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Thursday, June 23, 2011

The U.S.-Canada Energy Relationship: Joined at the Well

Paul W. Parfomak
Specialist in Energy and Infrastructure Policy

Michael Ratner
Analyst in Energy Policy

The United States and Canada, while independent countries, effectively comprise a single integrated market for petroleum and natural gas. Canada is the single largest foreign supplier of petroleum products and natural gas to the United States—and the United States is the dominant consumer of Canada’s energy exports. The value of the petroleum and natural gas trade between the two countries totaled nearly $100 billion in 2010, helping to promote general economic growth and directly support thousands of energy industry and related jobs on both sides of the border. Increased energy trade between the United States and Canada—a stable, friendly neighbor—is viewed by many as a major contributor to U.S. energy security. The U.S.-Canada energy relationship is increasingly complex, however, and is undergoing fundamental change, particularly in the petroleum and natural gas sectors.

Congress has been facing important policy questions in the U.S.-Canada energy context on several fronts, including the siting of major cross-border pipelines, increasing petroleum supplies from Canadian oil sands, increasing natural gas production from North American shales, and the construction of new facilities for liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports. Legislative proposals in the 112
th Congress could directly influence these developments. These proposals include H.R. 1938, which would expedite consideration of the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, H.R. 909, which would encourage petroleum and natural gas production on the outer continental shelf and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and S. 304, which would support a program to train workers involved with oil and gas infrastructure in Alaska. Other proposals in Congress affecting hydraulic fracturing operations for natural gas production, offshore drilling, or U.S. oil shale development could also affect the U.S.-Canada energy relationship.

Traditionally, the energy trade between the United States and Canada, while intertwined, has been uncomplicated—taking the form of a steadily growing southward flow of crude oil and natural gas to markets in the U.S. Midwest and Northeast. But recent developments have greatly complicated that energy relationship creating new competition and interconnections. Consequently, while energy policies in one country have always inevitably affected the other, their cross-cutting effects in the future may not be widely understood and, in some cases, may be largely unanticipated. For example, policies affecting U.S. shale gas production could affect North American natural gas prices overall, and thus, the costs of producing petroleum from oil sands (which requires large volumes of natural gas for heating). Changing oil sands costs could, in turn, affect Canadian petroleum supplies to the United States, affecting north-south pipeline use and changing U.S. petroleum import requirements from overseas. Changing natural gas prices would also change the economics of Arctic natural gas, however, and influence the development of the Arctic natural gas pipelines, which could provide an alternative source of economic natural gas for oil sands production in Alberta. How such scenarios could play out in reality is open to debate, but they illustrate the tangled web policymakers in both countries must navigate as they consider future energy, environmental, and transportation decisions.

As Congress debates legislative proposals affecting the petroleum and natural gas industries, it may be helpful to consider these proposals in the broadest possible North American context, recognizing that the energy sector in Canada may be moved in one direction or another based on policies in Washington, DC. To date, the judgment of Congress has favored a growing U.S.- Canada energy partnership—but ensuring that this relationship continues to be as mutually beneficial as possible will likely remain a key oversight challenge for the next decades.

Date of Report: June 17, 2011
Number of Pages: 16
Order Number: R41875
Price: $29.95

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