Using natural gas to produce oil from tar sands is akin to turning gold into lead.

Draining Canada First

Michael Vickerman | RENEW Wisconsin

Draining Canada First
Using natural gas to produce oil from tar sands is akin to turning gold into lead.
Draining Canada First
by Michael Vickerman, RENEW Wisconsin

Sating America's prodigious energy appetite depends on the continued availability of Canadian energy sources. About 25% of the crude oil and 80% of the natural gas imported into the United States come from our very accommodating neighbor to the north. More than half of the fuel pumped out of Canadian wells heads south to keep us Yankees warm and happily tooling about on our highways.

Even though the Canadian economy is no less dependent on hydrocarbon energy than ours, Canada has been drilling as many wells as necessary to keep the high-maintenance American economy humming. If this pedal-to-the-metal production policy were applied to a non-strategic product like, say, maple syrup, few people would care about the consequences. But there is nothing on the horizon to replace the nonrenewable high-density energy sources that Canada so generously sends our way.

This begs the question: how long can Canada go on behaving like America's most compliant energy colony?

Not very long, according to David Hughes, a petroleum geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada. Speaking before the World Peak Oil Conference held in Boston last week, Hughes painted a remarkably pessimistic picture of Canada's energy future, especially regarding natural gas.

Despite record drilling activity, natural gas extraction volumes have slipped from the peak set in 2002, and output per well is now declining at an annual rate of 28%. Put another way, energy companies must add 3,000 more wells in 2007 on top of the 15,000 now in production just to keep output from diminishing.

That would be a daunting challenge even if there were spare rigs and drilling crews standing by. As it now stands, there is no spare capacity of this sort anywhere in North America.

With only eight years of proven reserves left in Canada, Hughes suspects that natural gas output is about to fall off a cliff. Barring a miracle or two, Canada will soon experience challenges in providing for its own citizens, let alone producing surplus volumes bound for American furnaces.

A potentially wrenching resource conflict is now brewing on our continent, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), under which Canada effectively gave up sovereignty over its fossil energy inheritance. As a signatory, Canada is prohibited from unilaterally cutting back energy exports, even in the event of a domestic supply crunch. But how long would Canada honor its obligations under NAFTA if doing so resulted in its citizens freezing to death? American policymakers would be wise to explore how that scenario might play out.

If that weren't enough, natural gas is also the key to expanding the production of oil from the tar sands of northern Alberta, the only oil-producing region left in North America that can increase output. The natural gas is the only available fuel for producing the pressurized steam needed to separate bitumen, a low-grade oil, from sand. Shrinking natural gas supplies would quickly reduce the flow of bitumen into the U.S., further complicating Canada's energy dilemma.

The irony of sacrificing a premium energy source to make more low-grade fuel for export was not lost on Hughes, who closed with a quote from a Canadian energy executive. "Using natural gas to produce oil from tar sands is akin to turning gold into lead."

Vickerman is executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization promoting conservation and renewable energy sources.


Energy Information Agency, October 2006 Monthly Energy Review

Hughes, David: "North American Natural Gas Production Trend and Implications for Canadian Tar Sands Production," 2006 Boston World Oil Conference, Boston University, October 2006. 

Petroleum and Natural Gas Watch is a RENEW Wisconsin initiative tracking the supply‑demand equation for these fossil fuels, and analyzing its effects on prices, consumption levels, and the development of energy conservation strategies and renewable energy alternatives. For more information on the global and national petroleum and natural gas supply picture, visit "The End of Cheap Oil" section in RENEW Wisconsin's web site: . These commentaries also posted on RENEW's blog:  and Madison Peak Oil Group's blog:


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