The fight over global warming and Canadian oil is heating up, and Minnesota, which gets 80 percent of its oil from Canada, is sitting on the griddle.
A group of oil companies and big industries launched a TV and radio ad campaign this week to try to snuff out rules that might raise the cost of piping Canadian tar-sands oil through the Dakotas to refineries in the Twin Cities.
Meanwhile, environmentalists on Thursday appealed a federal decision that allows construction of another major pipeline across northern Minnesota to bring in even more tar-sands oil from Alberta.
Environmentalists say tar-sands oil, which is mined and boiled off instead of pumped out of the ground, is some of the dirtiest petroleum on Earth. Increased use would release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that can speed up climate change, they say.
However, a Houston nonprofit called the Consumer Energy Alliance says it's vital to keep tar-sands oil flowing into the United States because cleaner alternatives aren't ready.
Backed by the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil and Shell Oil, the alliance is trying to stop low-carbon fuel standards from becoming law. Such rules would penalize tar-sands oil, which produces three times the greenhouse-gas emissions of conventional oil.
A low carbon fuel standard was part of the Waxman-Markey climate bill in the U.S. House, but it was removed before the bill moved to the Senate, where it awaits action this fall.
The Consumer Energy Alliance still fears a low carbon fuel standard could be reinserted or that states such as Minnesota and California might enact their own.
Environmentalists introduced a low carbon fuel standard to the Minnesota Legislature last year, said Bill Grant, associate executive director of the Izaak Walton League. The bill never made it out of committee, but it will be reintroduced next year, Grant said.
This week, the Consumer Energy Alliance launched an ad campaign in the Dakotas, Montana and Tennessee opposing low carbon fuel standards. The group says a national low carbon fuel standard would raise the cost of gasoline by 60 cents a gallon and make Canadian tar-sands oil so expensive that U.S. refiners would switch to lighter oil from the Middle East.
David Holt, the group's president, said more states are talking about low carbon fuel standards. "It does nothing for the environment, and it restricts North American energy supplies and leaves us more dependent upon (overseas) imports."
Minnesota refiners support the alliance's campaign. "Minnesota's access to Canada is an advantage," said Jake Reint, spokesman for Flint Hills Refinery in Rosemount. A low carbon fuel standard "would turn that on its head, and instead of being on the front end of the pipeline, we'd be on the back end."
If Minnesota cannot use Canadian oil, it would have to turn to supplies piped from the Gulf of Mexico, said Michael Whatley, the alliance's vice president. "You're going to see an immediate and dramatic impact on the price of fuel in Minnesota," he said.
Using Canadian oil strengthens U.S. energy security, said Angelia Graves, spokeswoman for Marathon Petroleum, which has a 20 percent stake in a tar-sands project in Alberta and a refinery in St. Paul Park. Marathon's parent corporation is a member of the CEA.
Environmentalists scoff at claims that low carbon fuel standards would make the U.S. more dependent on foreign oil.
"It's a little disingenuous for the oil companies, who throughout their history have happily done business with some of the worst dictators and despots the world has seen, and now they're going to say it's not good for us? They're not good messengers for that message," said Chuck Laszewski, spokesman for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
The environmental group filed a joint appeal Thursday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco with the Sierra Club and other groups to try to stop construction of a 285-mile Enbridge Energy pipeline through northern Minnesota that would deliver more tar-sands oil to a refinery in Superior, Wis.
Enbridge said the Minnesota segment is part of a larger $4.5 billion project with the capacity to pump up to 450,000 barrels of crude a day. The pipeline has approval from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and the U.S. State Department.
The environmentalists also said the United States doesn't need more oil.
They cite a U.S. Energy Information Administration report this year that projected no growth in U.S. oil consumption up to 2030 due to rebounding oil prices, higher vehicle fuel economy standards and increased use of renewables like ethanol.
Tar-sands oil has little to recommend it, they argue.
"If this is the last best fossil fuel available," said Michael Noble, executive director of the St. Paul nonprofit Fresh Energy, "isn't that a pretty good indication that it's time to move on from fossil fuels?"
Leslie Brooks Suzukamo can be reached at 651-228-5475.
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