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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Can Alberta Handle Oil Sands Growth Demands?

I note with some consternation the recent media reports about the International Energy Agency around growing global energy demands. There is a media consciousness growing is causing even more focus on the oil sands in Alberta and not all of it is pretty or encouraging.

The pressure is mounting for an even greater expanded and accelerated development to secure North American continental energy supply is going to strain the Alberta economy, society and ecology even more than at present.

Alberta is currently capable of producing just over a 1M barrels per day of oil sands bitumen and is straining and suffering with that level of development. With a potential to expand to 3M by 2020 and 5M by 2030 according to government of Alberta reports but market and political pressures to expand accelerate that production growth is going to be even more problematical for Alberta.

The nine years up to 2004 saw $34B of oil sands investment and a projection (made in 2004-05) of a further $45B by 2010, on a “cautiously estimated basis.” The growing ecological concerns, social disruption and economic havoc such rapid growth has been sobering for thoughtful Albertans for some time now. If the IEA is right, it looks like Alberta “ain’t seen nothin’yet!”

With the IEA report release showing “surging demand in the developing world and the oil-addicted West,” the future is going to be even more challenging than the enormous consequences outlined in the 2004-05 projections. This is ominous for Alberta unless we get a handle on these global realities and their local consequences.

Albertans have to take control over this development on a rational and integrated strategic basis using a long term sustainable, responsible stewardship approach that encourages innovation and requires constant improvement in extraction and reclamation practices. It has to rationalize the development in ways that supports social well being instead of undermining social cohesion and capacity.

There is a place for the market to impact and influence competitive factors for investment, infrastructure development and even to encourage and enable technological innovations. I have no problem with competition but suggest it has to be looked at in terms of its earlier Latin meaning…that of “seeking together” not picking winners and losers.

The marketplace, in terms of oil sands development, is a bit like water is to soup, an essential ingredient, but alas, soup is much more than mere water. An integrated approach to oil sands development requires more than market forces as the operational or the values based perspective lens we need to apply. The future of the oil sands development has to be about creating value but it has to be values based and done within a global context.

This is a potential and a challenge that is much bigger than just how it impacts on Alberta. The oil sands is global in economic scale, it is geo-political as an energy issue and is potentially about the ecological health of the entire planet. Albertans have to be ready to take on these challenges and think this through. We better get very focused, very serious and very engaged about all of this right and NOW!