The Oil Sands Of Alberta

Where Black Gold And Riches Can Be Found In The Sand


The capital of the oil sands frenzy is a frontier town called Fort McMurray, which isn't in the middle of nowhere. It's north of nowhere and colder than the Klondike, but a boomtown just the same. The local hockey team is called the "Oil Barons." They're on a winning streak.

Is this comparable to a gold rush?

"I think it's bigger than a gold rush. We're expecting $100 billion over the next 10 years to be invested in this area — $100 billion in a population that, currently, is 70,000 people," says Brian Jean, who represents the region in Canada's parliament.

Pickens, who once scoffed at the oil sands, is one of those investors. He runs a hedge fund in Dallas and is now a true believer.

"We're managing $5 billion here. And, about 10 percent of it is in the oil sands. So, it's the largest single investment we have," Pickens says.

And if oil sands are the answer for investors, does Pickens think the oil sands are the answer for the United States?

"Oh, I think so," he says.

Most of those lumbering trucks are on their way to the gas tanks of America. A million barrels a day are now coming out of the oil sands and oil production is expected to triple within a decade. It won't replace Middle Eastern oil but at that point it will be the single largest source of foreign oil for the United States, even bigger than Saudi Arabia, which sends a million and a half barrels a day to America.

Greg Stringham, who works for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says surprisingly, that Washington has only been paying attention for the "last couple of years."

Stringham often lobbies for the oil sands in Washington. He says that in Alberta you don't have to look for the oil sands — the earth moves.

"When it comes to exploration in the oil sands, you can't drill a dry hole. It's there," he says. "We know where it is. They've outlined it. You don't have any risk. But other conventional sectors around the world, there's a huge exploration risk."

The exploration risks are the least of it. Much of the world's crude is in the Middle East where the instability is deeper than the oil. When Alberta's blue-eyed sheiks took to Wall Street last summer in their Stetsons to drum up support for the oil sands, their message seemed to be, "If you can't trust Alberta, who can you trust?"

"Alberta is a very good place to do business. It's a very stable environment," says Mather.

The bonus for Canadians, aside from the treasure, is the notion that Americans might have to start treating them with a little less condescension.

"With their oil, I think we're going to need them a lot more than they need us," says Pickens.

"We may appear in Canada to be a mouse compared to the elephant down south in terms of diplomacy or politics. But in terms of resources, we are mighty equals," says Mather.

There have been grumblings out of Ottawa that Canada should consider using the oil sands as leverage in its serious trade disputes with the United States.

Does Brian Jean think America is taking Canada for granted on the oil sands?

"Absolutely. And I think most people, most Canadians believe that," he says.

And the Canadians have alternatives. The Chinese, for example, are just dying to get a piece of the sandbox.

"I've been contacted personally by Chinese delegates that want to get into the plant sites here and want to see and want to invest," says Jean.

Asked what he thinks about the Chinese interest in the oil sands up in Alberta, Pickens says, "At first I thought they were tire kickers. But I think they're serious buyers."