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Why the U.S. needs all the tar sands oil it can get

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his Midwestern colleagues had better think twice before banning carbon-dirty fuels such as the oil made from Canadian tar sands. If they don't like the fuel Canada has to offer, their only other choice is to get off the road entirely.

Like it or not, synthetic oil from Alberta's tar sands is going to figure ever larger at American fuel pumps in the future (provided that it isn't siphoned off to China by a pipeline to the west coast first).

American oil demand may be diminishing as more and more drivers take the exit lane, but available supply is shrinking even faster. Domestic production, formerly 10 million barrels per day, is already down by half. The longer the U.S. economy has run on oil, the more dependent it has become on energy imports. Only finding those imports is becoming more challenging all the time.

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Sources of oil from Mexico are already collapsing, and in a few years' time that country will cease exporting it at all. The flow of oil at its once-huge Cantarell field, representing almost half the country's oil production, will soon slow to a fifth of its former peak rate.

And I hope Governor Schwarzenegger isn't counting on Venezuela, the western hemisphere's other major oil producer, to fill that gap. The only additional production that country will have to offer is from its Orinoco tar sands, the same stuff he says is too dirty to take from Canada. Moreover, fueling carbon-conscious gringos in California as they cruise down their sprawling freeways probably doesn't rank high on President Hugo Chávez's to-do list.

As for the Middle East, it's not political risk that California's motorists have to fear. It's more Ski Dubai and the 7-cents-a-gallon bunker fuel burned to generate electrical power, along with 40-cents-a-gallon pump prices, that they should worry about. OPEC member states already consume almost 10 million barrels a day of their own production, and with every rise in oil prices they can afford to consume even more, and in the process export less.

None of this is to suggest that synthetic oil made from Canadian tar sands couldn't get a lot cleaner. Put a $50 to $60 per ton price on carbon emissions, and all of a sudden shareholders of companies like Suncor and ExxonMobil (or its Canadian guise, Imperial Oil) will demand that management find a way of emitting less-the same way putting a price on the millions of gallons of fresh water those companies pollute will suddenly make water conservationists of them as well.

But Mr. Schwarzenegger and his fellow governors should realize one thing before they ban dirty fuels. The reason the United States will be so dependent on Canadian tar sands is that there ain't a whole lot else left.

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About the Author
Jeff Rubin

In his follow-up to his award-winning and number one best-selling first book Why Your World  Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller, former CIBC World Markets chief economist Jeff Rubin asks a fundamental question: “What will it be like to live in a world without growth?”The end of cheap oil means the end of the easy answers to renewing prosperity. More

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