This week’s edition of the Economist contains an article about Canada’s potential to rival Saudi Arabia as a producer of oil (see Economist.com | Energy | There’s oil in them thar sands!).
As the Economist states “there may be more oil trapped in Alberta than under all of Saudi Arabia”. Trapped is an appropriate word because the oil is embedded in thick, viscous sand and cannot be extracted without considerable effort and money. The process involves injecting steam into the ground in order to reduce the viscosity of the sand such that you can pump it out of the ground and separate the oil.
Twenty years ago my first summer job after starting university was in the Reservoir Engineering department of Gulf Oil in Calgary. I was a computing major at the time, and my job was to analyse the results of a computer simulation of in-situ oil sand extraction. It was a good summer job and I learned a lot, although it was totally unlike anything I’d done before or since.
Now it seems that after considerable research and investment, it may finally be economically viable to begin developing Alberta’s oil sand industry. It’s nice to think that Alberta’s natural resources may one day lessen the developed world’s dependence on the Middle East, although according to the Economist we shouldn’t hold our breath.