The situation at Canada’s Alberta Tar Sands Operations has gone from bad to worse as the super-low oil price is now costing the industry billions of dollars each month.  Unbelievably, the price for the Western Canadian Select heavy oil fell to a gut-wrenching $14.65 yesterday down from a high of $58 in May.  Tar sands oil is now selling at an amazing $40 discount to U.S. West Texas Oil which is trading at $56.

The main reasons for the falling price of Alberta tar sands are due to Canadian pipelines full to capacity as well as midwest U.S. refineries shut down for seasonal maintenance.  Furthermore, the announcement by a U.S. Federal Judge to block the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline on November 9th, didn’t help.

According to data from the Natural Resources Canada, the Alberta Tar Sands Operations were producing 2.7 million barrels per day (mbd) of oil in 2017.  I would imagine production this year is likely to reach close to 3 mbd.  The largest tar sands producer in Alberta is Suncor.  Suncor produced a record 476,000 barrels per day of tar sands in the third quarter of 2018.

Now, Suncor reported a handsome $1.4 billion profit in Q3 2018 on $8.3 billion in revenues.  However, that profit was based on much higher Western Canadian Select (WCS) oil price which was trading over an average of $35 for the quarter.  Unfortunately, the average price of WCS so far in the fourth quarter is $20.75.  And, if the price of WCS stays at the current low price, the tar sands operators will be receiving less than $20 a barrel.

In the article, Capacity shortages costing Canadian producers $100M/day, it stated:

“Heavy-oil producers are getting 40 percent of what they normally would be paid if we had access to markets,” said Grant Fagerheim, CEO of Calgary-based Whitecap Resources, which produces about 60,000 barrels per day.

He estimates the price differential costs Canadian producers up to $100 million per day in lost revenue at current levels.

…. “We are basically giving this stuff away,” analyst Martin King of GMP FirstEnergy told a Calgary Herald columnist.

With the price of WCS trading at $14 a barrel, the companies producing tar sands are likely losing upwards of $100 million a day which would cost nearly $3 billion each month:

While this is probably a high estimate, it still shows how vulnerable the Alberta Tar Sands Operations are to extremely volatile oil prices.  Furthermore, even though companies like Suncor are enjoying decent profits and free cash flow compared to the U.S. Shale Oil Industry, they make those profits based on a readily available supply of cheap natural gas.

The tar sands operations require a great deal of natural gas to power and process the tar sands and Syncrude oil.  Information from the Canadian Government’s National Energy Board reported that natural gas consumption by the Alberta Tar Sands Operations accounted for 29% of the country’s total consumption in 2016:

Now, if we go back to 2005, the tar sands operations only consumed 12% of the 6.17 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) of Canadian natural gas usage.  Thus, the increased use of natural gas to power and process Alberta tar sands operations has accounted for 78% of the overall growth of Canada’s natural gas consumption in the past decade.

Interestingly, the price of Canadian natural gas that the tar sands industry has to pay has fallen considerably over the past several years.  In 2014 the price of Canadian natural gas was $3.86 mcf versus $1.55 mcf in 2016 and $1.60 mcf in 2017.  However, after natural gas prices hit a low the past month, they have spiked up to $2.50 mcf as of November 15th.  So, with lower oil prices received for tar sands and higher natural gas prices paid to produce the tar sands, the fourth quarter could be a real bummer for the companies in Alberta if oil prices don’t recover.

In a recent article from EnergySkeptic.com titled, Why tar sands, a toxic ecosystem-destroying asphalt, can’t fill in for declining conventional oil, a review of the book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, stated the following four important points:

Many “energy experts” have said that a Manhattan tar sands project could prevent oil decline in the future. But that’s not likely. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Reaching 5 Mb/d will get increasingly (energy) expensive, because there’s only enough natural gas to mine 29% of tar sands (and limited water as well). Using the energy of the tar sand bitumen itself would greatly reduce the amount that could be produced and dramatically increase the cost and energy to mine it.
  2. Since there isn’t enough natural gas, many hope that nuclear reactors will replace natural gas. That would take a lot of time. Kjell Aleklett estimates it would take at least 7 years before a candu nuclear reactor could be built, and the Canadian Parliament estimates it would take 20 nuclear reactors to replace natural gas as a fuel source.
  3. Mined oil sands have been estimated to have an energy returned on invested of EROI of 5.5–6 for mined tar sands (perhaps 10% of the 170 billion barrels), with in situ processing much lower at 3.5–4 (Brandt 2013). Right now, 90% of the reserves being developed are via higher-EROI mining, yet 80% of remaining oil sands reserves are in situ, so the remaining reserves will be much less profitable.
  4. Counting on tar sands to replace declining conventional oil, with an EROI as high as 30 will be hard to accomplish, especially if it turns out to be the case that an EROI of 7 to 14 is required to maintain civilization as we know it (Lambert et al. 2014; Murphy 2011; Mearns 2008; Weissbach et al. 2013)

I believe the biggest problem with the sustainability of tar sands if we ignore the nasty environmental issues, is the low EROI – Energy Returned On Invested.  As point (4) states, a minimum of 7-14 EROI is needed to maintain civilization.  However, I believe the realistic range of a minimum EROI to sustain our modern societies is likely 10-12 EROI.  So, shale oil at an EROI of 5/1 or less (probably much less) and tar sands at 4-6/1, these are not sustainable energy sources.

On the subject of labeling what they are doing in Alberta as “TAR SANDS or OIL SANDS,” I like to use the former even though some readers will try to correct me by saying that the industry uses “OIL SANDS.”  I could give a rats azz what the industry prefers to use.  If you have the opportunity to go up there in Alberta to check out that extremely nasty operation of processing subpar low-quality oil, I would imagine you would see it as a horrible TAR SANDS OPERATION.  The industry likes to use “oil sands” because it sounds CLEANER.

I will be writing more articles and updates on the Canadian Tar Sands Operations over the next several months.


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41 Comments on "TAR SANDS OPERATIONS GO FROM BAD TO WORSE: Now Losing Billions A Month"

  1. Michael Kohlhaas | November 16, 2018 at 1:04 pm | Reply

    Tar oil has been a scam from the get-go!!!

  2. Oversupply + Less Demand

    There is now a global glut of oil in the market place looking for buyers.
    Unfortunately, this oversupply is coming up against a downturn in demand.
    The fundamentals of the worlds economic environment have turned very gloomy.
    Put simply, global industry is just not using as much.
    Much lower oil prices will be coming before the supply/demand balance is achieved.

    Alberta tar sands production, once started is very, very expensive to halt. The nature of the raw material demands heat throughout the process to produce the heavy oil as end product. Once you halt the process, the production line becomes a solidified mass of hard, gummy, material. Its this solidification that haunts the tar sands producers and causes them nightmares. Especially if the northern Winter weather turns out to be an especially colder one, demanding the use of a prodigious amount of natural gas.

    • OutlookingIn,

      Totally agree with the OVERSUPPLY + LESS DEMAND as it pertains to oil. I don’t believe the market realizes just how DEFLATIONARY the oil price can be when these negative market forces continue in earnest.

      If oil prices trend lower after a much-needed short-term correction, it will be disastrous for both the U.S. Shale Oil and Canadian Tar Sands Operations.


      • For tar sands operations, we may not have to wait for lower prices.
        Since at present the tar sands storage capacity is maxed out, with the available pipeline space being zero!

  3. Supply/demand for everything always balances out, including oil.

    There is one exception: currency. Currency is infinite and can be conjured out of thin air, which means it is infinite, there is never a shortage. Currency never actually gains value in our world, it only loses value.

    Ok, so what does this mean. This means that all financial assets (bonds, stocks, mortgages, etc.) always increase in currency terms, even if demand is low. The currency is losing value to these things. This is the one area that the system always intervenes.

    Ultimately, this means the real economy will be in a perpetual depression, and assets will continue skyward. People will stop trading stocks, but the s&p 500 and nasdaq will march ever higher. People will stop buying houses, but house prices will continue ever higher. People will stop trading bonds, but interest rates will stay low.

    There’s nothing you guys can do, it’s a feature of the system. It’s the black death of the real economy, combined with the inflation of the financial economy. Of course it doesn’t make sense, but who said anything needs to make sense. Since when did we humans do anything other than act with greed in our short term interest, forgetting all history, and completely oblivious to all future humans to come?

    You guys put too much faith in humanity. I look at things with a clear eye.

    • dolph,

      At least you provide some much-needed HUMOR. I give you that.

      However, your analysis is less than faulty at best. Please make sure you come back here when most of what you say goes down the TOILET.


      • Steve, you are wasting your time with Dolph. Dolph is just trolling you and everyone else. If it’s the same person which I think it is, he/she post similar comments on Gail Tverberg’s website.

        My summation of Dolph is that he/she bought into the collapse meme (which btw will eventually happen). He/she made some bad choices and bad decisions based on his his/her collapse beliefs.

        Now he/she is bitter and has a mouthful of sour grapes so his/her comments lend to rubbing it in everyone’s face i.e. Where’s your collapse losers? Get a Life !

        It must be nice to switch sides and throw rocks and stones from the other side of the fence.

        • Hey you have to admit that crying collapse for 10 years is not a good way to invest successfully. Will it one day, yep, for sure. But if a person starts investing at age 20 and has the wrong bet for 10 years, you’ve just wasted not only 20% of your investing life, but the most important 20%. One must follow the trends…so what if there’s a cliff 10 or 20 years down the road. For an example,frackers are drilling like a M.F. down in Texas right now. They aren’t doing that because next month they’re going down the tubes…

          • Paul D Anders | November 17, 2018 at 4:35 pm | Reply
            The catch is when…nothing lasts forever. Metals down again…

            Say what?

            How’s that bitcoin doing? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

          • Paul D Anders | November 17, 2018 at 4:35 pm | Reply
            The catch is when…nothing lasts forever. Metals down again…

            Say what? How’s that bitcoin doing? Yeah, I didn’t think so!

      • Steve, you are wasting your time with Dolph. Dolph is just trolling you and everyone else. If it’s the same person which I think it is, he/she post similar comments on Gail Tverberg’s website.

        My summation of Dolph is that he/she bought into the collapse meme (which btw will eventually happen). He/she made some bad choices and bad decisions based on his his/her collapse beliefs.

        So Dolph is now bitter and has a mouthful of sour grapes so his/her comments lend to rubbing it in everyone’s face i.e. Where’s your collapse losers? Get a Life !

        It must be nice to switch sides and throw rocks and stones from the other side of the fence.

    • DisappearingCulture | November 16, 2018 at 5:55 pm | Reply

      “This means that all financial assets (bonds, stocks, mortgages, etc.) always increase in currency terms, even if demand is low.”
      I would call that totally ridiculous faulty thinking. By your thinking the stock markets can never experience more than a brief correction, then go up, up, up, and housing prices go up even as interest rates go up & liquidity and demand goes down [“People will stop buying houses, but house prices will continue ever higher”]. LOL
      The humorous kicker: “I look at things with a clear eye.”

  4. Tsk, tsk Steve, you are an energy racist. TAR sands is an ugly, gooey term, implying a very low energy density, unable to be transported by pipeline, requiring huge amounts of natural gas to steam out the lower layers, raping and polluting the environment and building above ground storage pools for the water, heavy duty refining to rid of all the sulfur, etc.

    The proper term is OIL sands. Nice easily pumped and affordable oil ready to service our growing economy.

    • Hubbs,

      While you and I may debate the DEFINITION, I like TAR SANDS. Now, if the companies in the Alberta didn’t use GOBS and GOBS of Natural Gas to make that lousy Tar Sands into Oil that can be pumped through pipelines, then I would agree with you.

      However, I like to use the word TAR to describe the environmental disaster that is taking place in Alberta.

      Thanks for the comment… though.


  5. OOPs, you corrected the error in your final sentence Steve, “oil” sands sounds cleaner. Even better than lipstick on a pig.

  6. Well, the Canadians really are our best friends. They are selling us oil for $14.65 per barrel. Our best gift since we acquired Gretzky! Way to go, Trudeau!

  7. Those familiar with Gann can correct me BUT he said, 50% levels technically are the strongest levels on a chart; followed by 100% levels and so forth………

    If you have a look at the recent highs in oil; around $74.00; that represents technically around 50% the extreme high of $148.00. Under the circumstances (and technically speaking) it doesn’t surprise me this chart failed to push through this level and is now in a weak position to eventually fall to the next level 25% the extreme high or $37.00.

    Life and the markets are starting to get interesting eh?

    Good to have you back Steve!

  8. For all I know natural gas prices are set to rise. Some very clever politicians are trying to substitute oil with NG and gas companies are beginning to open gas filling stations so you can fuel your gasoline engines with it. How ruinous tar sands will be when NG becomes more expensive ? And here in Catalonia we should be worried because our main provider is Algeria and its natural gas resources seem to begin to falter.
    Tar sands are are a total calamity but they are a useful gauge of how desperate we are.

  9. So they are proposing to build nuclear reactors to supplement their energy needs to produce more oil from oil sands? Why not just build thorium salt reactors to produce the energy and skip the intermediate step?


    • SkeptiSchism,

      They can’t build Thorium Salt Reactors because the Technology hasn’t been perfected yet. I have heard 10-20 years more at least.


      • But, necessity is the mother of invention. We must have more confidence in ingenuity if we are to overcome the effects of peak oil.

        With complete respect to your analysis on the issue, it is top notch.

  10. Donovan Brewster | November 17, 2018 at 8:24 pm | Reply

    wow! what a load of totally biased bullshit. you want to see ugly, go look at conventional oil operations in any other juristiction on earth. Canadian environmental standards are the highest in the world. Take a look at how things are done in Nigeria or Venezuela if you want to see calamity. Oil sands have a huge advantage in that the quantities are known, whereas conventional fields produceable reserves are guesses at best. Insofar as EROI is concerned, oil sands tech is advancing alk the time… Kearl Lake and Fort Hills are demonstrating that parrafinic froth processing works and consumes far less natual gas than older coking technologies. Both facilities will produce a good product for 50 years or more… name one conventional play in the world that can make that claim. Have you ever actually been to Fort McMurray, or are you just listening to the brilliance of Neil Young and Jane Fonda? I hear both are real authorities on… nothing!

    • Donovan,

      While you are free to voice your opinion, the fact remains that Tar-Oil Sands operations do not provide the minimum required EROI of 10-12/1 to sustain our modern society. It’s really that simple.

      Now, I don’t care to compare the Alberta Tar Sands Operations to other oil projects throughout the world. However, I base any unconventional oil source as a wasteful enterprise that only prolongs the inevitable collapse by sacrificing the environment unnecessarily.


  11. If Tar sands are in the midst of a collapse and fracking oil is in the midst of a debt collapse. What will we have in the end? I see PEMEX is imploding much like other state owned petroleum companies like PDVSA and Petrobrasil. Where is the oil to sustain the America’s going to come from? Based on previous articles and charts the breakdown is occurring right now and will only accelerate from here. Did anyone notice the complete failure of the U.S. led oil embargo against Iran? When it comes to energy access it’s every man for himself. What about the complete failure of the Syrian military campaign? Seems to me U.S. global dominance is all but a historic footnote. I don’t like the thought of an America without access to cheap oil. I don’t like the idea of the mainstream picking up on what is increasingly becoming an obvious energy problem. Panic might be right around the corner as people start thinking this through and the repercussions start to manifest within society. The government’s only recourse is to print in order to sustain the ponzi, and to take more of the National pie in order to sustain itself. I’ll give thanks on this extra special Thanksgiving. The holidays become more precious since the petroleum age is coming to an end and big changes will be amongst us soon enough.

  12. DisappearingCulture | November 18, 2018 at 11:22 am | Reply

    “I don’t like the idea of the mainstream picking up on what is increasingly becoming an obvious energy problem. Panic might be right around the corner as people start thinking this through…”
    I wouldn’t worry to much yet about MSM focusing on the real news, or people thinking about unpleasant things more than they have to in the moment. Lots of entertainment abounds.

    “The government’s only recourse is…..”
    The government has lots of bread and circuses yet to sponsor. Of course as you say to sustain the ponzi.

  13. I was thinking about my oatmeal this morning. I decided to read where the ingredients are sourced.
    Oats from Oregon
    Chocolate flakes from Venezuela
    Cinnamon from Sri Lanka
    A little honey from Brazil
    Almond milk from California
    Who knows where the various packages are sourced.

    I’m going to miss the petroleum age. The average man in the the kingdom lives better then any king immortalized on Netflix.

    • DisappearingCulture | November 19, 2018 at 11:14 am | Reply

      “I’m going to miss the petroleum age. The average man in the the kingdom lives better then any king immortalized on Netflix.”
      Well…the kings got entertainment on demand; violence, debauchery, etc. Hard to compete with that LOL

      • With streaming, netflix, and the www et al. one can get just about any entertainment that is desired, 24/7 in the petroleum heyday… Soon it will be mayday mayday, and we might not be able to exchange thoughts were we do right here and now… So yes, I will also miss the PA, well knowing at the same time PA will come to an end because it mathematically must. The consequences of reality will bite us all in the @®$ and haunt us till the end of (human) times… The rise and fall of mankind, brought to you by thermophysics and eCONomics.

  14. Tar sands are the excrement of the planet that we’d all be best without – and I live in Alberta. Unfortunately, as I’ve been saying for years, they just keep perpetually expanding, despite, expensive labor, increasing costs, low prices, pipeline opposition, etc because our provincial & federal governments (believe they) can’t let them even just level out, never mind decrease. Look at a chart of Alberta oil production by year, and it’s an ever climbing line. I’d love it to end, but bet it won’t.

    • DisappearingCulture | November 19, 2018 at 11:17 am | Reply

      Doesn’t this gunk refine to fuels diesel & jet fuel? They have to come from somewhere.

      • Yes, it does. However there has been plenty of jet fuel before the tar sands were initiated, and every other way is a lot cleaner, less pricy than it. The tar sands only exist because of massive government handouts of tax payer money to the corporations, and somehow a few thousand jobs created for lowlifes are supposed to justify it. Hence my disbelief in Steve’s theory of its demise. Should we be so lucky.

  15. “While you publish a lot of comments, it seems to me that your thinking doesn’t see the FOREST FOR THE TREES. I hate to be so blunt, but there it is.


    Steve,– The above is your reply to my comment, November 16, end of your last post.

    This is only the SECOND TIME you have responded to my comments, which have been pretty few and sporadic, not “many”, especially pointed directly at you. In each case you basically have issued a brief casual statement of disregard for my intelligence, rather then making even a minor attempt to answer my question or observation/expression.

    Sorry, but simply calling someone stupid when they are honestly inquisitive and attempting in their stupid way to add to general knowledge of all seems like a cop out, and the attitude of someone trying to evade.

    As someone who was totally unaware of energy issues and peak oil before discovering your blog, and having grown from your energy research, I find this view of you disconcerting.

    Basically, In addition to asking you to to comment on the validity and EXTENT of manipulation issue, which I tend to believe in, I asked you to address a blunt question:

    Oversimplifying/abbreviating your past posted data, lets call the production cost of primaries $16.00/ounce for many years. If your research is true, then how has it been possible for primary miners to stay in business, even when spot was $17?

    And going further into the ridiculous, how have majority stayed in work for last year with spot at $14ish.

    Now, maybe I’m stupid, but seemed to me many might be in dark about this. I would have liked to believe that, if your interest in this subject is pure, you would have appreciated the opportunity to educate the simpletons.

    Ditto for my first query year or two ago. Humor us all. Reveal the “forest I am missing for the trees”. The root of my stupidity. Geez, whatever happened to at least half assed upfront discussion. Never asked for a treatice.

    • As Gail Tverberg likes to say, many things are possible. It depends how high you want to blow the debt bubble. Many companies are in business that should not be due to low/zero % interest. Then they find investors who believe/faith that the price for their goods will eventually go up. Look no further than Shale Oil.

      tl;dr cheap money keeps the wheels turning, globally

  16. Steve, thanks for your work. You share some unique analysis, firmly based in a reality most financial and energy “experts” ignore.

    I am confused/skeptical about one thing in this piece. You write “the companies producing tar sands are likely losing upwards of $100 million a day.” But the article to which you linked estimates $100/million a day in foregone revenue due to the discount. That’s extra money they’d theoretically be making if more pipelines were in place. (Same as if I had an ice cream shop in the winter, and said “If only it were summer…I’d be making an extra $1000 per day!) Doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t still making a profit?

    Or do you have other data suggesting the companies are actually taking a loss that large, not just bemoaning the extra profit they could have?

    And, what do you make of this article suggesting Bakken drillers made profits in Q3? It feels like a puff piece, since there’s no acknowledgement of how much they’ve bled out over the years, nor of the drilling treadmill. But I don’t know enough to know whether it’s true that the drillers finally had a good quarter? I appreciate any insights you have!

  17. Thanks for the new post on hydrocarbons.
    To add to the cost, I believe that light tight oil is imported from the US and combined with the bitumen to make the viscosity suitable to flow through pipelines and stay fluid in rail cars. Paint thinner mixed with asphalt and cracked into diesel and heating oil. Whatever it takes to keep the wheels turning.

    I don’t understand why they have a transport problem. They have plenty of asphalt to make more roads to ship more oil.

  18. Johny Comelately | November 19, 2018 at 7:58 pm | Reply

    I’ve been dropping in once and a while. I’m amazed how the ETP Thermodynamic Energy Collapse model is playing out. Prices are really going lower and at this rate oil will be $12/barrel by before 2030. Likely 2022 as the model suggests!

    Steve, thanks so much for bringing us this invaluable information to help us make informed decisions.

  19. AMAZING!

    The night descending on Paris has brought no ease of tensions over
    fuel price hikes. ‘Yellow Vest’ protesters set more barricades ablaze,
    turning the French capital into a kind of war zone.

    The filmed scenes resembled street battles, with rioters engaging in
    scuffles with police, which struggled to bring the situation under

    The video shows brazen protesters setting barricades and tents on
    fire, as well as riot police using tear gas and water cannons to
    disperse the crowds. People have been venting their anger for the past
    two weeks over rising fuel prices and a government-proposed fuel tax,
    which is due to come into force in January 2019.


    There are Optimists, Pessimists and Realists. Some say that more
    people on Planet Earth = more minds to solve problems and create

    Some say that we have already overshot carrying capacity and are about
    to fall off the Seneca Cliff. That solutions to the problems
    Industrial Civilization only adds to complexity and ensures a Seneca
    Cliff collapse. I’m in agreement with that.

    There is absolutely NO solutions to our dilemma, because Humans can’t
    seem to grasp that creating cooperative and sustainable civilization
    requires sacrifice by all – we must all agree to give up something….
    but we only want more.

    We can only continue to carry on with BAU (Business as Usual) until we can’t.

    The fewer people that can afford fuel – the more there is for those
    who can. Those at the top, will push down those at the bottom.

    When the petro-dollar dies, so does our way of life – what then?

    Peak Oil & Drastic Oil Shortages Imminent, Says IEA


    A *STUNNING* admission,, if true….

    Right now – People from Africa,the Middle East and South America are
    fleeing the endless wars and poverty, coming to Europe and America.
    What are you willing to give up – what part of your slice of the pie
    will you share?

    Or, as George Bush declared….

    “THE American way of life is not up for negotiation.” That was the
    stance struck by the elder George Bush at the first Earth Summit in
    Rio de Janeiro in 1992. He was responding to the thousands of green,
    anti-capitalist and other activists who were claiming that the United
    States, then as now the world’s biggest energy consumer, was also its
    biggest polluter. That makes it all the more striking that his son has
    just proposed environmental policies that, he says, will
    “fundamentally alter the American way of life in a positive way.”


    Endless wars for Oil and to prop up the Petro-Dollar – until the last
    American Soldier is dead.

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