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Pelosi's probe: oil sands & America's addiction to oil

US House of Representatives Speaker and California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi arrived in Canada last week ostensibly to get the real goods on Alberta’s oil sands. As an environmentalist up for re-election in November, Ms. Pelosi is under pressure from her constituents about the carbon footprint of the oil the US gets from its Number One supplier – the Canadian oil sands. The question is, if not Canada, who?

“America is addicted to Oil” said George W. Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address. This statement raised eyebrows at the time, but nothing could be truer. Americans, with 4.5% of the World’s population, consume 22% of its oil production. The US was once the number one producer of oil on the planet, producing as much oil as Saudi Arabia does today. That began to change in 1970 when US oil production peaked. Since then, despite the discovery of Prudhoe Bay in Alaska and deep water oil in the Gulf of Mexico, US oil production has inexorably declined while consumption has risen – to the point that more than half of US oil consumption today is met by imports. If the Great Recession did one good thing, it cut US oil consumption. Net imports declined by 13% year-over-year in 2009, but that still leaves 9.7 million barrels per day. To put that in perspective China, the second largest economy in the World with more than four times the US population, consumed, in total, more than a million barrels per day less in 2009 at 8.6 million barrels per day.

 
Canada became the top source of US oil imports in 2000 at 16.4%, crowding out Saudi Arabia (15.2%), Venezuela (14.8%) and Mexico (9.8%). In 2009 Canada provided 23.2% of US imports, eclipsing Venezuela at 10.7% and Saudi Arabia at 10.4%. Mexico’s oil exports to the US have declined by 39% since its production peaked in 2004. The top ten US oil suppliers, which together account for 85% of imports, also include Nigeria (8.2%), Russia (5.8%), Algeria (5.1%), Angola (4.7%), Iraq (4.7%) and the Virgin Islands (2.8%), several of which are less than stellar examples of political stability.
 
When it comes to Canadian oil exports it’s mostly about the oil sands, which now account for more than half of Canadian oil production as conventional oil production has been in decline for many years.  The old saw “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” certainly applies here, despite the likely assertions to the contrary by Alberta and Federal politicians, bureaucrats, and CEO’s that Ms. Pelosi met with during her visit.  Compared to the easy conventional crude of yesteryear, the oil sands are a low-quality, energy- and emissions-intensive source of oil. The net energy profit of oil sands (the amount of energy invested for extraction compared to the energy obtained from burning the oil) is about 5:1 for mineable oil sands and just over 3:1 for in situ projects, which constitute 80% of the recoverable resource.

This compares to about 25:1 for conventional oil today and 100:1 in the good old days when the largest field in the world – Ghawar – was discovered in Saudi Arabia. The well to tank emissions from the oil sands have been estimated by the US EPA at 82% higher than conventional oil – some suggest this is conservative, compared to assertions by the Alberta Government that emissions are only 10% higher. Moreover there are serious issues of water consumption, contamination and the physical footprint of massive tailings ponds and mining- and in situ-extraction operations. The techno-carbon-fix of carbon capture and storage proposed by the Alberta and Federal governments is years away, if ever, and would only make a poor source of oil even worse from a net energy point-of-view.

 
Notwithstanding this, unless the US undergoes an epiphany and realizes that a paradigm shift is necessary in order to avoid the inevitable collision of growing consumption of oil and other resources with limits imposed by a finite planet, Canadian oil sands will continue to flow. Ms. Pelosi and other politicians may pay lip service to the obvious environmental constraints but the US really doesn’t have many alternatives as long as it is addicted to oil.

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David Hughes is a Fossil Fuels Fellow at Post Carbon Institute.  David is a geoscientist who has studied the energy resources of Canada for nearly four decades, including 32 years with the Geological Survey of Canada as a scientist and research manager. He developed the National Coal Inventory to determine the availability and environmental constraints associated with Canada’s coal resources. As Team Leader for Unconventional Gas on the Canadian Gas Potential Committee, he coordinated the recent publication of a comprehensive assessment of Canada’s unconventional natural gas potential. Over the past decade, he has researched, published and lectured widely on global energy and sustainability issues in North America and internationally. He is a board member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas – Canada and is a Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute. He recently contributed to Carbon Shift, an anthology edited by Thomas Homer-Dixon on the twin issues of peak energy and climate change, and his work has been featured in Canadian Business, Walrus and other magazines, as well as through the popular press, radio, television and the internet. He is currently president of a consultancy dedicated to research on energy and sustainability issues.

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