Obama Should Tell Canada's Prime Minister: No Thanks on Tar Sands Expansion

This Wednesday, President Obama will meet with Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the White House to talk about climate change and energy issues. The word "expansion" may not appear on the official, diplomatic schedule, but I am certain it is on Harper's agenda.

What does he want to expand? Alberta's dirty tar sands oil operations. My hope is that President Obama will not sign on to any joint statements that will help Harper ramp up tar sands production--a process that accelerates global warming and denudes Canada's great boreal forest.  

The most vivid memory I have from my recent trip to Alberta was a map of tar sands leases I saw inside the offices of the Mikisew Cree First Nation Industry Relations Committee.

I went to the committee's office after I had flown in to Fort McMurray and seen the vast tars sands operations from the air. The massive piles of upturned Earth, settling ponds, and colossal mining trucks seemed to stretch forever.

Later, looking at the leases on the map, I realized that the operations I saw represented just one small square on a huge checkerboard of leases already granted for future tar sands production.

Alberta produces 1.3 million barrels of tar sands fuel a day but expects to produce from four times to five times that amount in the next 10 to 20 years.

Tar sands production is a long-term investment. It requires significant, up-front capital intensive in costly infrastructure. But energy companies are betting that Harper and other Canadian leaders can keep broadening access to their biggest market--America. See my colleague Susan Casey-Lefkowitz's post for a look at the four ways Harper might use Wednesday's meeting with Obama to accomplish that. 

Indeed, Harper will likely go one step further in the meeting by lobbying against America's efforts to pass a clean energy and climate bill--a bill that would phase out the use of dirty tar sands fuel. Indeed, the Canadian and Alberta governments have already lobbied on key provisions in U.S. legislation that they see as impacting tar sands oil interests: the federal fuel procurement provisions of the 2007 energy bill and the California low carbon fuel standard.

But just because Canada wants to export dirty fuels doesn't mean America has to use them. We have cleaner, more sustainable options for powering our cars. Instead of devouring the boreal forest and spewing greenhouse gas emissions into the air, we can improve the fuel efficiency of our cars and shift to plug-in hybrids.

These cleaner technologies will create 3 to 4 times as many jobs as the oil industry and will put America at the forefront of the global energy market.

This is the future President Obama has repeatedly said he wants to create. I urge him to tell Prime Minister Harper that dirty tar sands fuel has no place in that future.