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Canada: Momentum returning to oilsands

Source:  Copyright 2009, Edmonton Journal
Date:  November 21, 2009
Original URL: Status DEAD

Oh, don't get too excited -- or aggravated, depending on how you feel about North America's biggest, messiest industrial project.

The oilsands boom isn't coming back anytime soon. At least, not in its original, chaotic form.

No one is predicting a sudden gusher of overlapping, poorly planned megaprojects, a brand new influx of tens of thousands of foreign temporary workers, or a rapid rebound to $147-US-a-barrel oil prices.

In fact, another spike in prices(however unlikely) is the last thing anyone wants. That includes OPEC, which sees the current $75 to $80 price range as pretty close to optimal.

The last boom, as you'll recall, ignited torrid inflation, chronic labour and material shortages, huge cost overruns, and a deluge of criticism from all quarters, from the enviro lobby to former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed.

In its wake, it left a string of cancelled or half-built projects, an army of unemployed workers and engineers, a meltdown in real estate markets, half-empty office towers in Calgary, and an ugly hole in the provincial budget.

Since those wounds are still fresh, any talk of an uptick is still fairly guarded.

Nonetheless, signs of positive momentum are building. Deals are being done, some projects are being restarted, and the financing taps are opening up.

A quick survey of Journal energy reporter Dave Cooper's recent stories tells the tale. Every week, it seems, another shoe drops.

"Owners of what would be one of the largest industrial construction projects in the Edmonton region-- the three-phase, $15 billion North West Upgrader near Fort Saskatchewan-- are anxious to get rolling," he wrote Friday, after attending an upbeat presentation by the project's backers.

If all goes as planned (and that's still a big if, admittedly), the first phase of the merchant upgrader-- which would use a gasifier process to produce high-quality diesel-- could be underway by early 2011, he reports.

Last week, Cooper reported on Suncor's decision to restart its stalled Firebag 3 in situ project. In the process, the energy giant will spend $900 million Cdn and create up to 3,000 construction jobs, many of which could be filled by workers who are now finishing Shell's Muskeg River expansion project.

Although Suncor's latest investment plans are just a fraction of what it planned to spend before the last boom imploded, it's a key step forward, and reflects Suncor's renewed commitment to the oilsands. Firebag 3 is expected to produce 68,000 barrels of oil a day by mid-2011.A sister project, Firebag 4, is slated to come onstream a year later.

Meanwhile, as Cooper reported a month ago, Imperial is forging ahead with its $8-billion Kearl oilsands project. The company has already spent $1 billion on site prep and engineering, and expects initial production on the project's 110,000-barrel-per-day first phase by the end of 2012.

Other key players are also moving ahead. Devon Energy recently unveiled plans to seek approval for phase three of its steam-assisted Jackfish Lake project.

Phase one is now approaching its targeted production rate of 35,000 barrels a day, and phase two is roughly half completed, with initial output set for 2011.

Alberta's Industrial Heartland also got a boost recently when the Energy Resources Conservation Board set a Feb. 24 hearing date for Total's proposed 150,000-barrel-a-day bitumen upgrader. The upgrader is part of an integrated project that includes Total's planned 200,000-barrel-a-day Joslyn mine. The latter is expected to get corporate approval first, possibly by 2011.

Pipeline firms are also forging ahead with plans to ship bitumen to the West Coast, mainly for export to fast-growing Asian markets like China.

Enbridge's Northern Gateway project, a long-proposed 1,170-kilometre pipeline that could transport more than 500,000 barrels of bitumen a day to the B.C. coast, appears to be finally gaining traction.

With the Obama government expected to introduce cap-and-trade legislation in coming months, oilsands producers seem to have finally gotten the message that it's time to diversify their customer base, and reduce their reliance on the U.S.

The growing focus on China took a giant step forward in late August, when PetroChina, one of the world's largest energy companies, announced a landmark deal with privately held Athabasca Oil Sands Corp. to acquire a 60-per-cent stake in two Alberta oilsands projects, Mac-Kay River and Dover.

The MacKay River project is expected to begin production by 2014. At peak, the two projects are expected to produce as much as 500,000 barrels of bitumen a day.

Add it all up, and the picture is one of renewed growth for the oilsands. But this time around, if execs like Suncor CEO Rick George can be believed, it will be carefully stage-managed to avoid the pitfalls of the last boom.

Let's hope he's right.

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