As I returned recently from a vacation in Canada, I took a detour along the Canadian side of the St. Clair River which divides Ontario from Michigan as it flows from Lake Huron into Lake St. Clair. The sunny, placid scene of sailboats, swimmers and the occasional motorboat or barge bore no witness to the fact that this was a border between two countries. As I passed two vast oil refineries I was reminded that I was indeed in Canada, a country so rich in oil and natural gas that that the docks next to these refineries were likely used to ship refined products to the United States which is now in perpetual need of them.

From such a vantage point it is hard to imagine that this apparently benign unconcern for where the United States ends and Canada begins might suddenly be transformed into a pitched battle of words and deeds. And yet, that is almost certainly where these two old friends are headed.

Behind this looming turnabout is one very troubling development: Natural gas production in North America has leveled off. Only warm winter weather has so far delivered the continent from a severe crisis. The glib confidence with which Wall Street analysts touted the buildup in gas storage earlier this year betrays their ignorance about how tenuous those supplies really are. Underground gas storage currently stands at 2.8 trillion cubic feet (tcf) and could reach well over 3 tcf if the current hot weather abates and reduces demand for gas used to produce electricity. But those figures amount to a very small buffer when compared to the approximately 26.5 tcf consumed each year across North America. In fact, it is so small that the U. S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is taking steps to encourage an expansion of gas storage in order to reduce the volatility in prices.

But you can’t store what you don’t produce. Even though gas drilling rig counts in the United States have steadily advanced from an average of under 500 in 1999 to 1,376 in June, production remains flat. This has led to high volatility in prices. Since February 2002 prices have risen from a low of a little over $2 per thousand cubic feet (mcf) to nearly $15 per mcf last October. Prices have since come down considerably. Even so they are unlikely to stay there if a hurricane again knocks out gas production infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico or a truly cold winter descends on North America.

But there is something else even more foreboding about the leveling off of gas production according to Douglas Reynolds, a resource economist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks who has studied the North American gas situation closely. Reynolds predicts that North American production will begin to fall precipitously sometime after 2007. And, unlike the gradual downslope that the declining production numbers for a depleting oil well or an entire oil-producing nation trace on a graph, Reynolds expects the falloff in North American gas production to resemble a cliff. When gas wells begin to decline, they decline swiftly and often with little warning.

Which brings us back to the coming “war” with Canada. There will be no quick fixes for natural gas shortages in North America. None. Eventually, natural gas from Alaska and the MacKenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories will arrive by pipeline. But that could easily be 10 years from now. Imports in the form of liquid natural gas (LNG) could offer some relief, but the timelines for building the necessary special purpose ports and ships could be equally long.

So, what happens in the meantime should Reynolds’ prediction turn out to be true? The answer will be puzzling to many Canadians. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) obliges Canada to share its oil and gas in the same proportion as it has in the previous 36 months prior to any restrictions placed on output. The specific reference is Article 605. In other words, the United States is supposed to get its share no matter what. In 2005 the U. S. imported almost 3.7 tcf of natural gas from Canada which produced about 6.5 tcf in the same year. That’s more than half Canada’s production.

(Perhaps even more galling to the Canadian public will be the fact that the other party to NAFTA, Mexico, retained control over its own hydrocarbon resources in the very same chapter of the agreement in which Canadian negotiators gave away Canada’s energy sovereignty.)

But what if the Canadian government faced a situation in which its own citizens were freezing in their homes for lack of heat? Would it simply let natural gas flow south because of a trade agreement? And, what if it became apparent that the situation wasn’t temporary, but rather a long-term problem?

Any party to NAFTA can withdraw from the agreement with six months’ written notice. But the urgency of a mid-winter natural gas crisis wouldn’t allow for such an orderly retreat. So, if, say, a weak Canadian minority government such as the one currently in power in Ottawa were faced with the wrath of freezing Canadian voters or a nasty row with the United States, which would it choose?

In the past when it suited the United States, the U. S. government simply ignored rulings made by the body that adjudicates trade disputes under NAFTA. Specifically, a long-running dispute over the export of softwood lumber to the United States from Canada had both parties hot under the collar. (Read here and here.) The dispute has since been settled. If this rather minor dispute had both parties this agitated for this long, how much more will they be agitated by a natural gas crisis.

I seriously doubt that the Canadian government would ever risk an actual military confrontation with the United States over energy, a confrontation that it could not win. But, what would it do short of that? And what would the United States do short of military action when its own people are threatened with freezing?

We can all hope for lovely cooperation. But if the past is any indication, I fear we Americans could be in for what is about as close to a war as we will ever get with Canada.

You might expect that under the circumstances Canada and the United States would be invoking emergency conservation measures for natural gas. But instead both governments fiddle while the continent’s remaining and perilously tight natural gas supplies continue to burn. They thereby risk that one day in the not-too-distant future their relationship may turn as icy as the St. Clair River during the depths of a frigid winter.