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WILLISTON, N.D. — As the sun dips below a grain stubble horizon, the flares flicker into view, a dozen tongues of flame licking against a pink sky.
The flares are natural gas being burned off in the rush for a far more valuable resource – oil. Shining in the gathering dusk, they are industrial glimmers of a changed future for a nation whose long-faltering dreams of energy independence are being revived.
Oil is pouring out of North Dakota. In September, some 728,000 barrels a day flowed, up a startling 57 per cent from the year before. And it’s not just here: Similar fields in Texas and elsewhere are seeing similarly fast rises in oil output, prompting a near-euphoric re-examination of what’s ahead for a country that has long relied heavily on imported oil to fill its gas tanks and keep its economic engine running.
Now, as hundreds of drilling rigs employ technological advances to extract rich reserves of previously untapped energy, the oil renaissance is triggering some startling forecasts.
The International Energy Agency predicted this week that the U.S. is set to become the largest oil-producing nation on earth, more prolific even than Saudi Arabia. One day, the IEA said, the U.S. could drive away most foreign imports.
What, then, does the future hold for the country that today delivers the largest share of those imports? Some 27 per cent of all barrels that cross U.S. borders come from Canada, and a belief in unfettered access to an insatiably oil-hungry U.S. market has been a central underlying assumption of the great energy expansion under way in Alberta.
Canada already produces far more oil than it needs. Any flaws in that assumption about U.S. demand will have a profound effect on Canada’s oil sands, where companies are spending a billion dollars a week to build production destined for export – virtually all U.S. bound.
At stake is the growth of an industry that keeps Western Canada’s economy vibrant, producing boatloads of well-paying jobs, welcome spinoff effects and government revenue. Already, amid weaker oil prices, some oil companies have contemplated deferring or cancelling projects, and just this week the Alberta government backed away from a goal to balance its budget.
“Canada has a real problem,” said Al Monaco, chief executive officer of Enbridge Inc., the pipeline company that has long been the prime mover of Canada’s oil. Combine rising U.S. oil output with declining consumption and the lack of other markets for Canada, and “none of that bodes well for prices if you’re a producer – nor if you’re a government that has royalties at play. Nor if you’re the federal government for tax revenue.”
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