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Can Canadian Oil Sands Survive Falling Prices?

A machine works at the Suncor Energy Inc. mine in this aerial photograph taken above the Athabasca Oil Sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.
A machine works at the Suncor Energy Inc. mine in this aerial photograph taken above the Athabasca Oil Sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.Photographer: Ben Nelms/Bloomberg

As oil prices have crashed over the past six months, a lot of attention has focused on what this means for frackers in the U.S., as well as the national budgets of a lot of large oil producing countries, such as Russia and Venezuela. In short, it’s not good. But what about Canada? The country is the world’s fifth-largest oil producer, and only Saudi Arabia and Venezuela have more proven reserves of crude.

Almost all of Canada’s reserves (and production) are in the form of oil sands, which are among the most expensive types of crude to produce. There are pretty much two ways to do it. One is to inject steam into wells deep underground to heat up a thick, gooey type of oil called bitumen. The other is basically to strip mine large tracts of land and extract a synthetic blend of oil out of the earth and sand.