Survey: 79 percent of voters want more oil from Canada

As long as the U.S. is importing foreign oil, registered voters overwhelmingly want more of it to come from Canada, according to a survey released Thursday.

The poll, conducted by Harris Interactive for the American Petroleum Institute, bolsters industry arguments for U.S. approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would ferry oil sands crude from Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries.

According to the survey, 79 percent of registered voters said they would like to see America import more of the oil it needs from Canada, “rather than other foreign countries…if America continues to need to import some oil to meet our energy needs.”

Although just 34 percent of the nearly 1,000 survey respondents said they were familiar with the Keystone XL project, when asked generic questions about the safety of pipelines and government policies supporting Canadian oil imports, they were generally enthusiastic.

For instance, 73 percent said they agreed with the assertion that “pipelines are probably the safest way to move Canada’s oil to U.S. markets.” And 80 percent said they agreed that “U.S. government policies should support the use of oil from Canada and should allow pipelines to transport the oil into America.”

API Vice President Marty Durbin told reporters in a conference call  that the survey results show that “a significant amount of Americans would like more oil from Canada to meet our energy needs . . . and support government policies to encourage them.”

The survey comes as the State Department weighs whether the proposed pipeline would be “in the national interest” and as thousands of environmental activists plan to protest the project at the White House on Sunday. Because part of the pipeline crosses the U.S.-Canada border, it is up to the Obama administration to decide whether to issue a permit for the project.

Environmental and activist groups including the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council have been urging people to attend the protest intended to encircle the White House. sent an email to its supporters declaring President Barack Obama’s decision on the pipeline “one of the most important decisions on climate change of his entire presidency.”

The oil sands crude that the pipeline would carry generates more greenhouse gas emissions through its entire life cycle — from production to combustion — because of the energy-intensive techniques generally used to extract it. When the oil sands are located close to the surface, they are generally strip mined, and the material is trucked away for processing to extract the tar-like bitumen. When harvesting bitumen from oil sands at deeper depths, energy companies typically use in situ techniques using steam to heat and extract it.

At an energy forum Thursday, Shell Oil Co. President Marvin Odum acknowledged that “on a wells-to-wheels basis (oil sands crude is) about 5 to 15 percent more CO2 intensive, no question.” But, he noted that Shell has made investments in technology to capture that carbon dioxide from its projects in Canada, and he warned against ignoring technological improvements that could lower emissions.

Energy industry leaders say Canada’s oil sands will be extracted with or without the Keystone XL pipeline; it’s simply a matter of whether the U.S. gets some of the crude.

Project supporters, including TransCanada Corp., say the pipeline would instantly generate construction jobs in the U.S. — as many as 20,000 of them, according to one estimate. At the same time, they say, it would ensure the U.S. gets more of the oil it needs from a friendly North American ally, instead of the Middle East.

Environmentalists insist that if Obama approves the Keystone XL pipeline, he will be wedding the U.S. to a particularly dirty firm of oil for decades to come — exactly the wrong direction, they insist, for the country.

And some landowners in the path of the 1,700-mile pipeline say they are concerned about leaks and damage to nearby groundwater supplies.