Jon Harding, Calgary Herald; Canwest News ServicePublished: 2:01 am
CALGARY - Two of the richest people in the world, software magnate Bill Gates and investor Warren Buffett, quietly flew into northeastern Alberta on Monday to take a look at the oilsands.
The pair visited the $9.3-billion Horizon oilsands project as guests of its developer, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).
"We were asked to come up and give a general overview on the oilsands and Canada's role in the world of energy in general, which we did," said Greg Stringham, CAPP's vice-president.
Gates, the founder of Microsoft Corp., and Buffet, his friend and the world's richest person, were pegged by Forbes magazine this spring as having a combined net worth of $120 billion US.
They could be looking for secure places to make resource-related investments now that the U.S. dollar seems to be recovering. In recent months Buffett said he favours investing in the Canadian oilsands because it offers a secure supply of oil for the United States.
Gates and Buffett made the trip partly out of curiosity, but also "with investment in mind," a source said.
Buffett is an investor in American oil giant ConocoPhillips, which owns sizable oilsands assets in partnership with Canada's EnCana Corp.
Buffett and Gates were first and third, respectively, on the world's richest people list in the March edition of Forbes.
Buffett, 77, was worth an estimated $62 billion US, mostly in shares of Omaha, Neb.-based insurance conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway.
Computer software wizard Gates, 52, was the richest man on the planet for 13 straight years. However, after making massive donations to his charitable trust, Gates' net worth fell by more than half to $58 billion US.
Canadian Natural spokesman Rob Larson confirmed the tour involving Gates and Buffett happened but would not comment beyond that.
The two tycoons were hosted by, among others, Canadian Natural vice-chairman Murray Edwards and company chairman Allan Markin, who are among Canada's wealthiest people.
The group made its way to the Horizon site about 100 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. Horizon will be Alberta's fourth major oilsands mine when first production begins this fall.
The last few months have been particularly tumultuous for the oilsands industry.
Shares of companies active in the region have been hammered alongside falling oil prices, but are considered to be blue-chip, long-term investments.
The industry has also been under siege from environmental groups and foreign governments, including U.S. mayors, who voiced concerns about the industry's impact on air quality due to its level of emissions, on water quality in the Athabasca River, and about the slow rate of land reclamation by industry players.
Fort McMurray Mayor Melissa Blake was not aware of the visit by Gates and Buffett, but she said the profile of the oilsands continues to grow and visits to the area by high-profile investors, politicians and even royalty have become common.
The two billionaires have developed a close friendship over the years. Buffett announced in 2006 that he would begin giving away 85 per cent of his wealth, with most of it going to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest philanthropic organization.
Gates's last full-time day at the company he founded was on June 27. He remains at Microsoft as a part-time, non-executive chairman.
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