After the boom of the first decade of the 21st century, then the bust in the last couple years, the oil sands industry appears to be in the early stages of a slow growth period that is characteristic of mature resource industries. This is likely the new normal for the industry.

Capital investment in the sands is forecast to be about $12 billion/year for much of the next decade, which is down from $16 billion in 2016. In the last two years, several international companies have shifted their capital investment in unconventionals to shale oil basins in the US or otherwise away from the sands (part of the reason the NDP reduced some of the royalty rates in their recent royalty review).

The 5 major firms that produce 80% of Alberta’s oil are all focused on cost-cutting, maintaining existing projects, expanding some a bit, and adding small to moderate-sized in situ facilities over the decade. The costs/barrel of these firms are in the 20s to low-30s, so $45-60/barrel in the medium term will see these corporations accumulate decent profits while minimizing the handsome benefits the government and workers of Alberta have become accustom to.

Even at the height of the oil sands boom in 2006, the industry was only directly responsible for 6.7% of Alberta employment. With the introduction of new in situ and fracking technologies, automation (driver-less trucks), and smaller rig pads, jobs in the western Canadian oil industry will continue to decline in the coming years relative to the growing volume of production as oil sands majors look to grow through cost-cutting and improving the production of existing facilities.

The spring 2017 oil sands update: