The majority of asphalt used commercially is obtained from petroleum. Nonetheless, large amounts of asphalt occur in concentrated form in nature. Naturally occurring deposits of bitumen are formed from the remains of ancient, microscopic algae (diatoms) and other once-living things. These remains were deposited in the mud on the bottom of the ocean or lake where the organisms lived. Under the heat (above 50 °C) and pressure of burial deep in the earth, the remains were transformed into materials such as bitumen, kerogen, or petroleum.
Natural deposits of bitumen include lakes such as the Pitch Lake in Trinidad and Tobago and Lake Bermudez in Venezuela. Natural seeps occur in the La Brea Tar Pits and in the Dead Sea.
Bitumen also occurs in unconsolidated sandstones known as “oil sands” in Alberta, Canada, and the similar “tar sands” in Utah, US. The Canadian province of Alberta has most of the world’s reserves, in three huge deposits covering 142,000 square kilometres (55,000 sq mi), an area larger than England or New York state. These bituminous sands contain 166 billion barrels (26.4×109 m3) of commercially established oil reserves, giving Canada the third largest oil reserves in the world. Although historically it was used without refining to pave roads, nearly all of the output is now used as raw material for oil refineries in Canada and the United States.
The world’s largest deposit of natural bitumen, known as the Athabasca oil sands, is located in the McMurray Formation of Northern Alberta. This formation is from the early Cretaceous, and is composed of numerous lenses of oil-bearing sand with up to 20% oil. Isotopic studies show the oil deposits to be about 110 million years old. Two smaller but still very large formations occur in the Peace River oil sands and the Cold Lake oil sands, to the west and southeast of the Athabasca oil sands, respectively. Of the Alberta deposits, only parts of the Athabasca oil sands are shallow enough to be suitable for surface mining. The other 80% has to be produced by oil wells using enhanced oil recovery techniques like steam-assisted gravity drainage.
Much smaller heavy oil or bitumen deposits also occur in the Uinta Basin in Utah, US. The Tar Sand Triangle deposit, for example, is roughly 6% bitumen.
Bitumen may occur in hydrothermal veins. An example of this is within the Uinta Basin of Utah, in the US, where there is a swarm of laterally and vertically extensive veins composed of a solid hydrocarbon termed Gilsonite. These veins formed by the polymerization and solidification of hydrocarbons that were mobilized from the deeper oil shales of the Green River Formation during burial and diagenesis.
Bitumen is similar to the organic matter in carbonaceous meteorites. However, detailed studies have shown these materials to be distinct. The vast Alberta bitumen resources are considered to have started out as living material from marine plants and animals, mainly algae, that died millions of years ago when an ancient ocean covered Alberta. They were covered by mud, buried deeply over time, and gently cooked into oil by geothermal heat at a temperature of 50 to 150 °C (120 to 300 °F). Due to pressure from the rising of the Rocky Mountains in southwestern Alberta, 80 to 55 million years ago, the oil was driven northeast hundreds of kilometers and trapped into underground sand deposits left behind by ancient river beds and ocean beaches, thus forming the oil sands.