Deep in northern Alberta, under the cover of 50,000 square miles of boreal forest, lie spectacular reserves of what the Canadians call "oil sands"-a mixture of sand, clay, and a viscous tarlike form of petroleum that can be transformed into synthetic oil. With oil-sands production at more than 1.2 million barrels per day, Canada, which also produces conventional oil, has quietly passed Saudi Arabia to become the top supplier to the United States. U.S. government analysts expect that production could triple again by 2030, lessening our reliance on Middle Eastern sources. One very bullish scenario sees the oil sands eventually delivering as much as 37 percent of our imported crude.
No matter how useful the oil sands might be to our energy supplies, tapping into them remains the most controversial petroleum project on Earth. The local environmental fallout-in terms of deforestation, water demand, and toxic waste-varies among the dozens of ongoing extraction projects but is often immense. And taken as a whole, the oil-sands industry emits so much greenhouse gas that Greenpeace has called it "the biggest global warming crime ever seen."
In other words, U.S. policymakers are now faced with an awkward problem: How do you balance improvements in energy security with worsening climate change, especially when dealing with a resource that isn't yours? It's a live issue for the administration and Congress. President Obama was forced to address the matter when he visited with his Canadian counterpart in February.