National Geographic : 2009 Mar
• Within the next few decades, production of conven- tional oil around the world is projected to level off, then decline, even as demand continues to grow. Production from unconventional sources such as oil sands are also expected to drop if governments impose constraints to protect the environment. of cubic yards of sediment that once covered the bitumen, thereby bringing it within reach of shovels---and in some places all the way to the surface. On a hot summer day along the Athabasca, near Fort McKay for example, bitu- men oozes from the riverbank and casts an oily sheen on the water. Early fur traders reported seeing the stu and watching natives use it to caulk their canoes. At room temperature, bitu- men is like molasses, and below 50°F or so it is hard as a hockey puck, as Canadians invari- ably put it. Once upon a time, though, it was light crude, the same liquid that oil companies have been pumping from deep traps in southern Alberta for nearly a century. Tens of millions of years ago, geologists think, a large volume of that oil was pushed northeastward, perhaps by the rise of the Rocky Mountains. In the process it also migrated upward, along sloping layers of sediment, until eventually it reached depths shallow and cool enough for bacteria to thrive. ose bacteria degraded the oil to bitumen. e Alberta government estimates that the province s three main oil sands deposits, of which the Athabasca one is the largest, contain 173 billion barrels of oil that are economically recoverable today. " e size of that, on the world stage---it s massive," says Rick George, CEO of Suncor, which opened the first mine on the Athabasca River in 1967. In 2003, when the Oil & Gas Journal added the Alberta oil sands to its list of proven reserves, it immediately propelled Canada to second place, behind Saudi Arabia, among oil-producing nations. The proven reserves in the oil sands are eight times those of the entire U.S. "And that number will do noth- ing but go up," says George. e Alberta Energy Resources and Conservation Board estimates that more than 300 billion barrels may one day be recoverable from the oil sands; it puts the total size of the deposit at 1.7 trillion barrels. Getting oil from oil sands is simple but not easy. The giant electric shovels that rule the "The fact that we're willing to move four tons of earth for a single barrel really shows that the world is running out of easy oil." SIMON DYER, PEMBINA INSTITUTE 2008 '20 '40 '60 '80 2100 50 25 100 75 125 Bitumen DEMAND Other unconventional oil Robert Kunzig wrote about drought in the West in February 2008. Peter Essick s most recent assignment was photographing the Ozark Highlands Trail.