By now, it's widely known that Big Oil had a pretty bad year in 2013. This was due to a number of factors across the integrated energy spectrum. Sluggish upstream performance was driven by a disturbing lack oil and gas production growth, despite favorable commodity prices. Downstream results were even worse because of sharply narrowing margins on refined products.

Put it all together, and members of Big Oil such as ExxonMobil (XOM 1.41%) are in a bind to get production going in the right direction again. Fortunately, a huge project in the Canadian oil sands could do just that for ExxonMobil.

ExxonMobil's hopes hinge on the Kearl project
The Kearl oil sands project in Canada is a massive investment, jointly owned by ExxonMobil and Imperial Oil (IMO 1.14%). Imperial Oil stands to be the biggest winner from the undertaking, as it owns a 71% interest in the project, compared to 29% owned by ExxonMobil.

However, ExxonMobil really needs something to move its production needle. It was abundantly clear last year, that downstream results would suffer greatly from poor refining margins. Most surprising from Exxon's poor performance last year was its lack of upstream growth. Oil and gas prices were extremely supportive last year, and yet, ExxonMobil's overall production fell by 1.5% in 2013. Thankfully, the Kearl project represents a great opportunity to ramp up oil and gas production once again.

ExxonMobil announced it had officially begun production at the Kearl oil sands project in April 2013. The initial phase calls for production of 110,000 barrels per day, which represents strong growth from the company's current production. Consider that ExxonMobil produced just 320,000 barrels of oil and natural gas in the fourth quarter in its combined Canada and South America segment.

Going forward, ExxonMobil expects rapid expansion of the project. By late 2015, the company believes production capacity will double from initial levels. Over the long term, the possibility presented by the Kearl project is huge. Production is expected to total 4.6 billion barrels over a 40 year time frame.

Why the Canadian oil sands represent a huge opportunity
The sheer amount of oil resources located in the Canadian oil sands is truly tremendous, which makes it abundantly clear why energy majors would focus there. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Canada is one of the world's top five largest energy-producing nations, and is the principal source of U.S. energy imports.

To be exact, Canada holds the third largest proven oil reserves in the world, 97% of which are located in the oil sands. Growth is still strong, as total oil production rose 7% in the most recent full year, as calculated by the EIA.

This is why local independent oil and gas producer Canadian Natural Resources (CNQ -0.78%) has staked its claim in the Canadian oil sands. It's the largest heavy oil producer in Canada, and its oil sands operations alone support an average of 241,000 barrels per day of light sweet crude production over a 40-year period, with no production declines.

Going forward, Canadian Natural Resources plans continued investment in the oil sands. Its 2014 capital budget calls for $7.7 billion in overall spending, nearly $2 billion of which will be specifically allocated toward North American crude oil exploration and production. This should pay off in the near-term, as its oil sands operations should experience 7% production growth in 2014. It's clear that the Canadian oil sands are a huge opportunity for oil majors for many years ahead.

Bet on the Kearl project
ExxonMobil just wrapped up a disappointing year, and investors losing their patience is more than justified. Fortunately, ExxonMobil has an ace up its sleeve in the form of the Kearl project in the Canadian oil sands, which has the potential to grow the company's upstream production once again.

Along with ExxonMobil, Imperial Oil stands to benefit hugely from the Kearl project. And more broadly, the Canadian oil sands represent a huge opportunity for all companies with major operations there.

Dividends like Exxon's should be a part of every long-term portfolio