Reliance on Oil Sands Grows Despite Environmental Risks

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"Canada accounts for about 1.9M of [U.S.] daily imports—roughly half from oil sands."

Beneath the subarctic forests of western Canada, lies the tarry rock that is one of America's top sources of imported oil.

There is no chance of a rig blowout here, or a deepwater oil spill like the one from the BP well that is now fouling the Gulf. But the oil extracted from Canada's oil sands pose other environmental challenges, like toxic sludge ponds, greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of boreal forests.

In addition, critics warn that American regulators have waived a longstanding safety standard for the pipelines that deliver the synthetic crude oil from Canada to refineries in the U.S. and have not required any specific emergency plans to deal with a spill, which even regulators acknowledge is a possibility.

Oil sands are now getting more scrutiny as the Obama administration reviews a Canadian company's request to build a new 2,000-mile underground pipeline to run from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast that would significantly increase America's access to the oil. In making the decision, due this fall, federal officials are weighing environmental concerns against the need to secure a reliable supply of oil to satisfy the nation's insatiable thirst.

Last week, Canadian diplomats used a previously planned trip to Washington to promote oil sands as a safer alternative to deepwater drilling because leaks would be easier to detect and control.

The U.S. produces about 5 million bpd and imports 10 million more. Canada accounts for about 1.9M of the daily imports—roughly half from oil sands.

In a world wherein so many oil-producing nations are far away, unstable or hostile to the U.S., Canadian oil sands hold great political appeal.

Complicating the calculation is the fact that Canada's backup market for its oil is probably China. Plans are already underway for shipments to Asia.

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