Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Piping into Canadian Energy

If you were to guess what county the United States receives more oil from, you are likely to respond with Saudi Arabia, or Iraq, or maybe Venezuela. But according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration numbers for March 2011, the U.S. imported 82,637 barrels of oil from Canada; 40,901 from Mexico; 34,356 from Saudi Arabia and 33,070 from Venezuela. The numbers do not lie. They tell us that more oil is imported from Mexico and Canada than from any other countries. Like it or not, this indicates that if we are to continue our dependence on fueling our cars, planes and lawn mowers with petroleum based fuels, we need to appreciate the importance of North America in oil production. The International Energy Agency (IEA) announced last week that North America will be the fastest growing oil-producing region during the next five years. This news has occurred at a time of growing frustration between Canadian and American energy, environmental and business interests.

One of the most talked about cross border issues discussed in the Canadian press lately has centered on the U.S. approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. When completed, the pipeline will transport 500,000 barrels of crude oil every day from the Canadian oil sands in Alberta south across the American Midwest to oil refineries in Texas. Both the EPA and the Department of State have been independently evaluating the proposed project. In Canada, the news of the review has been closely followed in the press while it barely makes news in the United States.

The truth is that there will be no easy solution from the EPA and the Department of State. The United States is addicted to L'or noir and will not be tapering its usage in the near future. From this perspective, the pipeline will deliver a dependable supply of oil to American refineries without a reliance on OPEC nations. On the other hand, our national consciousness still remembers the sight of a burning oilrig dumping petroleum into the environmentally sensitive Gulf of Mexico. What would happen if the pipeline bursts somewhere in the Midwest?  The Department of State and the EPA have both stated recently that there will be no decision on the pipeline expansion until late in the year.

The debate over the pipeline once again highlights our energy problems. Do we continue to find new sources of oil for the livelihood of our nation, or do we say "NO" to the pipeline right now and absorb the painful economic costs now for a cleaner future. These are questions that need to be discussed at the national level. On June 15, Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committees passed legislation that would force President Obama to make a decision by November 1st of this year. Yet, this received little public attention. Prime Minister Harper of Canada has also pressed the United States government to hurry up and make a decision.

Will the pipeline extension be approved? The answer is most likely yes. Would this help stabilize oil prices in a turbulent global market? Yes. Unfortunately, the discussion does not draw any attention to the need to find alternative sources of energy. The environmental side of this story has been drowned out by the need for reliable and cheep energy sources.

It may be too late for this debate, but North Americans should focus on cross-border renewable energy sources. At the moment, Quebec, Canada is one of the largest producers of hydroelectric power in the world. Canada has some of the most abundant and cleanest hydroelectric power plants in the world. If you are reading this in New York City, there is a good chance the electricity powering your computer came from Quebec. Energy researchers have been working on harnessing the power of the world's most dramatic tides into usable electricity in the Bay of Fundy between Maine and Nova Scotia. In the Thousand Islands between Ontario and New York State windmills have become fixtures of the landscape.

This new way of harnessing energy will require new transmission lines to handle a increased electrical capacity. This not cheep, but it is needed in order to build a North American energy grid for the twenty first century. Canada and the United States should be the global leaders in creating new sources of energy, not China.

None of these solutions alone will be able to replace the loss of oil, but many small renewable projects aggregated across the continent may one day help make the needed transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

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