Keystone and the Riddle of the Tar Sands

Late 21st-century graduate students of business studying the growing problem of stranded assets will almost certainly focus on the history of Canada’s Athabasca Oil Sands (a.k.a. the tar sands). The case studies they read will either describe the gradual abandonment of the world’s largest reserve of bituminous crude or they will read about the tar sands’ miraculous last-minute escape from becoming the world’s largest stranded asset.

For either outcome, the turning point they will look back on is just about now.

In some respects Alberta’s gigantic deposits of bitumen, a dense mixture of sand and heavy crude oil, third in size only to the reserves of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, were stranded from the start by location. Situated in the heart of a vast boreal forest at the center of a very large continent, they are hundreds of miles from the nearest refinery and thousands more from navigable tidewater.

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