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America's vast reserves of unconventional oil and gas are well documented. But less attention has been paid to Canada's energy reserves, which are nothing to scoff at, either. These reserves are mainly in the form of oil sands -- a dirty, viscous mixture from which heavy crude oil can be extracted.

While deriving crude from oil sands is a complicated and expensive procedure, Canada's huge reserves of recoverable oil sands have the potential to contribute strongly to Canadian and U.S. energy security for decades to come, as well as help the world meet our global energy challenge.

A primer on Canada's oil sands
Oil sands, often referred to as tar sands, are viscous mixtures of sand or clay, water, and a heavy substance known as bitumen. Bitumen is so heavy that it doesn't flow unless it's heated or diluted. At room temperature, some describe its appearance and physical characteristics as resembling cold molasses.

Crude extracted from Canada's oil sands is characterized by an extremely low API gravity -- a measure of its relative density -- of just 8 degrees. That means it is so heavy it actually sinks in water, unlike most other crude oils, which have API gravities greater than 10 degrees and float in water.

While the stuff is much more difficult to extract and requires more sophisticated equipment to refine, it's still oil. And Canada has tons of it.

Alberta's (black) gold mine
In fact, Alberta lays claim to the world's third largest reserves of recoverable oil sands. The three major areas in the Canadian province contain an estimated 1.84 trillion barrels of crude bitumen in place. A little under a tenth of this volume -- approximately 170 billion barrels -- is expected to be recoverable using currently available technologies.

There are two primary methods by which this sticky, heavy oil is recovered. It can be mined and transported via trucks to facilities that separate the bitumen from the sand, or it can be extracted via in-situ methods, which involve using steam to separate the bitumen from sand underground, allowing it to then be pumped to the surface. The former method is more commonly used for oil sands near the surface, while the latter is employed mainly for oil sands deep beneath the surface.

Going forward, Canadian oil sands production is expected to rise steadily over the coming decades. According to an annual report published in June of last year by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), production from Canada's oil sands will nearly double by the end of this decade, going from 1.6 million barrels per day in 2011 to a projected 3.1 million barrels per day by 2020. By 2030, CAPP reckons oil sands production will hit a staggering 5 million barrels per day.

Economic and other benefits to the US
As oil sands production grows, it is expected to confer major benefits not only to oil and gas producers, railroad companies, and midstream operators, but also to the broader U.S. economy and its energy security.

After all, Canada is currently the biggest single exporter of crude oil to the U.S.; the vast majority of Canadian crude oil production is destined for American markets. With high expectations for future production growth, Canada's oil sands have the massive potential to contribute to America's future energy security by providing greater reliability of fuel supply. 

In addition to improved energy security, the economic potential may be extraordinary, as well. According to a study by the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI), Canadian oil sands production could lead to nearly 350,000 new jobs in the U.S. between 2011 and 2015. In addition, as production from and investment in Canada's oil sands increases, it boosts demand for American goods and services, leading to a projected $34 billion rise in U.S. GDP in 2015 and $42 billion in 2025, according to the CERI study. 

Hurdles remain
But despite these optimistic projections, transportation remains a major issue for Alberta's oil sands producers. Due largely to limited outbound pipeline capacity, oil sands crude trades at a massive discount to other North American crudes, with Western Canada Select (WCS) having reached a record $42.50 a barrel discount to the primary American crude oil benchmark, West Texas Intermediate (WTI), at the end of 2012.

This has taken a toll on many oil sands producers' profits. For instance, Suncor Energy (NYSE: SU  ) , the biggest Canadian oil sands producer by output, reported fourth-quarter operating earnings that were nearly a third less than the company's earnings in the year-earlier quarter due largely to lower average price realizations for oil sands crude. While the price of WCS has risen sharply in recent weeks, oil sands producers are still forecasting a bleaker year ahead.

For instance, Cenovus Energy (NYSE: CVE  ) lowered its guidance for cash flow this year from CA$3.7 billion to CA$3.1 billion due to  depressed WCS prices. To mitigate the impact of depressed WCS pricing, many oil sands producers are aggressively cutting costs.

Talisman Energy (UNKNOWN: TAL.DL  ) , Canada's sixth largest independent oil producer, slashed its capital budget forecast for the year by 25%, from an expected $4 billion last year to $3 billion. And Canadian Natural Resources (NYSE: CNQ  ) has said it expects to cut spending on thermal-sands production, a process that uses heat to separate bitumen from sand underground.

Is Keystone XL the solution?
Going forward, one of the best ways to bring oil sands crude prices closer in line with prices for other North American grades of crude oil would be to improve outbound pipeline capacity from the region. Constructing the northern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline seems the most obvious solution.

The proposed pipeline, operated by TransCanada (NYSE: TRP  ) , would deliver as much as 830,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska. Though its proposed construction has faced significant opposition from environmental groups, a recent state department study validated its potential economic benefits and downplayed its environmental risks.

Whether or not Keystone XL is approved by the U.S. State Department, improvements in pipeline infrastructure will be a defining trend in North America's energy landscape over the next several years -- one that astute investors would be wise to follow. Enterprise Products Partners, the nation's largest publicly traded energy partnership, is at the forefront of this trend and is investing heavily in pipeline infrastructure that will serve the nation's energy companies for decades into the future. To help investors decide whether Enterprise Products Partners is a buy or a sell today, click here now to check out The Motley Fool's brand-new premium research report on the company.

Read/Post Comments (2) | Recommend This Article (18)

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2013, at 4:31 PM, jpmj wrote:

    yes , I agree Enterprise Product Partners alone with Buffett's R.R. are both excellent plays. jpmj4847

  • Report this Comment On March 12, 2013, at 12:42 AM, joenobody101 wrote:

    Pengrowth is the best pick of them all. 10% dividend , 55 Percent Increase in 2012 Year-End Proved Plus Probable Reserves and Replacement of 672 Percent of 2012 Production. To top that, stock has been beaten down for two years, and multiple insider buying last month and last week. I am long because of the fundamental and not because of the Keystone lottery ticket. However, if Keystone XL is approved, PGH will fly to the moon.

    This information is free because of my big mouth, you dont need a pay subscription.

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