Meanwhile, the absolutist climate-change argument against any exploitation of the oil sands relies on some staggering, but misleading, headline numbers. Extracting and converting a typical barrel of synthetic crude in Alberta generates nearly 200 percent greater emissions than extracting the average barrel of oil consumed in the United States. This statistic looks less severe in context, though. The total "well-to-wheels" emissions from oil-sands crude—i.e., the greenhouse gases put out during its production, refining, and eventual use in cars and trucks—are only about 20 percent higher. If you traded in a Camry for a Prius and switched to oil-sands crude at the same time, your total emissions would still drop by 60 percent. That doesn't make oil sands unimportant for the climate—and their importance will grow over time—but it does suggest that avoiding oil-sands crude isn't among our most useful strategies for keeping emissions low.
Indeed oil-sands production currently accounts for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. (For comparison, the U.S. pulp and paper business puts out four times as much.) And though it's expected to rise in the future, it's difficult to imagine a situation in the next 50 years in which oil-sands production accounts for even 1 percent of the world's greenhouse gas output. If coal power suddenly disappeared, it would revolutionize the climate picture, but if the oil sands vanished, we'd replace much of their crude with oil from somewhere else, and our global climate challenge would remain largely, though not entirely, unchanged.
More troubling, for many, are the other well-documented environmental impacts that come with oil-sands development. The industry uses up lots of fresh water and collects its waste in toxic "tailings ponds" that are hard to clean up. Local stakeholders have every right to insist that development proceeds in a responsible way, even if that's at the expense of a slower pace of expansion. But those are local issues that must be worked out by Canadians. U.S. policymakers should focus on the larger climate-related questions, since greenhouse gas emissions anywhere lead to climate dangers everywhere.
If the oil sands were overwhelmingly important to our energy security or egregiously damaging to the global climate, policymakers in Congress and the administration would have to pick one priority over the other in their diplomacy with Canada. But because the stakes aren't as high as so many have claimed, policymakers don't need to choose either to press for a halt to oil-sands production or to advocate a climate-policy exemption for oil-sands fuel. The industry in Alberta can survive the same basic measures being contemplated for the rest of the U.S. and Canadian economies—a consistent price on carbon that would create a simple economic incentive to cut emissions without coming anywhere close to shutting down expansion altogether. That's where U.S. policymakers should focus their energies.
A scheme like that would financially reward oil-sands producers for cutting the emissions involved in producing a barrel of oil and would, over time, penalize them more strongly if they simply continued with business as usual. It would allow the United States and the world to enjoy whatever security benefits robust Canadian production provides while prodding the industry to clean up its emissions act.
That would let Congress and the administration focus their attention on the more pressing matter of our own emissions, which are 200 times larger than those of the oil sands. Meanwhile, the best long-term approach to improving energy security will center on cutting U.S. (and global) oil consumption and promoting alternatives. The tar sands aren't a trivial piece of the energy equation. But pretending that they're central to security or destruction is a dangerous mistake.