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), 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?
Plenty of Feedback
In response to my July 29 column raising the possibility that Saudi Arabian oil production has peaked, I received dozens of emails from readers who said the oil sands in Canada and Venezuela were vital to the West's independence from the Middle East supply. They were joined by scores of letters from petroleum engineers and others who said alternately that the Saudi peak-oil thesis was right on or way off; that oil would never be depleted because it was constantly replenished in a geological process deep beneath the Earth's crust; that postwar drilling in Iraq would uncover reserves that rivaled Saudi Arabia; that more U.S. drilling was the answer to our independence from the Saudis; or that conservation was the answer. After considering all of the suggestions, however, it seems there are no feasible near-term alternatives to Saudi oil yet unless your car happens to run on wishful thinking. Let's take a look at the possibilities.