The National Academies: What You Need To Know About Energy

The National Academies

What You Need To Know About Energy

Alternatives to Conventional Oil

There are several “unconventional” petroleum sources, materials from which oil can be extracted—at a cost. Resources are abundant and could greatly impact the U.S. oil supply in the future. The three largest are oil shale (rock that releases petroleum-like liquids when heated in a special chemical process); tar sands (heavy, thick, black oil mixed with sand, clay, and water); and heavy crude oil (thicker and slower flowing than conventional oil).

A region covering parts of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming contains oil shale totaling about three times the proven oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.

The most extensive deposits of all three are in North and South America. A region covering parts of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming contains oil shale totaling about three times the proven oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. About two-thirds of the world’s supply of tar sands (estimated at 5 trillion barrels, though not all of it recoverable) is found in Canada and Venezuela. Venezuela also has the largest known reserves of heavy crude oil, estimated at 235 billion barrels.

However, extracting these resources is much more costly, energy intensive, and environmentally damaging than drilling for conventional oil. The processes by which we mine and refine oil shale and tar sands to produce usable oil, for example, involve significant disturbance of the land, extensive use of water (a particular concern in dry regions where oil shale is often found), and potential emissions of pollutants to the air and groundwater. In addition, more energy goes into these processes than into extracting and refining conventional oil, and more CO2 is emitted. But as conventional oil costs rise, greater attention is being focused on alternative sources and on overcoming the challenges associated with their use. Canada already produces more than a million barrels of oil per day from tar sands, and some companies are interested in pursuing oil shale in the United States, probably using below-ground techniques to extract the oil without mining the shale.

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Energy Hands-on

What do you know about energy?

True or False: U.S. domestic production of crude oil has declined since around 1970.

  • Correct!

    U.S. domestic production of crude oil peaked around 1970 at about 9.5 million barrels per day (MBD) and declined to about 5.1 MBD by 2006.

  • Sorry, that’s incorrect.

    U.S. domestic production of crude oil peaked around 1970 at about 9.5 million barrels per day (MBD) and declined to about 5.1 MBD by 2006.

Energy Defined

America's Energy Future (AEF)

A project undertaken by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Research Council to evaluate current contributions and likely future impacts of existing and new energy technologies. More information about the project, including a roster of committee members, can be found on the AEF website.

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