Ever since the oil crisis of the 1970s it has never been easy for the oil industry to produce positive headlines. As soon as the traumatic experience of empty highways and entropic cities was almost completely overwritten by the economic wonder years of the Reagan administration, somewhere between 250,000 and 750,000 barrels of crude oil from the Exxon Valdez contaminated hundreds of miles of pristine Alaskan shoreline. Oil companies and governments alike scrambled to downplay the environmental risks of increasingly reckless and risky production and transport methods. As a result, double-hull ships became standard means of transportation for the precious cargo and environmentally responsible extraction methods were introduced to ease the industry’s impact on the environment. As soon as the environmental dangers of oil driven economies disappeared from the immediate limelight, the first Gulf War underscored the absolute dependence of Western economies on a steady oil supply. Since then, the oil industry has more and more become the dinosaur of the energy economies critically observed by economists and energy experts who try to determine when, and not if, the global demand for oil will have depleted the planet’s reserves. While the recent controversy surrounding the building of the trans-American Keystone Pipeline merely seems as yet another chapter of bad news from a lingering economy, there are, in fact, surprisingly positive developments that just might turn around the dire prospects and infuse this aging species of energy providers with new life.
Bituminous Sands and Shale Gas
The Athabasca basin in in northeastern Alberta, Canada is one of those glimmers of hope. Here in the northern part of the state the largest known deposit of crude bitumen in the world has triggered what can certainly be described as a modern day oil boom. In an area covering more than 54,000 square miles, three enormous oil sand reserves, the Athabasca, Cold Lake, and Peace River fields are believed to harbor as much as 2 trillion barrels of bitumen. Specialists estimate that with today’s technology at least 10% of these deposits (a number that could dramatically increase with the implementation and employment of new technologies such in-situ extraction), or about 170 billion barrels could be extracted from the Canadian soil. Suitable for surface mining, Canada therefore controls the second largest reservoir of petroleum after Saudi Arabia. While conservationists have pointed out the negative impact of surface mining on the environment, production companies like Canadian Oil Sands, Chevron Alberta, and Conoco Phillips have highlighted their efforts to restore the environment after the oil sand has been extracted. In comparison to other sites of almost unregulated global oil production, such as Venezuela or Nigeria, oil production in North America appears to be comparatively “clean.” In addition, supporters of bitumen extraction also point towards the possibility of using the enormous resources in the Athabasca basin and similar oil fields, such as the one discovered in the Bakken formation of North Dakota, to make North America energy independent in the foreseeable future.(i)
An energy independent North America might today be a vision of the future, but the enormous conventional and unconventional oil reserves of Canada and the United States paired with a sensible energy policy might provide a true opportunity for both nations. Oil, however, is certainly not the only source of energy that is experiencing resurgence in North America. New developments in the natural gas sector have also triggered high expectations for both producers and consumers. Between 2005 and 2010 the country’s shale-gas industry, a relatively new industry which produces natural gas from shale rock by bombarding it with water and chemicals—a process known as hydraulic fracturing is currently growing by more than 40% per year. Within the last 7 years, the shale gas portion of America’s natural gas production has simultaneously risen from less than 4% in 2005 to more than 24% in 2012.(ii) Similar to the developments in the oil production sector, the shale gas holds immense economic and political promise. Unlike Europeans who are forced to import the majority of their natural gas resources from production countries such as Russia for often more than five times the cost of what American consumers pay, the U.S. will be able to utilize its own natural gas resources for a very long time. In addition, the renaissance of these two industries on the North American continent has also led to the indirect and direct creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs form the northern Canadian boomtown of Fort McMurray to the loading docks in Mobile, Alabama.
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i Despite Spills, More Oil Sands Pipelines Are Coming, Forbes, 26 June 2012