PETER DOLEZAL: Oil sands love/hate relationship

I feel compelled to comment on the increasing tendency by many to criticize this economic crown jewel

Having spent seven years in my early career as an on-site executive of Great Canadian Oil Sands (now Suncor) – Canada’s pioneer developer and first successful extractor of oil from this massive all-Canadian resource – I feel compelled to comment on the increasing tendency by many to criticize this economic crown jewel.

Not one Canadian province, nor individual citizen, fails to benefit from the existence of our Oil Sands industry.

According to the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI), this sector currently accounts for 75,000 direct jobs across Canada; this number is expected to grow to 900,000 over the next 25 years.

Canada’s Oil Sands are recognized today as the world’s third-largest proven crude oil reserve, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Our Oil Sands produce almost 2 million barrels of crude oil every day; this is forecast to double in the next 15 years. Oil sands producers already deliver about 50% of Canada’s total oil production.

Without it, instead of exporting oil, Canada would need to be a major importer of oil – at huge cost to Canada’s economy, and thus, to every citizen.

Few critics of our Oil Sands seem aware that Alberta, from this rich natural resource, contributes almost 20 billion dollars annually to federal coffers, more than it benefits from federal spending.

Without this resource, every Canadian’s standard of living would be negatively affected; income taxes would be higher, and services more constrained.

Recent vacillation by the U.S. in approving the Keystone XL Pipeline to its Texas refineries, Endbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline, and the proposed Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion – all designed to handle the increasing export of Alberta heavy oils to international markets – have spotlighted our Oil Sands sector – much of it resulting in negative, and often poorly-informed, commentary.

Through the 1970s and 80’s, G.C.O.S., as the Oil Sands pioneer, struggled valiantly, at heavy financial cost, to perfect its oil sand extraction technology.

In those years, to produce 50,000 barrels a day was a major accomplishment. And yes, compared to today, the effort was environmentally very inefficient.

Since those pioneering decades, some fifteen current producers have collectively spent billions on upgrading the environmental efficiency of each barrel produced. We should expect continued research and improvement – not a cessation of growth.

In the early 70’s, about 3,500 people lived in Fort McMurray. Today, almost 100,000 Canadians live in the area, enjoying average family incomes of $180,000 annually – almost three times the Canadian average.

Some cast aspersions at this valuable resource, and its need for increased pipeline capacity to efficiently move oil sands product to markets. Why not instead embrace our good national fortune, and deploy our collective energies to forge constructive solutions which employ the latest environmental, pipeline, and shipping technologies, in order that all Canadians may continue to share in these ever-increasing benefits?

Without question, our indigenous peoples should be strong economic partners, and beneficiaries of the efficient transport of oil through British Columbia. David Black’s initiative to build a Kitimat refinery which would upgrade heavy oil prior to tanker transport, deserves careful consideration as part of a national solution.

Elizabeth May deserves great respect and our thanks for the civility, accountability, and hard work ethic that she has embodied, and brought to Canada’s Parliament. I do wish however, that she too would lend more of her constructive leadership in the effort to find positive solutions to the legitimate safety and environmental issues associated with pipelines and oil tanker transports.

As Canadians, we should be proud of the technological innovation which has made Oil Sands development not only possible, but also such a significant contributor to our GDP. Rather than oppose further progress, let’s instead find positive solutions that allow this industry to continue to contribute to our national welfare.


Peter Dolezal is a retired corporate executive, enjoying post-retirement as an independent Financial Consultant. Contact Panorama Rec to register for Peter’s Elder College Fall session – Financial & Investment Planning for Retirees & Near-Retirees (Sept. 18 to Oct. 16).