Alberta targets reducing oilsand emissions to below conventional oil, creating a lot jobs and a budget surplus

Alberta’s Premier Ed Stelmach loftiest goal would be cutting oil sands’ greenhouse-gas emissions to a level below conventional oil. Currently, they’re about 25 per cent higher, and most new development is in situ, or underground, bitumen deposits – the extraction of which produces more carbon than open pit bitumen mining.

He had initially pledged to balance Alberta’s books by 2012-2013. Fluctuation in oil prices and the strength of the Canadian dollar have moved the goalposts, he said, and he now doubts the province can achieve a surplus that quickly.

The slow return to a surplus can be partly attributed to the government’s increased spending. However, Mr. Stelmach said he will keep investing in infrastructure and job training to drive the economic recovery. The province needs 70,000 more skilled energy workers by 2014.

Labour shortages throughout the boom of the previous decade put a choke on development, making employers desperate for trained workers and driving skilled and unskilled wages to unprecedented levels.

China has made $8 billion of Alberta oilsands investment in just 15 months. China is a strategic petroleum partner with Alberta, as the country looks to quench an ever-growing thirst for energy fuelled by a booming business sector and white-collar workforce.

When Premier Ed Stelmach jetted to Beijing and Shanghai last year on a trade mission, he met senior officials from companies investing in Alberta’s oilsands.

He was repeatedly asked two questions by their executives: “When will the pipeline be built to the West Coast?” the premier recalls, “and how much of your oil can we buy?”

The pipeline in question, under review by the National Energy Board, is the controversial $5.5-billion Enbridge Northern Gateway Project. The line would carry raw bitumen or upgraded synthetic crude 1,170 kilometres from northern Alberta to the port of Kitimat, B.C.

The petroleum could then be transported by tanker to Asia, possibly for upgrading and refining. Today, Alberta only exports bitumen to the United States, but the province is looking for more than one customer.

“For the province of Alberta, it’s untold opportunity for enhanced trade in oil,” Stelmach says in an interview. “It’s not just for five, 10 years. This is for decades to come.”

In situ technologies, through which 80 per cent of the oil sands will be accessed, are gaining an economic advantage.

Capital intensity, for example, at Imperial Oil’s under-construction Kearl mine project is about $70,000 per flowing barrel – it’ll cost about $8 billion for a project expected to produce 110,000 barrels of bitumen per day.

Suncor has said its oilsands mines will cost around $60,000 per barrel to build while its multiple Firebag thermal in situ projects will come in for between $30,000 and $35,000 per barrel.

“People like Cenovus are saying that, in some cases, they can add in situ capacity at about $20,000 per daily barrel,” Dunbar said

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