Argument

Nice Oil Imports You've Got There. Shame if You Lost Them.

Why Americans need to be more grateful to Canada.

In laying claim to the majority of Michigan's delegates in the Feb. 28 primary, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney also laid claim to the precious natural resources of America's northern neighbor. "I'll get us that oil from Canada that we deserve," he said.

That may not have been the most artful way to put it, but critics on both sides of the border should ignore that infelicitous phrasing, recognize the ties that bind the United States and Canada together, and work assiduously to maintain those vital energy links.

Many Americans may think that Saudi Arabia is the largest supplier of U.S. oil imports -- after all, isn't that why the United States keeps aircraft carriers in the Gulf and why the Saudi kings are either held by hand in Texas or offered deep bows? Some may even believe that Iraq has taken that place -- wasn't the war all about getting hands on Saddam's oil? But such beliefs are nothing but proof of Americans' general ignorance about Canada's importance for the U.S. energy supply, of which oil is just one component.

For decades, Canada has been the single-largest supplier of imported crude oil and refined oil products to the United States. In 2010, Canadian exports provided about 26 percent of all net U.S. liquid fuel imports (consisting of crude oil and refined products) -- or nearly 12 percent of America's total demand for liquid hydrocarbons, roughly every eighth barrel.

Canada's crude oil exports to the United States are greater than those of the entire Persian Gulf region, which only accounted for about 18 percent of America's crude imports in 2010. As for Iraq, it accounted for a paltry 4.5 percent of U.S. crude oil imports in 2010, and more oil was shipped from its southern port city of Basra to China than to the United States.

The United States doesn't rely on Canada only for oil. In 2010, Canada's natural gas exports accounted for nearly 90 percent of all U.S. gas imports, and they provided nearly 14 percent of America's total gas consumption. In cold Midwestern states, the percentage supplied by Canada is even larger.

Canada also exported nearly 10 percent of its total annual electricity generation, or some 44 terawatt-hours, to the United States. Although this accounted for only about 1 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption, Canada's hydroelectric plants provided the highly valuable peak power that covered spikes in demand during the winter and summer.

The United States also couldn't supply its nuclear reactors without its northern neighbor. Canada is the world's largest uranium producer, providing more than a fifth of the global total. The United States imports about 80 percent of the uranium that fuels its nuclear power plants, which produce about 20 percent of America's electricity, and roughly half those imports come from Canada. That means Saskatchewan's uranium produces nearly 8 percent of America's electricity.

Simply put, no other country fills America's energy needs as effectively as Canada -- and the United States doesn't need to resort to large military buildups and deals with shady dictatorships to secure its supplies, as it does in the Gulf. For this reason, Romney is right to focus on the importance of Canadian energy. Recent increases in domestic natural gas and crude oil extraction have slightly reduced U.S. dependence on hydrocarbon imports, but they will not eliminate the United States' future reliance on Canada.

President Barack Obama's decision to block the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have linked oil sands in Alberta to the U.S. market, was motivated by his desire to mollify one of the more extreme segments of his constituency in an election year -- not by a long-term vision of nurturing the vital U.S.-Canada energy relationship. The most disturbing consequence of this decision was the sight of the Canadian prime minister flying to China to peddle future oil exports to America's greatest strategic rival.

Canadians are hardly assertive or demanding. We don't expect U.S. presidents to bow down to our prime ministers when they visit us in Ottawa, nor are we looking for the occasional kickback on an F-16 deal. You don't even need to look the other way when the police crack down on hockey rioters in Vancouver. But a "thank you" every once in a while would sure be nice.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Argument

Leap Day in North Korea

Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Pyongyang is a modest success. But let's not get carried away.

When North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died late last year, analysts had no clear idea what the accession of his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, might mean for the Hermit Kingdom. On Feb. 29 this leap year -- appropriately enough -- we got an initial hint, when Pyongyang agreed to suspend work at the state-of-the-art uranium-enrichment plant at Yongbyon that it had suddenly revealed to a visiting U.S. nuclear scientist in November 2010, to halt nuclear and missile tests, and to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency back into the country after a three-year absence. The new deal with the United States, concluded in exchange for 240,000 tons of food aid, will not eradicate the North Korean threat. It augurs well, however, for Kim Jong Un's foreign-policy smarts and will be seen internationally as a diplomatic victory for U.S. President Barack Obama.

The deal is no permanent solution because Pyongyang retains enough plutonium for four to 12 atomic bombs (with so many unknown variables, a more exact calculation is impossible). It is also presumed to be capable of producing more weapons using highly enriched uranium (HEU) at hidden facilities. North Korea has rebuffed Washington's demands to reveal the full scale of its enrichment program, but the 2,000-centrifuge uranium-enrichment plant at Yongbyon -- whose size and sophistication left visiting Stanford University professor Siegfried Hecker "stunned" in 2010 -- was capable of producing a weapon's worth of HEU every year. Pyongyang has now relinquished that potential production.

North Korea's agreement to suspend nuclear and missile tests is also significant. Its two nuclear tests and three tests of medium-range ballistic missiles have all failed to one degree or another, so military leaders presumably want to conduct more to get the technology right. Kim will have less power to resist such military demands. Luckily for him, his father authorized negotiations with the United States that began shortly before the elder Kim's death in late December. After a hiatus for mourning, the talks resumed in February before producing this leap day's agreement.

This would be good news under any circumstances, but it is especially positive so soon after Kim came to power. Much media coverage has been devoted to the new leader's hands-on, smiley style in his inspection visits to military units and industrial sites, but this doesn't tell us much. In concluding this deal, however, he has parlayed Kim Jong Il's last diplomatic venture into his own success. He can justify his actions by saying he finished something his father began -- acting under his father's guidance -- while pulling an unexpected result out of the hat. This gives reason to hope that the military provocations that put the Korean Peninsula on the brink of war in 2010 may not be repeated this year.

The Obama administration is right in calling the agreement "important, if limited," but it is the first positive development in North Korea's program in four years. Undoubtedly, Republicans will find fault with the deal's level of transparency and the lack of any dismantlement of objectionable nuclear facilities. Questions will also be raised about who will benefit from the 240,000 tons of "nutritional assistance," the package's most controversial element.

Precautions have been taken to try to prevent this food aid from supplementing the rations of North Korea's disproportionately sized army -- at 1.2 million strong, the world's fourth-largest -- or being dished out at celebrations to mark the centenary of the birth of North Korea's founding father, Kim Il Sung, on April 15. High-protein supplements will be delivered rather than grain, and nearly 100 Korean-speaking American aid workers will monitor their distribution. No degree of oversight, however, can ensure that all the assistance will end up in the mouths of those most in need.

Tying food aid to policy choices presents moral complications. If people are starving, humanitarian principles hold that lifesaving assistance should not be used as a bargaining chip for political purposes. In this case, however, conditional food aid, in addition to benefiting some starving North Koreans, can contribute to the greater good of all countries in the region and beyond by reducing tensions and stopping advances in North Korea's strategic weapons systems. Without a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, Pyongyang may soon be able to threaten civilians in South Korea and Japan with a nuclear strike.

If the six-party talks are resumed, as now seems more likely after this deal, the United States and its Asian allies will seek full disclosure and dismantlement of the enrichment facilities so that North Korea's nuclear status can be restored to the status quo ante-2008, when all denuclearization steps were halted over disagreement on verification measures. Let's not get too excited: The requirements for strict verification could still scuttle the leap-day agreement. And despite the suspension steps, North Korea is highly unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons altogether. Yet after four years of mounting tension on the Korean Peninsula, one good day for diplomacy is worth celebrating.

JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images