Around the clock, every day of the week, the world's biggest machines strip-mine a 1,100-square-mile section of the northern Canadian plains for oil.
They aren't drilling. This oil is way too thick to flow gently from the ground like Arabian Light in Kuwait or West Texas Intermediate. Instead, it is gouged from Alberta's tarry sands with tractors, transported by 300-ton trucks, steam-heated at high temperatures in giant vats until it melts into a liquid thin enough to be refined, then sent by pipeline for the trip south to Calgary and beyond.
Expensive to acquire, hard to refine and tricky to transport, the transformation of this sticky gunk into diesel fuel, kerosene, petroleum coke and fertilizer feedstock sounds like a science fair project. Yet the oil sands around Fort McMurray in Alberta are actually a rich source of energy, and the principal source of income for Suncor Energy (SU - Get Report), a $13 billion Alberta company whose shares hit a historic high last week on record earnings.
But are they the great black hope of Western Hemisphere oil independence, as many advocates seem to think?