organic matter washed into the McMurray formation along with the sands and shales, or that it was derived from non-marine Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous coals.

There’s also argument about the migration history – how the bitumen got there – ranging from in-place formation to migration from deep sources. The process was complicated by dissolution and collapse of salt-bearing horizons in the Devonian. Their collapse changed the topography of the surface the McMurray sands were deposited upon, so that some places had thicker sands than others, and were more favorable for the oil and bitumen to accumulate.

Agreement is not unanimous, but I think there’s at least a slight preference for the Jurassic Fernie formation, a black shale, as the ultimate source of the organic matter. It would have migrated in a fairly standard way, and then it would have to be degraded, driving off the volatiles to leave the heavy, viscous tarry stuff behind in the sand reservoir. The standard view of degradation of oil to make bitumen is that it’s driven mostly by bacterial action – microbes consume the lighter, more volatile compounds in the oil and leave the tar behind. That certainly happens, but it begs the question of why did it happen on such a massive scale here in Canada. Even the weight of glacial ice on the reservoir may have been a factor in the degradation of the oil from a fluid to the bitumen, or from solid coal to tarry stuff.

There are lots of other tar sands and accumulations of heavy oil around the world, but the one in Canada and the one in Venezuela – which may be even slightly more voluminous than the Canadian deposits – are by far the largest.
—Richard I. Gibson

Geologic features of tar sands 
Geology of the Oil Sands (PDF)
Origin of the tar sands 

Western Canada Basin oil – Jurassic sources

Canadian oil 

Map by Norman Einstein, released to public domain.

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