Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Alberta Oil Sands from Both Sides of the Border

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Alberta Oil Sands from Both Sides of the Border

Article excerpt

After more than a century of temptation, setbacks, anticipation, and challenge, one of the world's great storehouses of energy finally appears ready to give up its treasure. Thousands of workers and their families, plus billions in capital investment from the United States and many other countries, have poured into northeastern Alberta Province, especially in the past several years, in the hope that the oil-rich sands there will turn an often-slighted "back of beyond" into a modern bonanza (Figure 1). Governments and corporations around the world, but especially in the United States and Canada, recognize the advantages of developing such huge reserves. The Alberta oil sands, for so long little more than an enticing possibility, today are being prepared for continued large-scale expansion, even as oil prices fluctuate.


Many circumstances, including the demand for oil on the world stage, are inciting this change from promise to reality, but the most important factor is georgraphical: The giant Alberta reserves are next door to the world's most voracious oil consumer. At the same time, their location creates several drawbacks. I first examine the conditions that make the Alberta oil sands particularly attractive to the United States, then assess the environmental costs to Canada of increasing production, given the location of the oil sands. In other words, I consider resource development not just from the customary perspective of user or supplier but from both. In the current case, this means from both sides of a common border.


To view the Alberta oil sands from south of the U.S.-Canada border one must start by examining the American demand for oil in the context of conventional crude-oil supplies, both present and future. The daily world demand for crude oil is expected to reach close to 96 million barrels by 2015 and 113 million barrels by 2030 (EIA 2008b). With 21 percent of that thirst coming from the United States, additional supplies seem critical for the continued national and political stature to a country able to produce only about 40 percent of its own needs. The prospect for lowering this dependence is slim. For example, Prudhoe Bay, once able to push more than 2 million barrels southward every day, now sends less than half that amount. Production has also faded dramatically in Texas, Oklahoma, California, and most other places under U.S. authority, despite a record number of drilled wells. Even in the prolific Gulf of Mexico, production declined from about 1.6 million barrels per day off Louisiana and Texas in 2003 to about 1.27 million barrels per day in 2007 (EIA 2008a).

Making conditions worse, production of some of the most traditional foreign suppliers is also down sharply. For example, Mexico's great Cantarell oil field, originally 15-20 billion barrels in reserves, is in quick decline, having dropped in total production from more than 2 million barrels per day in 2004 to an average of 1.46 million per day through the first ten months of 2007 (Harrup 2006; Bermer 2007; Morton 2007). Oil-rich Venezuela, with reserves that exceed 30 billion barrels, is becoming unstable as a supplier and is having to adjust to its own production problems. Farther away, production in the North Sea fields that have been supplying oil to the United States for more than thirty years are also in virtual free fall. Indonesia, long a supplier of low-sulfur crude to the western United States, is suffering from such large production shortfalls that it is contemplating withdrawing from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Adding to the worries of falling supply, demand for oil is rising elsewhere, particularly in China and India. All of these events are reflected in global oil statistics: In 2006 surplus production capacity was approximately 1.3 million barrels per day, down from 1.6 million barrels per day in 2005 and 3. …

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