“It handles like a Cadillac,” Flett joked.
Every day, fleets of these Brobdingnagian trucks are digging up countless tons of Alberta’s oil sands — a black, gooey mixture of sand, oil and water that lies just below the Canadian province’s boreal forest, an immense region thick with jack pines, spruce, aspen and tamarack trees and fed by wetlands that cover most of the area.
The viscous petroleum, or bitumen, is so common that, in some places, it oozes out along the banks of the Athabasca River and was used by Native Americans to seal canoes. Canada’s economically recoverable oil sands are estimated to be about 170 billion barrels, reserves second in size only to Saudi Arabia.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that production, now 1.7 million barrels a day, could nearly double by 2020, enough to supply nearly 20 percent of U.S. oil consumption. With that, the oil sands would be producing more than Venezuela, Nigeria, Iraq or Kuwait.
The rush to expand has been fueled by high oil prices, which for the past six years have held above the $50 threshold needed to make the oil sands projects profitable, and has turned this northern Alberta outpost into a bustling boomtown.
This expansion is the reason TransCanada proposed building the Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,700-mile line that would add a link between Alberta and the hungry oil refineries on the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
The pipeline has become a powerful symbol and political pawn this election year. It is also a sort of Rorschach test of how Americans view energy issues: Are we energy rich or energy poor? How do energy policies affect job creation, tax revenue and U.S. manufacturing competitiveness? How pressing are climate-change concerns, and how do we balance them with economic priorities?
The American public is firmly behind the pipeline, seeing plenty of upside in potential jobs and limited environmental downside. A new Washington Post poll finds nearly six in 10 saying the U.S. government should approve the project. Its wide acceptance is rooted in the fact that 83 percent think it will create jobs. Nearly half think it will not cause significant damage to the environment.
The oil industry and many national security experts think that importing more oil from Canada, a stable neighbor and ally, will make the United States more secure, and they worry that, without the Keystone XL, Canada will send that oil to China.
But the process of extracting oil from the sands, also called tar sands, has alarmed people worried about climate change.