MSNBC has an interesting piece on the development of the Canadian oil industry, and also notes that many people don't realize that Canada is the US's leading external oil supplier. The high prices of conventional oil supplies are making unconventional sources such as Canada's oil sands economical to exploit.
"Here in Alberta — a once-desolate outpost 800 miles north of the U.S. border that has gone from ghost town to boom town — you won't see any spouting geysers, or traditional pumps drilling for oil deep underground. Oil — trapped in dark sticky sand — sits just below the surface of the earth waiting to be mined. Brad Bellows, a spokesman for oil company Suncor, explained that first step is to claw the oil mixed with sand out of the earth, using some monster machines."
The oil sands of Alberta stretch for over 50,000 miles and contain more oil than is found in even leading conventional producer Saudi Arabia. Canada's Suncor took a large gamble over a decade ago, when oil prices were far lower, to develop the technology that allows these resources to be produced today. Oil sands are difficult to produce, requiring large scale mining operations and large inputs of water and natural gas in the extraction process. It also releases more carbon dioxide than conventional oil operations, but Suncor and other firms are seeking ways to reduce these releases, and Suncor has cut its own emissions in half over the last decade. Canada, a Kyoto treaty signatory, is just as unlikely to meet its treaty commitments as most other signatories.
The success with oil sands is making oil firms also examine another unconventional oil resource, oil shale, found in large quantities in the American West. Some estimates are that up to 7 million barrels a day could be produced in the US by 2035. US oil firm Shell has invested $200 million in researching oil shale production methods, and thinks that pumping hot water deep into these deposits could reduce the problem of converting the shale into conventional oil.