Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2009

The Canadian Oil Sands

Michael A. Levi

May 2009

Council on Foreign Relations


Rhetoric in Washington often focuses on areas where energy security and climate change, two increasingly prominent elements of U.S. domestic and foreign policy, align. Many important decisions, though, will require difficult tradeoffs between them. The Canadian oil sands—a massive but emissions-intensive source of oil—presents policymakers with precisely such a challenge. Unfettered production in the oil sands would increase greenhouse gas emissions but strengthen U.S. energy security with a supply of oil from a friendly and stable neighbor. Sharply curtailed oil sands operations would harm U.S. energy security but cut emissions. This Council Special Report, written by Michael A. Levi, explores both the energy security and climate change implications of expanded oil sands production. It assesses current and future trends in the oil sands, including in the scale and cost of production and in the oil sands’ impact on world oil markets, and evaluates the potential impacts of a range of policy options. The report concludes that the oil sands are neither critical to U.S. energy security nor catastrophic for climate change.