Tar Sands and Solving Global Warming – Compatible with Strong Commitments?

Well the anticipated trip of President Obama to Canada is just about to begin.  The Canadian press has been reporting for a while that Prime Minister Harper will raise tar sands when President Obama makes his first international trip.  And, he'll raise this mixed in with discussions of global warming, a proposal that they raised minutes after President Obama was elected (as I discussed here). 

With President Obama signaling a major shift in US policy towards global warming, as I've discussed here, a lot of people were wondering what that shift would mean for tar sands.  After all, how can you square the push for new clean energy solutions, solving global warming, and creating an economy of the future, with the continued export of the dirtiest oil on the planet (as my colleagues have highlighted many times, see here)?

In an interview last night on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), President Obama was asked about tar sands (diplomatically called oil sands to hide its "dirty" nature).  All ears were perked when he was asked about tar sands.  Would he endorse the continued export of this dirty oil or would it go the way of past dirty sources of energy (to the junk drawer never to be seen again)?

Despite what you might read in the press about this interview, he didn't exactly do either --endorse or kill.  But he did set a pretty high bar for tar sands -- it must fit in a world that is not rapidly accelerating global warming.  Here is what he had to say:

"What we know is that oilsands creates a big carbon footprint.  So the dilemma that Canada faces, the United States faces and China and the entire world faces, is how do we obtain the energy that we need to grow our economies in a way that is not rapidly accelerating climate change?"

Since tar sands is a huge source of Canada's global warming pollution and a major driver of its projected increase, Canada will have to get a grip on the pollution from tar sands if it wants to be credible in international efforts to solve global warming.  No exceptions, no special provisions (as our President Frances Beinecke and my colleague Susan Casey-Lefkowitz discussed).  The simple question that will be asked, how does it fit within our efforts to solve global warming?

If Canada comes to Copenhagen (or before) with a commitment to significantly cut global warming pollution and tar sands are included, then there might be room to talk -- at least on global warming (but tar sands have lots of other environmental issues that need to be resolved as well).  But as my colleague George Peridas points out it isn't that easy:

"[A]lthough Carbon Capture & Sequestration (CCS) technology is available today to begin deployment today in some industrial sectors, the tar sands pose unique challenges."

So the onus is on the Canadians to prove how their continued production of tar sands is compatible with serious efforts to address global warming.  Let's see your proof not just in your framing (as the Canadian Environment Minister recently attempted to do), but in the deeds on the ground.

Any exceptions will be noticed by the rest of the world.  And this could have serious ramifications for getting a strong international global warming agreement in Copenhagen and the actions in key countries around the world.  After all, there is a long list of other groups (and countries) with strong rationales for exceptions and excuses, so now is not the time to open the door. 

In fact, with serious commitments to addressing global warming it is time to continue to ask one simple question (a point that was essentially made by President Obama's spokesperson in the White House briefing on the Canadian trip): Does this make global warming worse or better?  If it makes it worse then it is time to shut the door on that particular option and move on to the ones that help us solve global warming.