President Obama: Don’t Give Canadian Tar Sands a Free Climate Pass

Tomorrow President Obama is traveling to Canada. Most American presidents head to Ottawa on their first state visits, using the trip to our northern neighbor as an easy transition to the world stage. But this time, in addition to the usual talk of trade and military deployments, a new topic is coming sharply into focus: Prime Minister Harper wants to discuss giving Canada's dirty tar sands fuel a pass from greenhouse gas limits.

Such a proposal might have fallen on receptive ears during the Bush years, but President Obama supports rigorous measures to curb global warming--measures built on clean energy, not exemptions for filthy fossil fuels.

This is a president who, six days after the inauguration, invited me and other members of the environmental community to the White House to witness a key announcement about global warming emissions from cars. During the eight long years of the Bush administration, I was invited to the White House exactly once. But just days into the Obama administration, an invitation came and, significantly, it was for an event about cleaning up the transportation sector--which is where tar sands oil goes.

Tar Sands Is the Dirtiest of Fossil Fuels

But as Obama leads America into the future, the tar sands industry is keeping Canada firmly rooted in the past. Producing one barrel of tar sands oil generates three times the greenhouse gas emissions as a barrel of conventional oil, while accessing the tar sands requires strip mining and drilling in Alberta's Boreal forest, an enormous carbon reservoir and one of the last large intact ecosystems on earth.

Local indigenous and environmental groups have decried the damage to the forest, the destruction of songbird habitat, and the contamination of local water quality in part from toxic tar sands waste. Recently, Bishop Luc Bouchard sent a pastoral letter to the region's 55,000 Catholics challenging the "moral legitimacy of oil sands production."

Rather than weaning itself off of this dirty fuel production, Canada is rapidly expanding its tar sands fields and expecting to go from the current rate of 1.34 million barrels per day to 4.5 million by 2020. Oil companies are investing in this technology, rather than cleaner alternatives.

Harper Calls for "Protecting" Tar Sands

And it appears the Canadian government would like to clear the path for them. The day after Obama was elected, Prime Minister Harper told reporters that he wants to create a bilateral climate pact between the United States and Canada. I am all in favor of climate agreements, but the rest of the world is focusing on multilateral efforts right now--a viable post-Kyoto regime. It hardly seems like the time for side agreements between two players.

Yet ever since the tar sands boom hit Alberta, Canada has been backpedaling on its existing climate agreements. Now it wants to weaken them even further with this bilateral proposal. Government officials have strongly implied the plan would "protect" tar sands greenhouse gas emissions from regulation.

A climate agreement that doesn't include tar sands, the fastest growing source of Canadian greenhouse gas pollution? That's like passing a law to regulate lead poisoning, but leaving out gasoline. Or posting a highway speed limit that exempts truck drivers.

No matter how hard Prime Minister Harper tries to portray tar sands operations as modern and eco-friendly, the truth couldn't be farther from it. Dealing with tar sands pollution is a challenge, and this includes their greenhouse gas emissions, which are much harder and more expensive to capture than from other sources (see my colleague George Peridas' blog about the limitations of using carbon capture and sequestration technology with tar sands).

I hope President Obama will tell the Prime Minister Harper that protections for tar sands do not belong on a global warming agenda, and that existing tars sands operations should be cleaned up.

How We Can Make a Difference Here at Home

But we also have work to do on our side of the border. I just came back from the World Economic Forum in Davos where climate change was a major topic, but so was energy supply. Representatives from the oil industry justified tars sands by saying, "We have to keep up with demand, so we have to increase supply."

As much as 75 percent of Canadian tar sands oil comes to the United States. We need to do our share to slash that demand. We should call on American workers to make dramatically more fuel efficient cars, expand our public transit systems, and design and build smart growth communities that reduce our need to drive.

President Obama has made it clear that investing in clean energy can solve three urgent problems at once. It can lift America out of the economic crisis, create millions of new jobs, and tackle global warming. Just look at Obama's economic stimulus plan: energy efficiency, public transit, and green infrastructure are at its core.

That is the path to a clean energy future. Dirty tar sands production is a dangerous detour to the past.