Protecting Northern Michigan's ​Water Resources

Conventional Crude Oil vs. Oil Sands Crude Oil

Conventional Crude Oil
Crude oil is liquid petroleum that is found underground. Depending on where it is found and the conditions under which it was formed, crude oil can vary widely in density, viscosity, and sulfur content. Crude oil is processed by oil producing companies to make refined products that we can use, such as gasoline, home heating oil, diesel fuel, aviation gasoline, jet fuels, and kerosene. Each day, the United States uses millions of gallons of crude oil to support our daily lives. A majority of the total crude oil in the world is processed as gasoline. Crude oil can also be processed into chemicals that are used to make a wide variety of products, ranging from clothing to cosmetics to pharmaceuticals.

Crude oil is classified as light, medium, or heavy, which refers to the oil’s relative density based on the American Petroleum Institute (API) Gravity.  The measure reflects how light or heavy a crude oil is compared to water.

In general, if an oil’s API Gravity is greater than 10, it is lighter than water and will float on it.  If an oil’s API Gravity is less than 10, it is heavier than water and will sink.

Spill responders have a different classification of oil types based on how they react in the environment when spilled and how they are cleaned up.  This classification can be reviewed on the Spill Response page.
Oil Sands Crude
The term oil sands refers to a particular type of nonconventional oil deposit that is found throughout the world.  Oil sands, sometimes referred to as tar sands, is a mixture of sand, clay, other minerals, water, and bitumen.  The bitumen is a form of crude oil that can be separated out from the mixture.  In its natural state, it is very dense and highly viscous.  In order to transport the oil sands, the natural bitumen is processed or diluted.  There are three categories of processed/diluted bitumen:

  • Upgraded bitumen or synthetic crude oil (SCO) – produced from bitumen at a refinery that turns the heavy oil into a lighter material.
  • Diluted bitumen (Dilbit) – bitumen that is blended with lighter products, typically natural gas condensates.  Typically, the blend is 25-30% condensate and 70-75% bitumen.
  • Synthetic bitumen (Synbit) – a combination of bitumen and SCO, resulting in a product that closely resembles conventional crude oil.

Alberta, Canada has one of the largest oil sands deposits in the world.  In 2012, the U.S. imported 438 million barrels of oil sands-derived crude oils.  This was a 125% increase from 2005.