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Pro: U.S. reserves plus Canadian tar sands oil can provide relief for U.S. motorists

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Bobdan Kipling
August 2, 2008
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Will lifting U.S. drilling bans and importing more Canadian oil help lower gas prices?

Americans now paying $4.50 for a gallon of gas are on the verge of open revolt. A price that high—and likely to go higher—is simply unaffordable for the millions of people commuting to work.


President Bush has heard the murmurs of revolution. He is against restrictions on drilling for oil offshore and in Alaska’s wildlife refuge. Though not an immediate cure for high prices at the pump, he realizes the United States cannot escape the closing jaws of the energy crunch unless it taps into its own vast petroleum reserves. In mid-July, he lifted the executive prohibitions on drilling on America’s outer continental shelves and Alaska’s protected land areas.


Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., isn’t hearing the not-so-silent majority. He disdains any form of energy that derives from fossil fuel. His latest bete noir is oil extracted from Canada’s famous tar sands in Alberta—the largest such deposits on the planet.


In a Dear Colleague letter circulated on Capitol Hill in June, he argues for permanently banning it from the United States—noting that it is “dirtier” than conventional crude and adds to global warming.


Yet given the current groans from American motorists, one might think that Waxman would be glad to dip into that big reservoir north of the border rather than continue importing it from the turbulent Middle East. Unlike oil yet to be drilled, it’s available now—and from a friendly source.


Incredibly, Waxman seems to be laboring under the delusion that the 1.2 million barrels produced in Alberta each day have nowhere else to go, if rejected by the United States.


The stark reality is that the full-throttle economies of both China and India can gulp as much oil as Canadian pipelines can carry.


A few years ago, China unsuccessfully tried to buy into the Alberta tar sands fields and to help finance a proposed pipeline to transport it to Chinese tankers on Canada’s Pacific Coast. Nothing came of it then, but with crude oil now doubly crucial to their prosperity, it’s a sure bet the Chinese would return, waving open checkbooks.


Waxman couldn’t care less about the seller’s market for Canadian tar sands or he wouldn’t have slipped a purity test into the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) passed late last year.


According to Waxman, EISA bans all federal agencies and the U.S. armed forces from buying any “nonconventional petroleum”—a code name for tar sands—unless that fuel is as clean as the fuel it would replace. Tar sand oil cleans up pretty well during refining, but not quite that well.


President Bush’s lifting of the drilling prohibitions is likely to stretch the longstanding alliance between greens and Democrats to the breaking point between now and the Nov. 4 presidential and congressional elections.


The results should be intriguing, to say the least. An increasing number of Democratic legislators are starting to hear the voice of the people and indicate they may vote to support more drilling and lifting the ban on tar sand imports.


Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, remains opposed to drilling, but that could be his next flip-flop toward the center.


Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, who for years opposed offshore drilling, changed his mind a month ago. He supports it now, subject to decisions by individual states.


Two weeks before Bush lifted the administrative ban, the prestigious Zogby poll showed three out of four Americans favored offshore drilling and six out of 10 favored it in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.


Gas at the pump has emerged at the most powerful political issue in the upcoming elections, and everybody knows it but Henry Waxman.


Bogdan Kipling is a Washington columnist who covers U.S.-Canadian relations for The Halifax Chronicle-Herald in Nova Scotia. Readers may write to him at Chronicle-Herald, 1650 Argyle St., Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada B3J 2T2, or e-mail him at bkipling@herald.ns.ca.

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