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China, not U.S., will be tar sands' market

Vehicles are stuck in a traffic jam along a major thoroughfare in the central business district of Beijing January 29, 2008. REUTERS/Claro Cortes.

CLARO CORTES IV

I suppose it's only natural that the nation that's soon to be the world's largest consumer of oil should seek access to what will soon be the world's largest source of new oil supply (which will happen even sooner if deep-water oil production is about to get nuked).

The acquisition of a nine per cent share of the Athabasca tar sands' marquee Syncrude operation by Sinopec (which is owned by the Chinese government) signals a new willingness on China's part to sink billions into the future development of high-cost oil from tar sands. It coincides with the granting of a $20-billion soft loan by China to the Chávez regime in Venezuela, which will at least in part be repaid in oil from that country's Orinoco tar sands.

Unlike Canada, however, Venezuela is not too fussed about whether they will export raw bitumen or processed synthetic oil to their Chinese customers. In Canada, of course, final approval of the Sinopec deal by the country's Foreign Investment Review Agency hinges at least in part on compliance with not to export raw bitumen to countries with laxer carbon standards than North America's.

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Might I remind Prime Minister Harper that the price for carbon emissions in China today is exactly the same as the price for carbon emissions in both Canada and the United States? When that changes, as it ultimately must, it's nothing a carbon tariff couldn't readily handle.

Carbon issues aside, common economic sense dictates that Alberta tar sands producers should start thinking a whole lot more about supplying China either bitumen or processed synthetic oil through a pipeline to the Pacific, and a whole lot less about supplying their traditional market in the United States.

Ninety per cent of every new barrel of oil produced in the world gets burned as transport fuel. If you compare China's auto sales with America's sales, it's not hard to predict where tomorrow's oil supply will be headed. China's oil consumption has grown from just over two million barrels per day in the early 1980s to an estimated nine million barrels per day this year. And at the rate that its vehicle market is growing, the country could double its oil consumption over the next decade or so.

By comparison, take a look at where U.S. oil consumption is going. While Chinese car sales are growing explosively, this year, there were four million fewer vehicles on the road in America than there were the year before. With triple-digit oil prices just around the corner, you can expect to see another 40 to 50 million American vehicles taking the exit lane over the next decade.

So if you are a tar sands producer, Sinopec or otherwise, which market do you think you should be pursuing? One in which demand has already peaked and now faces irreversible decline, or one where oil consumption per capita is only a tenth of North America's, but where vehicle sales are growing by 50 per cent a year?

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