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(MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
(MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Neil Reynolds

Even Canadians don't comprehend what they're sitting on Add to ...

Ottawa historian and storyteller Alastair Sweeny calls Roger Butler "one of the true benefactors of humanity," a Canadian inventor who ranks with such famous innovators as Abraham Gesner (the geologist who invented kerosene in 1854 and "lit up the world for 50 years"), Charles Saunders (the botanist who developed frost-resistant wheat in 1892 and multiplied global crop production), Reginald Fessenden (the broadcast pioneer who, in the early 1900s, may have been the first person to transmit the human voice by radio wave) and which led eventually to Mike Lazaridis giving the world the BlackBerry in the late 1990s.

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Mr. Sweeny celebrated Mr. Lazaridis last year in BlackBerry Planet: The Story of Research in Motion and the Little Device That Took the World by Storm, his fourth "business biography." In BlackBerry Planet, Mr. Sweeny calculated the economic and cultural consequences of "the little device" as enormous, taking a huge step toward what he calls "the TeleBrain," a powerful, portable micro-computer with the revolutionary capability of vastly increasing humanity's brain-power in the next 20 years.

Now, in Black Bonanza: Canada's Oil Sands and the Race to Secure North America's Energy Future, his fifth "business biography," Mr. Sweeny calculates the economic and political consequences of Roger Butler's discovery of SAGD (steam-assisted gravity drainage), the oil-sands process that made Canada an energy superpower - with more than one trillion barrels of recoverable oil, with another two trillion barrels in reserve.

Canadians now know these numbers, Mr. Sweeny says, though few Canadians appear to recognize the global importance of them.

"If energy is the master resource of the human race, then Canada is truly blessed," he writes. "Beneath the boreal forests of Alberta and Saskatchewan, halfway between Edmonton and the border of the Northwest Territories, lies a black bonanza of oil-soaked sand.

"It's hard for people to grasp the simple fact - that [these sands comprise]the largest known petroleum assets on the planet," he writes. "Covering an area larger than England, this belt of oil-soaked silicon dwarfs the light oil reserves of the entire Middle East."

Even oil industry analysts don't get it, Mr. Sweeny says, citing authorities who still rank Canadian oil reserves as No. 2, behind Saudi Arabia. "This fiction persists in the face of the evidence that the Athabasca sands are far larger," he says. "A trillion barrels of synthetic crude is four times larger than Saudi Arabia's 250 billion barrels." He notes that the International Energy Agency persists in listing Canada's oil reserves at a mere 175 billion barrels.

Mr. Sweeny asserts that the oil sands now hold irreversible advantages over offshore drilling, presciently comparing BP's difficulties - in drilling an offshore Gulf of Mexico well "that goes as deep as Mount Everest goes high" - with oil sands operations. BP is now dealing with an environmental disaster of perhaps historic dimensions, inadvertently increasing the U.S. need for more Canadian oil sands production.

"The sands are just lying there for the taking, some of them up to 140 feet thick," Mr. Sweeny says. "All you have to do is build a giant washing machine, pay a royalty to a friendly government and promise to clean up when you leave."

If the oil sands are a "blessing" for Canada, Mr. Sweeny asserts, they are also a blessing for the world. The oil sands ensure a stable supply of oil to the United States, which will become less and less reliant on imports from "dictatorial regimes" that seek to hold the world to ransom. Thus, had he still been alive, Roger Butler might well qualify for a Nobel Peace Prize for his invention of horizontal drilling.

Although not widely recognized by Canadians, Butler's name is still spoken in reverence in the engineering community, Mr. Sweeny says. Butler himself, he says, was always modest about his discovery. In fact, though, Butler (who died five years ago) "gave the citizens of the planet a hundred years or so of energy security that we never thought we had." A true benefactor indeed.

Mr. Sweeny's Black Bonanza is more than rah-rah. He critiques a wealthy industry that has failed to fulfill its environmental obligations - and he argues that it must be required to do so. But he regards the environmentalists' doomsday assault on the oil sands as preposterous: "I agree totally that we must. .. clean up the planet. But I believe [we can do it]without obsessing about a trace gas that helps plants grow." Goats have done more damage to the environment, he suggests, than carbon dioxide.

"When the historian in me looks at the history of climate change," he says, "he notes that we have significant periods of naturally occurring heating and cooling." A thousand years ago, Britain was covered in vineyards - and Viking farmers tended cows in Greenland. Four hundred years ago, the sea froze between England and France. Mr. Sweeny, for all his scholarly analysis, expresses his doubts bluntly in the vernacular: "I smell a rat.

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