The promise of production from Alberta's oil sands appears to grow exponentially the farther Conservative cabinet ministers get from Ottawa.
And by the time they reach China, all caution is lost.
In the House of Commons yesterday, Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn rejected concerns that a breakneck development in the oil sands would swamp the Conservative government's climate change strategy.
He suggested production there is unlikely to exceed 3.1 million barrels a day within the next 10 years, although that's still triple what companies now pump out of the high-cost, heavily polluting oil sands.
Still, his lowball estimate doesn't square with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's effort to tout the country's potential as an energy superpower. In New York this fall, the Prime Minister said oil sands production was expected to hit four million barrels a day by 2015.
But on a recent trip to China, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty played a little Texas hold 'em with the oil sands estimates, seeing Mr. Harper's four-million-barrel forecast and raising it another 600,000.
Earlier this month, Mr. Flaherty travelled to China in an effort to lure Chinese investment to Canada, including the oil sands. Despite hints of interest two years ago, Chinese companies have so far made only minor investments.
Mr. Flaherty told Chinese business people they are missing an enormous opportunity. "Between now and 2015, energy investment in Canada is projected to be about $400-billion," he boasted. "Production from Alberta's oil sands stands at about 2.5 million barrels a day now, and is on its way to 4.6 million barrels per day by 2015."
In fact, oil sands production now stands at about 1.1 million barrels a day, and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers says its most optimistic forecast has it growing to 3.5 million by 2015.
The sky-high government estimates -- along with a recently uncovered memo from a 2006 Canada-U.S. meeting that posited oil sands production of five million barrels a day -- has spooked environmentalists and opposition MPs, who argue the Conservative are ready to savage the environment to feed the voracious appetite for oil in the United States.
Mr. Lunn said "science and technology," along with energy efficiency, yield the solutions to global warming concerns, not reining in oil sands production.
How much oil in the oil sands? It depends who you ask...
Natural Resources Minister
Gary Lunn: 3.1 million barrels a day in 2015
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers: 3.5 million in 2015
Prime Minister Stephen Harper:
4 million in 2015
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty:
4.6 million in 2015 ***
For Canadian and U.S. bureaucrats at a 2006 meeting in Houston:
5 million, "in a relatively short time span"