Fortune: CRUDE REALITIES: MINING THE FUTURE The Dark Magic of Oil Sands.
"The oil-sands potential is huge," says Frederick Lawrence, a vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Oil & Gas Journal estimates that Alberta has 174.5 billion barrels of recoverable reserves in its oil sands, enough to meet Canada's needs for 250 years. That figure is second only to Saudi Arabia's estimated reserves of 264 billion barrels. All told, including deposits beyond the reach of today's technology, there could be 1.6 trillion barrels of oil embedded in Alberta.
The race to lock up those riches has begun in earnest. "The oil sands is the most significant development in crude oil in North America and one of the most significant worldwide," says Richard Kinder, CEO of the American pipeline company Kinder Morgan, which last month agreed to pay $5.6 billion for Canadian tar-sands player Terasen. "We've been looking for the right way in for a year." The day after that deal was announced, French oil giant Total put down $1.1 billion for Deer Creek Energy, another Canadian company. Those buys follow a string of new Chinese stakes: Sinopec acquired 40% of Synenco in May, and CNOOC invested in MEG Energy as well as in a pipeline project.
As Robert Esser, director of global oil and gas resources at Cambridge Energy Research Associates, puts it, Canada is the only U.S.-friendly country on earth where lots more oil is expected to come online. The White House's 2001 report on national energy policy, spearheaded by Cheney, called Canada's oil sands "a pillar of sustained North American energy and economic security."
Since the mid-1980s, though, incremental improvements have driven down the cost of production from $30 a barrel to $20, according to Neil Camarta, senior vice president of oil sands for Shell Canada, the lead partner in Albian Sands, along with Chevron Canada and Western Oil Sands, a Canadian company. That's still a lot compared with the $3 it takes to produce a barrel in parts of the Middle East. But with costs coming down, technology improving, and the price of oil rising, the oil sands are becoming downright mainstream. More than a dozen companies are planning to spend $60 billion on new projects and expansions over the next decade.