Nice Oil Imports You’ve Got There. Shame if You Lost Them.

Why Americans need to be more grateful to Canada.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

In laying claim to the majority of Michigan’s delegates in the Feb. 28 primary, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney also laid claim to the precious natural resources of America’s northern neighbor. "I’ll get us that oil from Canada that we deserve," he said.

That may not have been the most artful way to put it, but critics on both sides of the border should ignore that infelicitous phrasing, recognize the ties that bind the United States and Canada together, and work assiduously to maintain those vital energy links.

Many Americans may think that Saudi Arabia is the largest supplier of U.S. oil imports — after all, isn’t that why the United States keeps aircraft carriers in the Gulf and why the Saudi kings are either held by hand in Texas or offered deep bows? Some may even believe that Iraq has taken that place — wasn’t the war all about getting hands on Saddam’s oil? But such beliefs are nothing but proof of Americans’ general ignorance about Canada’s importance for the U.S. energy supply, of which oil is just one component.

For decades, Canada has been the single-largest supplier of imported crude oil and refined oil products to the United States. In 2010, Canadian exports provided about 26 percent of all net U.S. liquid fuel imports (consisting of crude oil and refined products) — or nearly 12 percent of America’s total demand for liquid hydrocarbons, roughly every eighth barrel.

Canada’s crude oil exports to the United States are greater than those of the entire Persian Gulf region, which only accounted for about 18 percent of America’s crude imports in 2010. As for Iraq, it accounted for a paltry 4.5 percent of U.S. crude oil imports in 2010, and more oil was shipped from its southern port city of Basra to China than to the United States.

The United States doesn’t rely on Canada only for oil. In 2010, Canada’s natural gas exports accounted for nearly 90 percent of all U.S. gas imports, and they provided nearly 14 percent of America’s total gas consumption. In cold Midwestern states, the percentage supplied by Canada is even larger.

Canada also exported nearly 10 percent of its total annual electricity generation, or some 44 terawatt-hours, to the United States. Although this accounted for only about 1 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption, Canada’s hydroelectric plants provided the highly valuable peak power that covered spikes in demand during the winter and summer.

The United States also couldn’t supply its nuclear reactors without its northern neighbor. Canada is the world’s largest uranium producer, providing more than a fifth of the global total. The United States imports about 80 percent of the uranium that fuels its nuclear power plants, which produce about 20 percent of America’s electricity, and roughly half those imports come from Canada. That means Saskatchewan’s uranium produces nearly 8 percent of America’s electricity.

Simply put, no other country fills America’s energy needs as effectively as Canada — and the United States doesn’t need to resort to large military buildups and deals with shady dictatorships to secure its supplies, as it does in the Gulf. For this reason, Romney is right to focus on the importance of Canadian energy. Recent increases in domestic natural gas and crude oil extraction have slightly reduced U.S. dependence on hydrocarbon imports, but they will not eliminate the United States’ future reliance on Canada.

President Barack Obama’s decision to block the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have linked oil sands in Alberta to the U.S. market, was motivated by his desire to mollify one of the more extreme segments of his constituency in an election year — not by a long-term vision of nurturing the vital U.S.-Canada energy relationship. The most disturbing consequence of this decision was the sight of the Canadian prime minister flying to China to peddle future oil exports to America’s greatest strategic rival.

Canadians are hardly assertive or demanding. We don’t expect U.S. presidents to bow down to our prime ministers when they visit us in Ottawa, nor are we looking for the occasional kickback on an F-16 deal. You don’t even need to look the other way when the police crack down on hockey rioters in Vancouver. But a "thank you" every once in a while would sure be nice.

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