Canada's oil sands are besieged with two myths: That a "clean" coal technology exists and that the oil sands imperil the planet as the world's dirtiest fuel.
Both statements are bunk and yet they inform an environmental movement that swarms the White House and Congress to fight the Keystone XL pipeline designed to bring more oil sands exports from Canada.
Meanwhile, for instance, they are not swarming around America's biggest carbon dioxide emissions culprit -- Southern Company's Scherer Plant. In 2007, the plant was the single largest source of carbon dioxide in the U.S. and 20th biggest worldwide, spewing out 27 million tons annually.
And while the environmental industry attacked Keystone during the 2012 election campaign with large protests and media noise, there were no dramatic sit-ins or mass arrests in Georgia or other dirty coal plants. In fact, that year the Scherer Plant hired KBR Haliburton to build yet-another gigantic smoke stack, increasing emissions.
Comparing a single plant with the oil sands sector may sound unfair, but consider the numbers. The Scherer Plant's emissions alone are equivalent to 75% of the carbon dioxide produced by Canada's oil sands and yet the filthy Georgia utility gets a pass while the oil sands are dubbed the pariah of polluters.
Digging deeper, the Georgia emissions are far worse using the "wheel to wheel" measure that environmentalists like to apply to the oil sands. This is because the Scherer is fed with coal from distant Wyoming and every day between two and five trains, with 124 cars each, are unloaded in Georgia. And there are dozens more plants like this one across the U.S.
But the greens pick on the oil sands even though a recent report stated that the oil sands have 9% more emissions than average crudes but roughly the same as most foreign crudes or California's heavy crudes. Canada's an easy target because Canadians don't vote in the U.S. and the Keystone XL Pipeline is even easier because there are so many jurisdictions to lobby.
What's most disturbing about oil sands bashing is that it may offer a distraction from smart energy/environmental policy. There are other benefits involved in importation of oil sands crude oil that are never acknowledged:
1. Canada is a reliable supplier, now providing 28% of America's oil imports.
2. Buying more crude oil from Canada is simply a means of backing out of equally heavy, or dirty, oil from Venezuela, Nigeria and Iraq. The U.S. cannot become totally oil independent.
3. Buying crude from Canada to value-add in U.S. refineries creates American jobs, as does operating and building pipelines and refineries.
4. Buying crude from Canada benefits the United States directly because the oil is produced in Canada by U.S.-owned companies or by Canadian companies with as much as half their stocks owned by Americans. Money sent to Hugo Chavez or Nigeria or Saudi Arabia never comes back.
5. Buying crude from Canada is more beneficial than buying from other countries because Canada is America's biggest customer, biggest supplier and one of its biggest investment destinations. In other words, the oil profits made by Canadians and their companies will be spent buying American products and services and vacations.
6. Geopolitically, International Energy Agency estimated that the U.S. will produce more oil but need about 4 million barrels a daily from Canada's oil sands to reach energy security by 2035.
7. Environmentally, buying crude from Canada will, one hopes, lead to a comprehensive energy/environmental treaty that will rationalize energy facilities, bankroll a "Manhattan Project" to reduce emissions, develop affordable alternatives and impose continental conservation measures.
8. Foreign policy-wise, the oil sands make sense. I told an audience of oil tycoons eight years ago at the Canadian embassy in Washington that their country's best bet would have been to invest $250 billion to develop the oil sands and back out all foreign oil imports.
"For $250 billion, you'd have acquired all the oil you need, you wouldn't have had to invade Iraq and nobody would have died."
Despite the common sense, nothing much changed because of domestic vested interests tied to the status quo as well as foreign skulduggery. Oil rivals in Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Nigeria and elsewhere have been bankrolling and generating criticism of the oil sands for years.
This is because the sands is the only strategic oil deposit in the world in a safe jurisdiction and which is large enough to shut them out of the U.S. market. It would be in China's interest to shut Canadian oil out of the U.S. so it can import it readily.
But the matter will be resolved soon. President Obama can approve or nix the pipeline and may use it as a bargaining chip in his fiscal negotiations with Republicans, who have mostly lined up in favor of oil sand imports and Keystone.
But messages are mixed which means he hasn't weighed all options. His postponement of Keystone in 2011 doesn't preclude approval because in 2009 he approved a bigger pipeline from the oil sands. The delay was mostly due to the election, but he still may turn it down.
On the other hand, many Canadian oil interests took his silence in the State of the Union on the issue as a positive sign. There was also an interesting argument in favor of the pipeline this week in the Washington Post by Obama-friendly Larry Summers, former U.S. Treasury Secretary: "Those who will decide whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would run between the tar sands of western Canada and Nebraska, need to recognize that Canadian oil not flowing to the United States will probably flow to Asia, where it will be burned with fewer environmental protections."
The facts are that the oil sands is not the environmental line in the sand that activists have concocted. In 2012, U.S. coal-fired power plants account for roughly 25% of the carbon dioxide produced in the world, China's coal plant for 24% -- a combined total larger than all other countries globally.
"Coal presents a climate challenge 1500x greater than that presented by the oil sands," wrote University of Victoria Professor Andrew Weaver in Nature Climate Change. "We will live or die by our future consumption of coal."
Despite that, American oil sands combatant Bill McKibben has labeled the oil sands as "the dirtiest fuel on Earth".
He's totally wrong. Coal is the energy killer and one hopes the White House will opt for smart, rather than expedient, policies.