Oil politics: Canada's role in the energy world

Katty Kay speaks to a panel in Canada Katty Kay talks with members of the panel

Mention Canada, and images of mounties, maple syrup or possibly Montreal are most likely to spring to mind.

But the country is sitting on the second-largest oil reserves in the world. Its extraction could lead to great wealth - but it also raises environmental concerns.

The bulk of the reserves lie in the oil sands of Northern Alberta. Recently Katty Kay, the anchor of BBC World News America, moderated a panel of experts at the University of Calgary.

These men and women offered their perspectives on Canada's role in supplying the globe with energy.

Exceptional opportunity

"Canada is now the fifth-largest producer of oil in the world... and it is the fourth largest exporter in the world. Ask yourself, which other countries in the world of that magnitude of oil export are politically stable, free-market, rule of law," said Peter Tertzakian, chief energy economist and managing director of ARC Financial Group.

He argued those distinctions put Canada in a unique position, especially at a time when political volatility has raised serious questions about supply routes and driven prices higher.

For decades Canada has been the largest supplier of oil to the United States, but recently a row has erupted over the proposal to extend the Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada into the northern US.

President Obama rejected Transcanada's original path on the basis that it could damage environmentally sensitive areas in the American Midwest. Now a new route has been submitted.

Emerging markets

Brenda Kenny, president of the Canadian Energy Pipeline and one of the panellists, said: "I still hold a high degree of hope that eventually the president will see fit to approve the northern portion and the southern portion is underway."

But while the US has long been a consumer of Canadian oil, other countries are now lining up to become customers.

According to panellist Harrie Vredenburg, a professor at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business, "demand growth in the world is coming not from North America or Europe but from those emerging economies.

"We all know about China, but right behind China is India and all the other emerging economies of the world."

Environmental concerns

To feed that rising demand, plans are underway to increase the flow of oil to the west coast of British Columbia where it can then be shipped on to US and Asian markets. On a recent trip to Washington DC, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it clear that diversifying the country's markets was a top priority.

"We have taken a significant price hit by virtue of the fact that we are a captive supplier and that just does not make sense in terms of the broader interests of the Canadian economy," he said.

The rush to feed all of those markets has raised environmental concerns about what the mining process is doing to the land and surrounding habitat. Despite moves by the industry to decrease the footprint of open mines while extracting oil sands deeper underground, some claim the newer methods produce even more CO2 gases.

Ecological fears

There is growing concern that the development is moving faster than the scientific research and governmental regulation.

It's a point acknowledged by Andrew Leach, a professor at the University of Alberta. He said: "You've seen multiple panels at the federal level, at the provincial level come out and say that our environmental monitoring hasn't kept up yet with the pace of growth."

The one thing that is certain is that Canada will continue to be one of the world's greatest suppliers of oil. Its vast reserves - more than 170bn barrels - are fuelling incredible growth.

But consumers around the world are conflicted. They want their oil cheap, plentiful and clean - three demands that are not necessarily compatible in Canada or anywhere else.

Audio courtesy of CJSW radio, Calgary

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