Back in 2008 my congressman, Fred Upton (R-Michigan), then the ranking Republican member of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, still acknowledged there was a border between the United States and Canada. He claimed that oil from the Canadian tar sands was not reaching the United States, saying, “We stop it at the border.” He meant he believed that the pipeline network could not bring it into the United States, a claim that was simply wrong.
But he did get the part about there being a border between the two countries right. Since then Upton has become the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and with his elevation, the U.S.-Canadian border seems to have vanished. No, we Americans are not now living in provinces that report to Ottawa. Instead, it is Canada that has become part of the United States. Here is the exchange between Upton and Energy Now! in a recent interview. The interviewer asks about the release of oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve:
INTERVIEWER: But the reasoning is that, essentially, this is an emergency, because of the loss of 140 million barrels so far of oil because of the strife in Libya, 1.5 million barrels a day. And also because gasoline prices are high. Those aren’t emergencies?
UPTON: Well, a couple things. The administration has so far blocked the permitting and plans in the Gulf, which allows 1/3 of our oil to come from that region. If they simply say–and already it’s hundreds of thousands of barrels a day, from projections that were made public just, you know, last fall–if they would simply say, “It’s time to start again here in this country,” whether it’s from Canada, Alaska, the Gulf, I think that we could more than make up for what the disruption has been for the Middle East.
Now, I am almost certain that Upton realizes that Canada is a separate country. But for purposes of energy supply he speaks as if it isn’t. And, that is indicative of the signal pathology of America energy policy. We have failed to manage our energy use and deploy sufficient alternatives so that we can be largely independent of energy imports. Instead, the United States military has long since become a vast worldwide oil supply protection force that is currently mired in three wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. We don’t factor the trillions spent on this task into our energy costs, but we should. We would then find it much cheaper (in terms of money, not to mention loss of life) simply to reduce our energy use through conservation and efficiency while deploying alternatives. We got started on this in the 1970s. But, we were lulled to sleep by deceptively low energy prices in the 1980s and 1990s.
The implication of our current posture is that “our” oil is merely inconveniently parked under the territory of other countries, Canada among them. While the North American Free Trade Agreement prevents Canada from abruptly reducing America’s share of oil production coming from that country, Canadians can pull out of the agreement with six months’ notice. How would the United States react if the Canadians decided to export more of their oil to Asia? Or to reserve more oil for domestic consumption? Or simply to lower production to save oil for future generations of Canadians?
For now Upton has the luxury of thinking of Canada as America’s 51st state for purposes of energy supply. A strenuously pro-American administration currently sits in Ottawa and wants ever closer ties to the United States. But as events around the world remind us, it may not be ever thus.
It is not only sloppy thinking to regard oil in Canada and other countries as “our” oil. It is a mindset dangerously out of touch with the emerging realities of strained global oil supplies. One has only to imagine how Americans and especially members of Congress would feel if it were Canada treating the United States as merely another province to be plucked of its energy resources at will. We would almost certainly hear thundering voices across the airwaves and in the halls of Congress sounding the alarm over the threat to our sovereignty and the importance of reserving vital energy supplies for use by the American people. What makes us think that Canadians won’t someday feel that same way about the oil they are exporting to the United States?
Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.