The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that production, now 1.7 million barrels a day, could nearly double by 2020, enough to supply nearly 20 percent of U.S. oil consumption. With that, the oil sands would be producing more than Venezuela, Nigeria, Iraq or Kuwait.
The rush to expand has been fueled by high oil prices, which for the past six years have held above the $50 threshold needed to make the oil sands projects profitable, and has turned this northern Alberta outpost into a bustling boomtown.
This expansion is the reason TransCanada proposed building the Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,700-mile line that would add a link between Alberta and the hungry oil refineries on the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
The pipeline has become a powerful symbol and political pawn this election year. It is also a sort of Rorschach test of how Americans view energy issues: Are we energy rich or energy poor? How do energy policies affect job creation, tax revenue and U.S. manufacturing competitiveness? How pressing are climate-change concerns, and how do we balance them with economic priorities?
The American public is firmly behind the pipeline, seeing plenty of upside in potential jobs and limited environmental downside. A new Washington Post poll finds nearly six in 10 saying the U.S. government should approve the project. Its wide acceptance is rooted in the fact that 83 percent think it will create jobs. Nearly half think it will not cause significant damage to the environment.
The oil industry and many national security experts think that importing more oil from Canada, a stable neighbor and ally, will make the United States more secure, and they worry that, without the Keystone XL, Canada will send that oil to China.
But the process of extracting oil from the sands, also called tar sands, has alarmed people worried about climate change.
Unlike oil that spurts up from reservoirs in most of the world, including Saudi Arabia, half of Canada’s oil sands are dredged up in a process more akin to strip mining. Trees are cut, layers of wetland fen and peat are drained and peeled back, and then the companies dig into a rich layer of oil sands that go down nearly 400 feet. In areas to the south where the gunky oil lies even deeper, companies are drilling wells, generating and injecting steam into the ground to melt the bitumen, and then sucking it up to the surface.