The Saudi Arabia Next Door

I had the unique opportunity to tour two different oil sands operations near Fort McMurray, in northern Alberta. I saw a massive open-pit oil sands mine, and the associated reclamation effort, operated by Syncrude Canada Ltd. I also visited an in situ oil sands recovery project called Surmont, operated by ConocoPhillips.

When we think about the concept of ’Peak Oil’ today, we need to keep in mind what we’re talking about. The curves show oil output peaking in so many parts of the world. This phenomenon is quite real, as long as you understand that it’s the light, sweet, easy-flowing oil that is getting harder and harder to find, certainly in significant quantity.

But there are a lot of other hydrocarbon molecules out there. Most of those molecules are not light, sweet crude oil. Indeed, most of the hydrocarbon molecules that the world will use in the future will be ’heavy,’ with lots of carbon atoms and not so many hydrogen atoms.

Here’s a graph from oil services giant Schlumberger that estimates the world’s heavy oil and bitumen resources. Canada’s 400 billion cubic meters of bitumen translates into something like 1.4 trillion barrels of oil equivalent. How much is that? Well, it’s about SEVEN times the total oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.


Sure, there are still issues about land disturbance, settling ponds, water usage, gas usage and myriad of other things that come up when you’re spending billions of dollars on a major mining effort. But Syncrude has built its business model around dealing with the ’other’ issues, and not just moving oil sands and recovering oil products. Don’t underestimate the ability of the Alberta government to regulate its energy producers. This is a long way from Appalachia.

Meanwhile, we’re talking about literally billions of barrels of bitumen (or oil equivalent) that the process makes available to the North American marketplace. And if the United States wants to get onto its environmental high horse about the source of the hydrocarbons from the oil sands — and tax or ban their importation — there are other buyers in the world. Like the Chinese, who have racked up many frequent flyer miles on their treks to Fort McMurray.