Exploring U.S.-Canadian energy connections

Canadian Flag by Ian Muttoo

I’ve been studying up on Canadian energy resources. The short summary is that Canada has a lot of resources. The other summary is that the United States (including Minnesota, where I’m from) has a lot of interests in Canadian energy. Like most energy issues, it’s complex. It’s a collision of our modern economy dependent on electricity at the flip of a switch and travel as easy as hopping in a car, with the impacts of developing increasingly hard-to-get, non-renewable energy resources — all in an increasingly unstable climate with a whole host of impacts on more localized communities.

This week I am going to Canada to learn about energy on a Pan-Praire Energy Tour organized by the Canadian government. The places I’ll visit are Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The energy resources: oil sands, uranium, carbon capture and storage (not a resource, but an important stop), large hydro and renewable resources. We’ll also be discussing many issues surrounding these resources, including First Nation relationships and climate change.

If you follow climate and energy debates, and even if you don’t, you’ve probably heard of Canadian energy in the form of the Keystone XL pipeline debate. It’s a centerpiece of the movement to address climate change in the United States, and a decision on whether to permit the pipeline will be made by President Obama with input from the State Department in the coming months.

Here in Minnesota, we have our own energy interests, and there are a lot of connections to Canada. Our state does not have any “traditional” energy resources. No coal, oil, natural gas or uranium. We do have abundant renewable opportunities in wind, solar and biomass. Minnesota imports a lot of its energy, and much of it comes from Canada.

The Pine Bend Refinery (run by Flint Hills Resources, which is owned by Koch Industries) is one of two oil refineries in Minnesota. The Pine Bend Refinery is the largest U.S. oil refinery outside of an oil-producing state, and it is one of the largest refiners of Canadian crude in the United States. If you are filling up your car in Minnesota, you are likely getting a tank of Canadian oil along with ethanol produced here in Minnesota.

The Clearbrook Terminal, where a bunch of oil pipelines meet up in northwestern Minnesota, has the capacity to run up to 14 percent of U.S. oil production through it. This oil comes mainly from Canada and North Dakota. The Clearbrook Terminal is a key part of Minnesota’s own pipeline debate around the Sandpiper pipeline, which is being proposed by Canadian company Enbridge Energy. The Sandpiper pipeline would cross northern Minnesota, from North Dakota to Superior, Wis. You can follow this debate in real-time on multiple news sources from northern Minnesota and beyond.

On the electricity side, Minnesota and Canada have a major connection through large hydropower. Minnesota Power imports significant electricity from Manitoba hydro, and this power has been the subject of what counts toward Minnesota’s renewable energy requirements.

We’re also going to be discussing uranium while in Canada. Minnesota gets 22 percent of its electricity from two nuclear power plants, but I’m not yet sure where the imports powering these plants come from. I’m sure I’ll find out where Canada sends its uranium during my trip.

These connections are just the tip of the iceberg when thinking about Canadian energy resources, their connections to the United States, and the impacts on local, regional and global scales.

I come to this trip interested in learning more about Canadian energy and driven to find and implement climate solutions. I’ve thought a lot about our complex energy system as a state representative serving in Minnesota from 2007-2012, and I currently work on developing environmental leaders who will be capable of helping our society work through complex energy and environmental challenges.

I’ll be documenting the trip and sharing observations through social media. I’m hoping to introduce many voices into the discussion. You can send questions via Twitter, @kateknuth, and I’ll answer them throughout the trip. Follow along via twitter using the hashtag #PPET.

Kate Knuth runs the Boreas Leadership Program at the Institute on the Environment. She serves on the Minnesota Enivironmental Quality Board and previously served three terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the University of Minnesota or the Institute on the Environment. Photo by Ian Muttoo (Creative Commons / Flickr)