THE BLOG
07/13/2010 11:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Without Higher Prices, Tar Sands Not Even Economically Sustainable

It's not its carbon trail that stands in the way of the Alberta tar sands' picking up the supply ball dropped by deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. After all, tar sands fuel is no dirtier than coal, and Americans haven't let that fossil fuel's carbon trail stand in the way of its generating almost half of their electrical power. If America is going to ban tar sands fuel, why doesn't it ban coal as well?

Double standards aside, though, Congressman Waxman and Governor Schwarzenegger needn't worry about growing American dependence on dirty tar sands fuel. TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Keystone XL pipeline, connecting as much as 900,000 barrels a day of oil from the tar sands to Texas refineries, isn't going to have much flowing in it if oil prices stay where they are today.

Even without a cost for carbon emissions or water pollution, the economics of the requisite production increases just won't fly. Not when the cost curve lying between today's production of a little over one and a quarter million barrels a day and tomorrow's target of three million barrels a day is steeply ascending, driven by the need to pursue ever-deeper bitumen deposits even further away from available water sources like the already heavily tapped Athabasca River. As energy guru Matthew Simmons once wryly observed, "In oil exploration, you don't leave the easiest for the last." It's not a coincidence that two of the largest and oldest producers, Syncrude and Suncor, are located almost kitty-corner from each other across the banks of the Athabasca.

The Alberta tar sands are not a new discovery. As early as 1920, there was a pilot plant that first extracted oil from the bitumen. The only thing new about the tar sands is that they are now considered a commercially viable source of oil supply. Until the oil prices of the last several years, they most definitely weren't.

And they still won't be if prices retreat to where American motorists would like them. If you doubt that, just look at what happened in Alberta's tar patch during the last recession, when oil prices plunged to $40 per barrel. Some $50 billion of capital spending was canceled overnight. The stampede to the exit doors was as frantic as the earlier rush in, when oil rose to almost $150 per barrel.

America isn't the only customer for the fuel, either. Sinopec and the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) have made substantial investments in the tar sands recently. And Enbridge wants to circumvent American carbon opposition and build a pipeline to get things flowing to the Pacific coast at Kitimat, B.C., for transoceanic shipment to China.

Many have questioned whether the expansion plans for Alberta's tar sands are environmentally sustainable. But what potential American or Chinese customers must realize is this: without their paying ever-rising prices for that fuel, the tar sands may not even be economically sustainable.