Unconventional Oil

Unconventional Oil refers to crude oil that is not produced by traditional extraction methods. This includes but is not limited to offshore, oil sands, and tight oil.


What is Unconventional Oil?

Unconventional oil refers to oil reserves that cannot be feasibly accessed using conventional drilling techniques. These reserves – notably tight oil, oil shale, and bitumen – must be extracted using novel methods. In contrast, conventional oil typically refers to crude oil which uses conventional vertical drilling techniques. There is no fixed definition for conventional and unconventional resources, and may be subject to change over time as technology and economics change1.

Tight Oil 

Tight oil describes reserves where the oil is trapped in geologic formations with low permeability, like shale or tight sandstone.  The most common method of extraction for tight oil is hydraulic fracturing2.

Oil Sands

The oil sands are large deposits of bitumen – grains of sand enveloped by layers of water and heavy oil. While the existence of bitumen has been known for quite some time, it is only recently (in the last 50 years) that technology and economic circumstances have allowed it to be extracted.  These deposits, notably in Western Canada and Venezuala, can be accessed by surface mining or in-situ techniques.

Oil Shale

Oil shale is a fine grained sedimentary rock containing an organic compound known as kerogen, a precursor to oil. The extracted rock can be heated in an oxygen free environment to yield different hydrocarbon products; this is known as “retorting”3.



Unconventional oil resources are typically more expensive to produce than conventional oil, often in the $40-$80/barrel range for production. However, the production of unconventional oil is increasing due to rising  demand for fossil fuels and falling reserves of conventionals.

The unconventional oil “revolution” has drastically changed the world energy landscape. Advances in technology have made previously hard-to-access oil reserves more economically recoverable. These advancements have triggered changes in global oil supply, demand and transport. It has also affected global energy access and national economies. Perhaps the most notable effect is in the US, which is estimated to transition from a historical oil importer to a net exporter of oil by the end of the decade due to the exploitation of tight oil. This change in the US has drastically affected the global market for oil4.

Dive deeper

Recent blog posts about Unconventional Oil

External resources


Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers

National Petroleum Council (US)

Canadian Heavy Oil Association (CHOA)


Canadian Energy Research Institute 

Total-EP Canada

Alberta’s Petroleum Heritage Edukits

Canadian Centre for Energy Information


Oil & Gas Journal

Oil Sands Review


Energy & Fuels


Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP)


University of Alberta

Fuel Chemistry Division 

CRS Report for Congress – North American Oil Sands: History of Development, Prospects for the Future
Alberta Government – Rules, Reports and Regulations
The Economist – Oil sands

Alberta Energy Regulator

Parlee – Avoiding the Resource Curse: Indigenous Communities and Canada’s Oil Sands

Alberta Energy: Oil Sands Sustainable Development Secretariat

The Oil Sands Developers Group

Alberta Government – Alberta’s Oil Sands 
Canadian Energy Research Institute – Refining Bitumen: Costs, Benefits and Analysis
Canadian Energy Research Institute – Economic Impacts of New Oil Sands Projects in Alberta (2010-2035)

Alberta Centre for Reclamation and Restoration Ecology

Total-EP Canada

Canadian Energy Research Institute – Oil Sands Environmental Impacts
The Royal Society of Canada – Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry
Alberta Government – Oil Sands Environmental Management

Alberta Energy: Oil Sands Sustainable Development Secretariat

Canada’s National Energy Board

IHS – The Role of the Canadian Oil Sands in the US Market
The Globe and Mail – Oil-sands link to health concerns
The Royal Society of Canada – Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry


Canadian Oil Sands

Oil Sands Review


The Wall Street Journal

New York Times


Oil Sands Review

The Wall Street Journal

Huffington Post – Alberta Oil Sands Articles
Financial Post – Majority of oil sands ownership and profits are foreign, says analysis
  1. International Energy Agency (n.d.) Frequently asked questions. http://www.iea.org/aboutus/faqs/oil/ 
  2. Energy Reality (n.d.). Fracking. http://energy-reality.org/fracking/
  3. Colorado Oil and Gas Association (2013). Oil shale versus shale oil. http://www.coga.org/pdf_Basics/Basics_OilShale.pdf
  4. International Energy Agency (n.d.). Unconventional oil revolution to spread by 2019. http://www.iea.org/newsroomandevents/pressreleases/2014/june/unconventional-oil-revolution-to-spread-by-2019.html