Recent spikes in gasoline prices have led once again to calls for more aggressive off-shore oil drilling and consideration of other sources of petroleum, particularly Canadian tar sands, to meet the nation's enormous appetite for fuel. Is this a good idea? The United States uses about 19 million barrels of oil a day, or about 25 percent of the world's production.
Yet the nation has only an estimated 2 percent to 3 percent of proven world oil reserves. As the Department of Energy has long warned, additional U.S. drilling can do little to meet the nation's demand for oil or to lower the price of gasoline. Moreover, as the BP spill last year showed all too well, off-shore drilling comes with significant risks of environmental and economic damage.
A key question this year is whether we should expand our import of Canadian tar-sands oil. We currently import about 780,000 barrels a day of tar-sands oil, 60 percent of Canadian production.
Indeed, Canada is now the nation's largest supplier of oil. Supporters of increasing tar-sand oil imports include the Canadian government, the oil industry and its supporters in Congress.
While importing oil from Canada is arguably better than getting it from the Middle East, there are two major problems with this option.
One is that we remain dependent on a highly polluting fuel source. The process of extracting and processing tar-sand oil comes with an especially heavy environmental toll. It contributes substantially more to greenhouse gas emissions than conventionally produced oil. The second problem surrounds the building of new sections of pipeline from the Canadian oil fields in northern Alberta to refineries in Texas.
The $7 billion, 1,700 mile-long Keystone XL pipeline could handle an extra 700,000 barrels of tar-sands oil a day. But opponents argue that such pipelines have a heightened risk of oil spills due to the corrosive nature of tar-sands oil. The pipeline also would cross the shallow Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, one of the largest sources of fresh water in the world and vital for the region's $20 billion agricultural operations.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had been sharply critical of a draft environmental impact assessment for the pipeline for giving insufficient attention to oil spill response plans, safety concerns and greenhouse gas contributions, but the State Department endorsed the project in late August. It sees increased use of Canadian oil as a way to promote energy security. Canada is the only non-OPEC source of oil with a potential for large-scale production in the near term.
Many environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation have been strongly opposed to the pipeline's development.
So, too, have some local communities along the proposed route. Even the Energy Department says we don't need the new pipeline because sufficient capacity already exists to double imports from Canada.
Ultimately, President Obama must make a decision, probably by late this year, on whether to permit the pipeline project to go forward. He should oppose it.
An alternative to increasing use of Canadian tar-sands oil is to reduce our demand for oil, for example by redesigning the vehicle fleet to improve efficiency. New standards set to go into effect in 2025 will raise the average fleet fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon.
Whatever the decision on use of Canadian tar sands, we still need expanded research and technological advances to find a permanent replacement for oil.
The sooner we invest in new and less polluting energy sources -- from better batteries for electric vehicles to improved biofuels -- the better off the nation will be. We cannot lose sight of that critical objective even as short-term alternatives such as Canadian tar sands seem appealing in the face of high gasoline prices.
Michael E. Kraft is the Herbert Fisk Johnson professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.