Saturday, April 23, 2011

Will Canada's Heavy Oil Sands rescue the US economy?

The past two years have been tough on the motorist, with oil prices at over $100/ barrel for much of the time and peaking at just over $122/barrel in april 2011. But in the long term, these historically high prices may prove to be beneficial for the motorist. For they are stimulating interest in the production of crude oil from unconventional sources, such as oil sands and coal, which tend to be uneconomic at low oil prices.

And eventually, when the oil does finally run out, it will be these unconventional sources that the motorist could turn to. Indeed, if the production infrastructure is set up now, they might even prevent the widespread disruption that has long been forecast for the end of the oil age.

According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2010, in 1980, the remaining reserves of oil that could economically be extracted amounted to 668bn barrels. Oil consumption is 22bn barrels at 1980 which gives a 30 years of r/p ratio. By 2009, even though there had been an additional 30 years of oil consumption, remaining oil reserves had increased to 1333bn barrels. Total oil consumption through 2009 is 30bn barrels. Now r/p(reserve to production) ratio increased to 44 years. According to the 2010 statistics we will run out in around 2050. 

An even more pressing concern is that oil reserves are increasingly concentrated in a few, relatively unstable, areas of the world: the Middle East accounted for 56% of remaining oil reserves known in 2010, with Saudi Arabia alone accounting for 20%. It is conceivable that, at some point, the supply of oil from these areas could be shut off, due to conflict or the actions of an unfriendly government. These concerns are already affecting prices, with the Libya war and the increasingly Arab uprising movement, as well as high demand from countries such as China and India, greatly responsible for the high oil price.

The potential reserves available are huge. If all the world's unconventional sources could be transformed into oil, using current technology, it would produce 8800bn barrels. At the current oil consumption rate of 30bn barrels/year, this would last for 300 years. Furthermore, if more efficient ways for deriving crude oil from these sources could be developed, then the reserves would last even longer.

Potential oil reserves from different fossil fuel sources

Fossil fuel   Current reserves         Potential      Percentage
                                                   oil reserves
                                                 (bns of barrels) *

Crude oil     1300bn barrels           1200           12
Oil sands     4450bn barrels            3800           38
Oil shale      409bn t                       2800           28
Gas             180 trillion [m.sup.3]   1000           10
Coal            909bn t                       1200           12
Total             -                               10 000         100
Alberta Oil Sands: Facts and Statistics
  • Of the total 169.9 billion barrels of proven reserves, about 80% is considered recoverable by in situ methods and 20% by surface mining methods. Oil sands within 75 meters of the surface can be mined; whereas, oil sands below this threshold must be extracted using in situ methods.
  • In 2009, Alberta's production of crude bitumen was 1.5 million bbl/d; of this surface mining accounted for 55% and in situ for 45%.
  • In 2009, about 60% of crude bitument production was sent for upgrading to SCO in the province.As of August 2010, there were 91 active oil sands projects in Alberta. Of these, six mining projects have been approved; four of these projects are currently producing bitumen; and two are still under construction. The remaining projects use various in situ recovery methods.
  • By 2019, crude bitumen production is expected to more than double to 3.2 million bbl/d.
  • On average it takes about two tonnes of mined oil sands to produce a barrel of SCO.

The U.S. government is sending mixed signals to Canadian neighbors would be an understatement. In 2006, the U.S. was practically suggesting Canada to ramp up its oil sands production. Just two years ago (when oil was less than half of today's price of $120 per barrel), U.S. officials were asking the Canadian government to increase their oil sands production by fivefold.It's clear Us is looking to switch its Middle East oil addiction with Canadian oil sands.The fact is that production from oil sands has been increasing. Although it's not even close to the desired five million barrels per day, production from the Alberta oil sands is projected to be just under three million barrels per day by 2015. Production might reach that target another time.

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