If the story of the Alberta’s oil sands were to be told as a vintage western movie, it is likely that the oil industry, and the companies that make it up, would be portrayed as the villains who ride in wearing black hats and take over the town.

Despite the unprecedented economic activity arising from development of this region, it seems that you don’t have to look very far to find someone complaining about uncontrolled spending, environmental damage or inequitable distribution of profits. Regardless of your position on these issues, as a Canadian it is impossible to overlook the economic impact that these companies have on our nation.

The simple fact is the development of natural resources in Canada, which has played a pivotal role in the country’s history, does not happen by itself. In every instance, someone has taken the risk to identify the resource and provide the infrastructure necessary to bring it to market, gambling that demand will support a price greater than the costs incurred. Yes, for those who have managed to successfully navigate this challenge, the financial rewards can literally defy imagination, but so can the quantum of the potential losses.

Today energy, minerals and forestry employ more than 1.8 million people in Canada, and generate an estimated $30 billion of government revenue every year. The 170 billion barrels of proven reserves located in Alberta’s oil sands, the third largest deposit in the world, have the potential to alter the landscape of the global energy market and dramatically increase the resource sector’s contributions to our economy. The companies who provide the capital to turn this vision into reality, the aforementioned villains in black hats, do so knowing that the line between boom and bust is increasingly thin.

Like any commodity, market pricing is a reflection of the relationship between supply and demand. Of course, demand is not relevant if you are unable to get your product to the consumer. With Canadian conventional drilling and operational oil sands projects already producing at a rate well above Canada’s daily consumption of 1.5 million barrels per day, the ability to reach markets beyond our borders is paramount in the realization of the immense potential of this natural resource.

With existing pipeline and transportation infrastructure already running at near capacity, as more oil sands projects move into production, the image of a funnel overflowing as bitumen is fed into it in increasing quantities, becomes an unwelcome topic. With projects such as the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipeline mired in political and environmental debate, the probability of efficiently exporting crude oil from Alberta diminishes, while the risk to the entities that have invested billions of dollars increases.

At the same time that Canada struggles with this inability to bring its product to market, global demand for crude oil is evolving. The United States, which has historically been the world’s leading net importer of petroleum, is well along the journey to becoming the largest oil producer on the planet, abdicating its import throne to China and India. The resulting scenario sees Canada competing with oil producers from around the globe looking to take advantage of the emerging demand as a replacement for the diminishing U.S. import market. The only problem is that with the delays in approval and construction of pipelines, when the music stops, Canada may well be the one left standing in this global game of musical chairs.

Despite the increased risk, and the requirement to accept that basic supply-and-demand principles take a back seat to politics and logistics, there are many companies that remain committed to the development of this resource. They accept the cost increases that accompany shortages in skilled labour, and the resulting implications on their projected returns. These same organizations move forward with the understanding that economics of building refineries in Alberta are proving to be impractical. This means that they remain dependent on their product reaching existing refineries, including the underutilized facilities along the Gulf Coast, before they look to other sources, such as Venezuela, for the heavy crude they were designed to process.

Will there come a point when the risks will outweigh the potential rewards? Participating in an industry that is dependent on a commodity with a history of price volatility requires an inherent level of acceptance. However, it is a reasonable assumption that like anything, there is a limit. Over the past number of months, there have been announcements regarding the curtailment of development on specific projects and, with current market trends, more may follow.

With 25 per cent of Alberta’s GDP represented directly by the energy sector, the importance of the oil sands development is impossible to dispute. For a country built on natural resources, success is equally important, which leads to some obvious questions to those who feel compelled to criticize the companies dedicated to developing the resource. What would it mean to you, and your finances, if the entities that provide the capital and accept the risks, were to give up and go elsewhere? Are you prepared to pay more taxes, accept lower wages and have higher fuel costs? These are real questions. They are not as provocative as the latest celebrity-bandwagon rant, but they are absolutely reflected in our daily lives. Which is more important to you?