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john ibbitson

Canada may be unique among nations: It possesses a scarce and valuable resource hugely in demand that it's unable or unwilling to sell, putting the country's economic future at risk.

This conclusion arises out of World Energy Outlook 2012, published Monday by the Paris-based International Energy Agency. The report projects a radically different energy future from the conventional assumptions that many Canadians still embrace.

"Energy developments in the United States are profound," the report observes. Hydraulic fracturing and other unconventional forms of extraction, coupled with improving energy efficiency, will make the world's largest economy also the world's biggest oil producer by the end of the decade.

Within two decades, the U.S. will be virtually energy self-sufficient and a net oil exporter.

The most reliable market for Canadian oil could soon become much less reliable. Even if President Barack Obama does approve the revised Keystone XL pipeline proposal next year, a continued American market for oil sands bitumen is uncertain.

But good news: Demand for oil from China, India and other large emerging economies will grow unabated. IEA projections show Canada nearly tripling its oil sands production between now and 2035.

The authors of the report assume that Canada will have the infrastructure in place to ship the oil to meet demand. That's a big assumption.

Opposition to the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline is intense. Aboriginal groups in British Columbia appear dead-set against it, Premier Christy Clark is demanding concessions, and NDP Leader Adrian Dix, who is favoured to win the provincial election in May, is opposed, full stop.

If, as seems increasingly likely, the Northern Gateway pipeline never gets built, there are alternatives: building a new pipeline along an existing route to Vancouver; sending the oil east rather than west; relying more heavily on rail; or some combination of the three.

The fact remains, however, that age-old assumptions of endless American demand for Canadian oil now appear increasingly out of date, and we are ill-equipped to meet demand from emerging markets.

"Clearly the world is changing," said Peter Boag, president and CEO of the Canadian Fuels Association. And Canada lacks the will and the means to adapt to that change. While politically understandable, economically it's perverse. And dangerous: throttling oil exports could also throttle economic growth.

"There is time yet, but we need to move forward quickly," urged Mr. Boag.

Our predicament is part of a huge geopolitical disruption generated by greater American energy self-sufficiency.

U.S. involvement and interest in the Middle East can be expected to wane, as oil from that region diminishes in importance to the American economy.

Securing the sea lanes between the Persian Gulf and Chinese ports becomes a vital strategic concern – for China. How will the emerging superpower meet that challenge? Will the Chinese become peace brokers or warmongers in the chronically unstable Middle East?

The status quo could be headed for the biggest shakeup since the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

In the long run, it should all be to the good. An energy-independent, fuel-efficient United States would be more economically competitive. Jobs could return from offshore. America could go back to making things, and buying things that Canadians make.

And the developed world, at least, may contribute less to global warming in the years ahead with natural gas replacing oil, and fuel-efficiency standards steadily improving.

But for Canada, adapting to this emerging reality is an urgent task. One way or another, this country must find a way to get its oil to new markets that are half a world away.

Otherwise, that oil will stay in the ground. And then what will Alberta do for a living?