Canada’s oil sands contain some 170 billion barrels of oil that can be recovered economically with today’s technology (and perhaps ten times that in total). Canada thus has the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. And since most oil-rich nations’ reserves are under state control, Canada has the largest reserves that private companies are free to invest in—more than half of the global total, reckons Ken Hughes, Alberta’s energy minister.
Other countries welcome the idea of plentiful energy from a stable democracy. It could reduce the rich world’s dependence on the Middle East. There are “no bribes or body bags”, grins an oil-industry booster. And the potential is immense. A new study by the Alberta Geological Survey estimates that the province has huge resources in its shale beds as well as its oil sands: 3,400 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 420 billion barrels of oil—numbers comparable to America’s. However, Canada’s output of 3.5m barrels of oil a day is less than half that of America. (America’s output is set to exceed Saudi Arabia’s; see article.) Several problems hobble Canadian energy: geology, capital, people and pipes.
First, geology. Canadian oil is hard to extract. It mostly comes in the form of bitumen, which is “hard as a hockey puck” at 10°C, as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), an industry body, puts it. If it is far below ground, it must be blasted with steam to make it flow, and then pumped out. This process (known as “steam-assisted gravity drainage”) was developed in Alberta. In the past decade, with high oil prices, it has made the oil sands economical to exploit. But precariously so: the best projects break even when oil is $30 a barrel, but many new ones need it to be $80 or more. (West Texas Intermediate is currently $85.)
Canada gets less than it should for its oil because it lacks enough pipelines. Environmentalists oppose them, arguing that pipes leak (which is always possible) and that Canada’s heavy oil causes more greenhouse-gas emissions than other oil (which is true, but not by much). President Barack Obama has delayed the approval of a pipeline called Keystone XL, which would move Canadian oil to America’s Gulf coast. A decision is expected soon.
Alex Pourbaix of TransCanada, the firm behind the Keystone pipeline, insists that the project will be good for both countries. Canada forgoes a fortune—perhaps $20 a barrel—because it cannot get its oil to the sea. Canadian gas sells at a discount, too: North American prices are far lower than those in Asia. Another proposed pipeline, Northern Gateway, would carry oil to Canada’s west coast, whence it could be shipped to Asia. Canada would benefit from having a choice of customers. But the government of British Columbia, and various aboriginal groups, have yet to say yes.
To exploit its hydrocarbons, Canada needs capital: some $50 billion-60 billion a year, on recent trends. Such sums are “far more than Canadian capital markets can raise,” says Dave Collyer of the CAPP. Canada gets plenty of foreign investment: Syncrude, one of the biggest oil-sands developers, is a joint venture that includes American, Chinese and Japanese partners. But lately the country has grown frostier towards foreign capital.
In October Canada’s federal government temporarily blocked a $5.2 billion bid by Petronas, Malaysia’s state energy giant, for Progress Energy Resources, a Canadian natural-gas company. It has yet to approve a $15 billion offer by CNOOC, a Chinese state-owned firm, for Nexen, a Canadian oil-and-gas firm. A deadline passed last week; a decision may come next month. Mr Hughes says he is keen on foreign investment so long as foreign firms abide by the same rules as Canadians; but it is not up to the provincial government.
The other big bottleneck is human capital. Hardly anyone lives near the oil sands, so labour must be imported, from other parts of Canada and from abroad. People from 127 countries live in Fort McMurray, says Ken Chapman of the Oil Sands Developers’ Group. They speak 69 languages. The Walmart in town looks like the United Nations, except that all the shivering Africans are buying woolly hats. Mr Hughes expects to see a skills shortfall of 100,000 people in Alberta by 2017. Canada’s immigration rules are more liberal than America’s, but firms still gripe about delays. An Irish worker in Fort McMurray complains of having to fly to Calgary to sit a test of English proficiency. It’s her native language, and the test is online.
Companies poach staff from each other, bidding up labour costs. It would be easier to attract workers to Fort McMurray if the town were more liveable; a one-bedroom flat can cost $2,000 a month. To build more homes, however, the town must wrestle with provincial red tape—and also attract legions of builders, plumbers and electricians, all at inflated wages.
Working conditions in the oil sands are tough. Touch a metal pipe with your bare hand at minus 40 and it sticks. “It’s not for everybody,” shrugs an oil-firm boss. At remote work camps, companies provide hot food, warm cabins, broadband and squash courts. All this is costly. Many firms make equipment elsewhere and truck it in, so that fewer people have to toil in the cold. Some are hoping dramatically to raise the proportion of man-hours worked off-site.
With so many bottlenecks and a volatile oil price, firms are growing cautious. Suncor Energy and Canadian Natural Resources, among others, are putting new investments on hold. “It’s the uncertainty,” says Marcel Coutu, the boss of Canadian Oil Sands, a firm that owns 37% of Syncrude. “No one knows when or whether those pipelines will be built.”
Canadian energy: The sands of grime, Economist, Nov. 17, 2012, at 62