Reliance on Canadian Tar Sands Threatens U.S. Energy Security

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This is a guest post by Glenn Hurowitz, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. It originally appeared on, and is reprinted here with permission.

Everything you’ve heard about the tar sands and energy security is wrong
by Glenn Hurowitz

If there’s a single idea that the oil industry has peddled to persuade the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline, it’s this: Tar-sands oil might be more polluting than even dirty old regular oil, but it’s better to get our energy from our ally Canada than from unstable oil suppliers in the Middle East or elsewhere.

In practice, the opposite is true: Drilling in North America is the single greatest threat to our nation’s energy security.

Here’s the reality: Protecting the United States’ energy security means keeping our continent’s oil in the ground for when we need it in an emergency. The United States and Canada combined hold less than 5 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves. Thanks in part to expanded domestic drilling during the Obama administration, we’re depleting those reserves at a high rate. That means we have far less oil to fall back on in the event of true emergency, like an oil embargo or a major war when access to foreign oil supplies becomes difficult or even impossible. If we’re really concerned about security, tar-sands oil should be a last-gap, man-the-barricades option – something we as a society hope we never have to use. That’s true to an extent for our domestic supplies of oil in general, whether offshore Arctic oil or the dregs left over at the bottom of the “stripper wells” that dot the Great Plains. We should leave them aside now, and hope that by the time we get into a serious security pickle, we’ve created a 100 percent clean energy economy that avoids the awful choice pundits seem to love to imagine between security, growth, and a living planet.

To understand how urgent it is that we curtail domestic drilling, consider this: If the United States were cut off today from all sources except Canada, we’d have only eight years left at current consumption levels. And that amount gets lower every day as the government issues additional domestic drilling leases.

Looking at domestic production as a threat to national security rather than something that boosts it may seem to turn conventional wisdom on its head, but in fact it’s how domestic oil drilling was viewed almost as soon as large Middle East supplies came online in the post-World War II years. 

Following this “conservation theory,” the federal government and others pushed hard to tap new Middle Eastern oil supplies, primarily so we wouldn’t deplete our own. “If we ever got into another World War it is quite possible that we would not have access to reserves held in the Middle East, but in the meantime use of those reserves would prevent the depletion of our own, a depletion which may be serious within the next fifteen years,” wrote powerful World War II Navy Secretary James Forrestal, summarizing the postwar security consensus.

It’s important to contrast this depletion reality with the old canard that the oil industry and its backers continue to push: that drilling domestically somehow reduces the flow of money to the Middle East and other unstable oil suppliers. In practice, basic oil-industry economics show the opposite. Because Middle Eastern and Venezuelan oil is so much cheaper to produce and more plentiful than remaining domestic oil reserves, those countries can almost always outcompete domestic U.S. competitors and still maintain their enormous profit margins and high levels of production. Saudi and Iraqi oil, for instance, costs just $4-$6 per barrel to produce with another $2-$3 tacked on for transportation costs (costs are similar for Iranian oil). Production costs for tar-sands oil clock in at a minimum of $30 per barrel; costs for other domestic sources are similar. To be sure, there are limits to how much oil even Saudi Arabia can draw at any given time without undermining its long-term production capacity, but it and other major oil producers are well within this barrier and retain enormous “swing” production capacity.

Of course, there’s no doubt that our addiction to oil props up petrocracies and funds terror groups. But expanding domestic production, especially through carbon-intense tar-sands development, will do little or nothing to change that even as it imposes serious environmental damage on our continent’s great natural treasures and worsens climate change.

What we need to do instead is move as rapidly as possible to get off oil entirely by fully implementing and further tightening the Obama administration’s strong fuel-efficiency standards, putting a price on carbon pollution, ending oil subsidies, electrifying our vehicle fleet with clean energy, boosting mass transit, and using the full force of our diplomacy to get other major consuming countries like China to do the same.

That will create true American energy security without setting off a carbon bomb that threatens the entire planet, USA very much included.    

Glenn Hurowitz is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. You can follow his Twitter feed about forests, climate, and wildlife: @glennhurowitz.
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“The United States and Canada combined hold less than 5 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves.”

Conventional oil perhaps. But including unconventional oil, Canada holds about 15% of the world’s oil reserves. At current rates of production it will last about 200 years.

Which pretty well makes the article a load of bollocks.

What does “current rates of production” mean or matter since the government expects to greatly increase the tar sands rate of production, so that 200 years time-frame could soon be reduced to 100 or 50 years:

There is no such thing as perfectly ethical oil. Not possible. You have to break a few eggs to make an onmlette and you have to damage the earth and people in some way to find oil. But Alberta oil is alot more ehtical that the filthy blood soaked oil comming from the middle east and Africa. It amazes me how it does not seem to bother people that they are burning blood oil when they drive to church or mosque each week to worship and prey for peace, they heat their schools and universities with blood oil, they heat there non-profit environmental and social organizations with blood oil, and the money they pay for blood oil is used to oppress mwomen and murder people all over the world. In my view, not one drop of blood oil should arrive at our shores. Not one drop.

It may not be perfect but I’ll take Alberta oil any day. Cheers

Alberta tar sands oil is just as unethical, with its extraction causing deformed fish and probably causing cancer in people living downstream. It is filthier than some oil because it is bitumen which is causes more GHG emissions in processing. It is being extracted by the very same companies that extract oil in the Middle East and elsewhere, so it’s all “blood” oil.

Speaking as an Albertan and a Calgarian, I would advise you not to quote that “ethical oil” lie from someone as discredited as Dame Ezra the serial libeller:

And Velshi, another dishonest blogger:

Energy is energy and we have enough natural gas in this country to dump this blood oil and get converted to gas. But our people are protesting this natural gas???? Just cant make head nor tails of their thinking. To me it is not just the blood oil but the money leaving this country that is used by people that hate us. Gas is by far a clean energy source and can be converted into gasoline, diesel, or even jet fuel. look up a company called Rentech

They are protesting gas ONLY because they see it’s continued, cheap availability as a major threat to their plan to convert everyone to VERY expensive renewable energy. They are completely opposed to “cheap” energy of any kind. That’s the only reason, it makes no sense at all.

Unethical? if anything its the most ethical oil in the world. Fair pay to employees, equal opportunity for men/women or race, its the number 1 employer of Aboriginals in Canada. These are all reasons why people buy fair trade coffee, why not oil? As far as blood oil what “middle east” companies are you talking about? 5/7ths of oil production comes from suncor and syncrude at the oil sands, these are canadian companies who may have very small stakes in libya and syria but not significant.

Suncor which is also in Syria? Wow.

And the oil companies which are in Alberta and elsewhere have been lying to us for years about global warming, so they are a pack of unethical lying scum.

And how about the destruction of the boreal forest, when we need more carbon sinks instead of having our environment poisoned by greedy oil companies.

Dude, wake up and smell the coffee. There is no stopping the XL pipeline and its tar sands oil. The State Dept has already signed off on it. Find another windmill to tilt at.

We Americans consume energy period. Actually if we did not we would have never left the Stone Age. Now first you must realize that oil and natural gas is one in the same. Energy is energy. Now I am not one to be against green energy but we are just not there yet. Wind is really not that good. Companies are getting big government subsidies to build them but they have a big environmental impact regardless of what they say. We need to build 20,000 more just to meet current energy demands. And that is considering we don’t have a windless day. Read this. What about solar? Well just not cost effective at all. And still yet our government throws subsidies at it. Ok well we could go nuclear. We have 104 plants in the US to produce 9% of our total power. We would need to build about 1150 more to meet current demand. One of our biggest problems with current plants is their spent fuel storage what will we do with the waist from 1150 more plants. Not to mention that the last accident spread contamination around the globe. How about coal? Well just download the Arkansas fishing regulations and in the back they have a list of lakes that you cannot eat the fish because of mercury contamination that has fallen out of the air from the coal fired plants. Because I love getting our in the backcountry of Arkansas fishing I hate the coal industry and what they have done to my fishing holes. So what about hydrogen? Good choice clean and safe. But I will let you in on a little secret. The best, most economical source for hydrogen is natural gas. Bio fuel and ethanol is another flop. It takes a bushel of corn to make 3 gallons of ethanol and then factor in that ethanol only has 2/3 the energy of gasoline or 2 gallons per bushel. Now factor in that more that 50% of this will be burned the make the next 2 gallons and you’re down to 1 gallon. How many gallons of ethanol will be used to till the land, harvest it, and truck it? Factor in the carbon footprint on that! The reason our government subsidizes these people is because they sampled it the night before. What about hydro? Simple, not enough amazons in the US. My best solution is to get converted over to natural gas, send them boats back to the Middle East for good, quit funding these terrorists, and keep our money here. That is a plan I can show on paper to work. I have never seen any of these people bashing the oil and gas industry produce a working plan. Don’t cuss the farmer with your mouth full. Don’t cuss the oil industry while pulling you car in your nice warm garage!

“Don’t cuss the farmer with your mouth full.”

Excellent phrase, Ive never heard that one before. Words to live by.

- Oil sands mining is licensed to use twice the amount of fresh water that the entire city of Calgary uses in a year.

- At least 90% of the fresh water used in the oil sands ends up in ends up in tailing ponds so toxic that propane cannons are used to keep ducks from landing in them.

- Processing the oil sands uses enough natural gas in a day to heat 3 million homes in Canada.

- The toxic tailing ponds are considered one of the largest human-made structures in the world. The ponds span 50 square kilometers and can be seen from space.

- Producing a barrel of oil from the oil sands produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil.

- The oil sands operations are the fastest growing source of heat-trapping greenhouse gas in Canada. By 2020 the oil sands will release twice the amount produced currently by all the cars and trucks in Canada.

Source: “Report: Alberta Oil Sands Most Destructive Project on Earth,” DeSmog Blog, Feb 18, 2008

A single engineering project, the Syncrude mine in the Athabasca tar sands, involves moving 30 billion tonnes of earth—twice the amount of sediment that flows down all the rivers in the world in a year.

“It projects that Canada will double its current tar sands production over the next decade to more than 1.8 million barrels a day. That rate will mean cutting down some 740,000 acres of boreal forest — a natural carbon reservoir.

Tar Sands and the Carbon Numbers

The Boreal Forest of Canada is one of the most important ecosystems on earth.
e.g. - billions of birds from America spend at least part of the year there.
It is also one of the world’s major carbon sinks, which helps keep the carbon cycle in balance. This forest is already under a lot of pressure from mining, logging etc. National Geographic has a extensive article on the Boreal Forest and the problems it’s facing.

American consumers are also aiding in the destruction of this forest, when they buy disposable diapers, tissue, paper towels etc. (boycott Brawny and Dixie paper products - Koch brothers)
We should be making paper from hemp. - better paper and much more sustainable.

Just think no fuel, no energy, no pollution. 20 mil people in NY city riding horses donkeys and there will be no pollution?

Before cars, large cities were absolutely filthy with horse manure dust. Keeping things clean was a full time job.

Hurwitz (assuming he is American) forgets that Canada is a sovereign nation, not part of the US. Canada is not going to “save” their tar sands for American use in the future. They have already made the decision to develop it. In fact, they have developed it, and are producing about 1.5 million barrels per day. They can sell it to the US, China, or Europe. If we buy it, contrary to what Hurwitz says, this could allow the US to delay producing the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge and the Northwest Alaska Petroleum Reserve. Under NAFTA, the US has the right of first refusal, but the Canadians will be happy to sell it to other customers. The pipeline is absolutely irrelevant to global warming. This oil will be produced and burned by somebody as long as it can be economically produced. And it will be economical as supplies from the rest of the world are depleted.

I think the only realistic possibility of stopping the tarsands is a global depression where the price of oil drops down to under $40. and stays there.

It could happen.

We could slow use of the tar sands down with an appropriate carbon tax.  Part of the heavy extraction carbon cost would be offset by reduced transportation carbon use, compared to tankers from the middle east. 

yeah - I’m not necessarily against a carbon tax.

I’m not necessarily against a doubling of gasoline price at the pump and associated rise in price of everything else. I’m pretty sure thats where we are headed. I just wish I had  confidence that the collected monies would be well spent for useful projects.