This could be the largest construction project in human history.
Sitting underneath Canada's boreal forests is an ocean of bitumen-soaked sand in what could possibly be the largest oil deposit on earth. Every day North America's most powerful energy companies scoop or suck up millions of barrels of the tarry substance in a development so big it can be seen from space.
Yet it can be difficult to fully appreciate the scale of the project taking place north of the border. So to put this undertaking into context, here are seven jaw-dropping statistics from Canada's oil sands.
1) 1.8 trillion barrels
The oil sands contain an estimated 1.8 trillion barrels of bitumen in-place. However, only about 9% of this figure, 168 billion barrels, is recoverable using current technology. Yet that tiny fraction is still larger than all of America's recoverable oil and enough energy to fuel 225 million consumer vehicles for the next 25 years.
Since 1980, oil sand production has grown almost 20-fold to 1.8 million barrels per day today. And according to Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board, output is expected to double again to 3.8 million barrels a day by 2022.
2) 54,100 square miles
Today, most of the world's remaining energy deposits are located in remote regions of the globe. The Canadian oil sands are no exception. Fort McMurray, the town at the center of this development, is located 600 miles due north from the Alberta/Montana border.
The sheer size of this field is impressive as well. The oil sands comprise an area 54,100 square miles in size. To put that into perspective, that's larger than the state of North Carolina.
3) $45 million per day
The challenge is actually moving all of this production from the remote forest of Alberta to the market. Thanks to a shortage of pipeline capacity, Canadian bitumen trades at a $25 per barrel discount to West Texas Intermediate. Multiply that gap by the number of barrels coming out of the oil sands, and the industry is losing $45 million each day thanks to a shortage of takeaway capacity.
4) 14,317 rail cars
This has created an opportunity for any companies that can actually transport Alberta's growing bitumen production. And the rail industry has stepped up to the plate. According to Statistics Canada, 14,317 rail cars were loaded with fuel oil and crude petroleum products in April 2013 versus 5,013 rail cars during the same month in 2011.
Canadian National Railway (NYSE:CNI) has been the biggest beneficiary of this trend. In 2013 the company shipped 110,000 barrels per day. And based on projections provided by Kootenay Capital Management, Canadian National's crude shipments could exceed 300,000 barrels per day by 2015 and account for 7% to 8% of corporate revenues.
5) $45 billion per year
The development of the Alberta oil sands will also have a huge impact on the U.S. According to the Canadian Energy Research Institute, oil sands activity will contribute $45 billion annually to the U.S. economy over the next 20 years.
This will also create hundreds of thousands of highly skilled and well paying job in the U.S. in manufacturing, engineering, and construction. U.S. employment resulting from new oil sands development is expected to grow from 21,000 jobs today to 465,000 jobs in 2035.
6) 40 years
The Kearl oil sands project – a joint venture between ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) and Imperial Oil – has an estimated reserve life of 40 years. And the cash flows the mine generates are expected to grow steadily over that time.
This explains why Big Oil companies like ExxonMobil are so keen on the oil sands. Production at a typical tight oil well or offshore project peaks after a few years and drops off rapidly thereafter. The long reserve life of an oil sands project, in contrast, allow these energy giants to maintain production for decades to come.
7) $455 million investment
In spite of the challenges facing the industry, smart money investors continue to pour investment dollars into the oil sands.
Last summer legendary investor Warren Buffett disclosed a 13 million share position in oil sands giant Suncor (NYSE:SU), a stake valued at more than $455 million. Other billionaire hedge fund managers including George Soros, Steven Cohen, and Julian Robertson also initiated or increased their stake in the company last quarter.
These investors have also been building positions in rival operators like Imperial Oil, Cenovus Energy and Canadian Natural Resources.
Foolish bottom line
It can be difficult to comprehend the scale of the development taking place north of the border. But the numbers are clear: The oil sands will continue to be one of the most important stories in the North American energy industry for decades to come.