CANADIAN OIL SANDS
In 1999, Canada surpassed Saudi Arabia as the United States' largest source of oil imports, and today a full half of the country's oil production comes from Alberta's so-called tar or oil sands: a form of petroleum found in a mixture of sand, clay, and bitumen that is either mined in pits or extracted by pumping steam into wells. The U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration predicts that Canada's oil sands production will double over the next five years, adding another 1.3 million barrels a day.
But producing oil sands is a messy, emissions-intensive business; according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the extraction process produces 82 percent more emissions than conventional oil drilling. Canadian officials and oil company executives have argued that these concerns are overstated -- and indeed, credible outside calculations have found far lower impacts, closer to 17 percent greater than conventional oil. But Canada's own environmental agency warns that oil sands production will cancel out the country's efforts to reduce its overall carbon emissions. Oil sands advocates have seen an opening, however, in Americans' perpetual nervousness over its reliance on oil imports from unfriendly and autocratic regimes, as well as a newly restive Middle East, and have increasingly argued for Canadian petroleum as an alternative to "conflict oil" tanked in from dodgier countries.
The proposed construction of the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline connecting Alberta's oil sands with the Gulf of Mexico's refineries, the linchpin of Canada's oil-sands expansion plans, has become the subject of a proxy battle over the wisdom of oil sands development. In June, the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered a smaller sister pipeline to suspend operations in June following a series of leaks. But the companies involved in the project say they will export the oil with or without the pipeline, and in the meantime U.S. demand isn't going anywhere.
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