Please Canada, develop the oil sands of Alberta!

Post ImageI have long thought that we as a country should be investing more money in energy, including properly developing Alberta’s vast oil sands. Canada could become the most important region in the world for oil if we were able to extract it efficiently enough – and while it may not the best for the environment, it would certainly be a welcome change to have the oil capital of the world in a democratic, peaceful place for once. A new report from CIBC World Markets seems to support the idea of developing the oil sands, suggesting it will become the most important source of new oil by 2010:

Alberta will sit on one of the most valuable energy sources in the world by that time, and one of the few still open to private investment, said Jeff Rubin, chief economist at CIBC World Markets, the bank’s wholesale banking arm.

He added that conventional oil production around the world apparently peaked in 2004.

Energy companies are finding new oil, but most of it will come from non-conventional sources. Ocean oil rigs are the primary source of new oil today, with Alberta’s oil sands tomorrow, with expansion projects rivaling those of Saudi Arabia.

If we were able to properly develop the oil sands, without ceding too much control to the United States, Canada could become very rich, and the world would have oil for longer than is currently projected. This means two things would happen; first, the push for alternative energy sources may be slightly delayed and second, Canada could use its new wealth to invest in those alternative energy sources to be prepared for the time when no more oil can be extracted. If we sit back and choose not to increase production, the world will shift to other sources of energy more quickly, and we might one day be left with a bunch of useless oil, or at least, much less valuable oil.

One of the problems with the oil sands is that our technology is not good enough to efficiently extract the oil on a large scale. There has been some progress, but not enough. So how do we solve that problem?

  • We could just hope that Syncrude, Suncor, and the other companies involved figure it out.
  • The Canadian government itself could hire lots of researchers, engineers, chemists, whoever it takes, to try and improve the technology.
  • Canada could sponsor a research competition, kind of like NASA or DARPA’s popular programs in the United States. Challenge people to develop the most efficient, least harmful process for extracting oil from the oil sands. This is probably the best way to get some quick, meaningful innovation.

The point is that problems are not insurmountable.

There are lots of people who want Alberta to be the only one to profit from our reserves, but I don’t think there’s any reason that Alberta cannot be properly compensated and still have the entire country benefit. We don’t want Trudeau’s NEP, but we do need a national policy that recognizes Alberta and benefits all.

Unfortunately, our political parties do not seem that interested in developing such a policy. Vitality Magazine has a good round up of the “green” platforms the parties have announced for Monday’s election. There are quite a few mentions of alternative energy sources, but no mention of the oil sands. I think if we’re serious about alternative energy, we need to invest a lot of money into it, and what better way to obtain that much money than by fully exploiting the oil sands?

The oil sands offer our country very unique possibilities for the future. Let’s do something with the oil sands and take advantage of those possibilities!

(For more information, read these notes I took during a September 2005 conference that included some discussion on Canada, the oil sands, and the need for a national policy on energy.)

Oil prices will go higher

Post ImageDriving to work earlier today, I noticed that some gas stations have raised prices again, this time to 102.9. I have never seen gas prices so high, and I never thought I would. I remember a few years ago when a litre of gas cost less than half what it does today. And the worst news of all? Oil prices are going to keep rising.

If you think I’m joking, read this Economist.com article. It does an excellent job of explaining things:

So far, however, the effect of higher prices has been surprisingly muted. Gas-guzzling America has seen GDP grow at a brisk clip, far outstripping many of its daintier peers in the rich world. Though high oil prices are contributing to America’s surging (and unsustainable) current-account deficit, they do not seem to be worrying consumers, who have kept on spending.

In part, this is because the oil-price records are an illusion, brought about by inflation. While nominal prices are at record levels, in real (inflation-adjusted) terms they are still well below those seen in the wake of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, when the cost of a barrel of oil hovered around $90 in today’s dollars (see chart). Consumers are better-off now—in 1980, the median personal income in America was $16,800 (in 2003 prices), versus $22,700 in 2003—and economies are more fuel-efficient. Both of these things should cushion the shock of higher prices.

There are other factors to consider too. During the hostage crisis, OPEC deliberately kept prices higher than the market could bear – but it backfired. We became more fuel efficient as a result, something OPEC would not want to do again. There’s a theory though, that they have lost the control required to keep prices artificially high anyway:

With the exception of Saudi Arabia, its producers are pumping as much as they can—and Saudi excess capacity is in heavy crude that is harder to refine into the cleaner fuels demanded by rich countries. OPEC made a great show of raising its members’ combined quotas to 28m barrels per day (bpd) in June. But thanks to rampant cheating, they were already pumping at least that much, and possibly as much as 30m bpd, making OPEC’s promises little more than a carefully staged bit of public relations.

There is an excellent Wikipedia article covering the current increase in oil prices, complete with breakdowns of demand and supply, and some excellent charts. It too, says the worst is yet to come:

While oil prices are considerably higher than a year ago, they are still far from exceeding the inflation-adjusted peak set in 1980.

There are lots of people talking about the gas prices, obviously. The number eight search on Technorati right now is gas prices. And over on Flickr, you can check out some of the prices around the world as people take pictures and post them.

Here in Edmonton, you can keep an eye on gas prices at EdmontonGasPrices.com. And if you think it’s time to park the car, the ETS website is http://www.takeets.com.

Read: Economist.com